Gender equality in the workplace has progressed by leaps and bounds, but still has a long way to go. The gender wage gap, maternity policies and the lack of women in senior leadership roles are regularly in the news and central to discussions.
There is one area where women are on the short end of a double standard that is rarely discussed, however: emotional equity.
Emotion becomes a gendered issue when stereotypes and biases put women at a disadvantage versus men who exhibit the same behavior. Like other feminist issues, emotional equity is one that we must solve to truly create equal opportunity and treatment in the workplace.
It’s important to remember that emotion isn’t, in and of itself, intrinsically bad in the workplace. Some emotions are unquestionably more appropriate for professional environments than others, but being a heartless automaton is not the solution. It’s also not practical, since feelings and emotions aren’t something you can just leave at home. In fact, part of authentic leadership is showing up as your whole self in all areas of your life.
Showing and sharing your feelings, within reason, is an integral part of authenticity. Unfortunately, gender-emotion stereotypes haven’t changed much over the years. Emotions like anger, assertiveness and stoicism are considered masculine while crying, compassion and submissiveness are considered feminine.
It’s not at all uncommon to hear tales of male executives publicly berating people, yelling in meetings or slamming doors. You rarely hear those stories about a woman, but not because women don’t get angry.
You don’t hear those stories because if a woman engaged in that same behavior, it would diminish her authority as people dismiss her as”unhinged” or “PMS-ing.” It’s an unwinnable double-bind for women in leadership. If they exhibit the exact same assertiveness or aggression that wins respect and compliance for men, they’re labeled negatively. But if they show softer emotions or, heaven forbid, cry at the office, they’re considered weak and not made of executive material.
The solution for overcoming these stereotypes is to acknowledge them and include them in unconscious bias training. Most people don’t intentionally harbor negative prejudices, but everyone has unconscious biases that inform their assumptions and behavior. A conscious effort to separate gender from emotion will help foster a more equitable emotional landscape and create a healthier environment for emotion to exist in the workplace.
It’s important to remember that, while not dismissing women who are assertive or emotional is a critical step, it’s not the whole solution. While men unquestionably have it easier in a workplace setting, the stereotypes still prevent them from being truly authentic without consequences. Men are often rewarded for assertiveness and aggression, but should a man cry at the office, he’d be derided as weak. The age-old insult “crying like a girl” is a perfect example of how men are expected to always be stoic and strong.
Authentic leadership and finding meaning in our work are all about human connection, which can only happen if both genders are free to show any emotion without fear of reprisal. This doesn’t mean all behaviors are acceptable (slamming doors and yelling are never appropriate), but it does mean that emotions should be welcomed free of judgment.
Heather Mellick is a management consultant and leadership coach at Webb Consulting Group, a consulting firm based in Bountiful.