EMOTIONS ON THE JOB Does a woman always have to be strong?


Women are quickly seen as "too emotional" on the job. And are therefore taken less seriously. But is that really true? And if so, should women change - or should the working world change? Professor and coach Babette Brinkmann on suitable strategies. 
The project manager of an international consortium tells me about his idea. "Babette, I will have it written into the employment contracts that women are not allowed to cry at work, especially not in the appraisal interview. They have to cry somewhere else, otherwise, no one can work!"

Emotionality is considered private and not in line with the working world
The request is absurd and legally impossible, but the desire and need Sebastian S. expresses here are real and common. Sebastian, in his late 30s, manages a huge dam project in Africa in his younger years, with several hundred employees* from five countries reporting to him, but when a woman cries, "I just don't know what to say anymore." Risks, financial and technical challenges are nothing compared to the distress Sebastian faces when female employees become clearly emotional.

I've told this example many times and gotten many laughs. But the serious and infuriating truth is this: the line of emotional expression expected of women on the job is super thin. Women are considered emotional, and emotionality is considered private and not work-world compliant. Crying, being gripped by enthusiasm, emotion, excited anticipation ... all this leads to a woman being taken less seriously in the job and no longer being considered for leadership or promotion. The idea of "typical woman" is still iron-clad in "incompatible with power and influence."

Men not only consider themselves to be matter-of-fact, but they have also made this kind of matter-of-factness the generally accepted standard. Their - naturally quite existing! - Emotionality is much less damaging to them. And this even though they have created a niche for themselves that is neither likable nor particularly useful for business: Emotions such as aggression, anger, or joy in power are considered so uniquely masculine that they are accepted in business and in public - criticized but accepted. Again and again, one can hear about managers, artists, trainers, and other men in public life, who are "known to be quite a bully" - but this is in no fundamental contradiction to power and success.

Objectivity instead of emotionality
This niche does not exist for women either. Aggression is still regarded by women as hardly excusable and unfeminine. Aggressive language characterized the style of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. A comparable tone was the undoing of SPD leader Andrea Nahles. In one and the same company and through the eyes of one and the same person, a woman can be chalked up to an emotional appearance and a colleague can benefit from an emotional appearance.

Another example from my consulting: The owner of a medium-sized company, Matthias, wants to retire from operative management. Together we develop the way to the goal. He had chosen the head of the legal department, Clara, as his successor in the management. She was to become responsible for human resources, IT, and finance in the management team. But at our next meeting, I am surprised by the news. Not Clara, but a consultant long associated with the company has been appointed. A man who enjoys recognition as a financial expert, but his style is quite controversial.

What had happened? Matthias explained his decision to me: "Clara would certainly also be very well suited and is well connected in the house. But in the end, we (the owner's family) thought she was just too emotional. There was another meeting where she got stuck in her ideas, and when she gets enthusiastic, her emotions get the better of her, she gets loud and excited and can't find the end. That's when objectivity no longer fits."

Women are judged by their emotions, men are not
Aha, I think and say, "The woman was suddenly too emotional for you and is replaced by a man who is known for his gruff and often bossy loud tone? You do realize that anger, irritability, etc. are also emotions?" - "Yes, I do, but it's something else then, isn't it?" Matthias looks at me. It seems to me that the "something else" is the emotionality of the woman compared to the emotionality of the man. To one it gets in the way, to the other, it doesn't.

I had witnessed a phenomenon that numerous studies illustrate well. For example, in 2017 Kathryn Heath and Jill Flinn of the University of North Carolina evaluated more than a thousand feedback logs of female and male leaders and were able to show two things.

Typical woman, a typical man
That's quite something: First, we (women just as much as men, by the way) stare at every emotional movement in female executives like a rabbit at a snake, and when we discover emotional behavior, we say, "I knew it, typical, way too emotional."

Incredibly, change is not in sight. Stereotypes about what is typically male and typically female, and especially what makes a great woman or man, seem immune to digitization, globalization, modernization, and enlightenment. Research findings over the last 30 years paint the same picture over and over again: a great woman is warm, trusting, socially competent, communicative, open, and empathetic. A great man is likable, assertive, direct, active, and self-confident.

Three guesses as to which characteristics are listed more often when people are asked about the ideal leader. That's right, it's the qualities of the "great guy." But since we have to be convincing as a person and as an expert on the job, women face a challenge here that men do not.

Please smile!
Women have to reconcile two different and quite contradictory images to be perceived positively and competently as a woman and a manager. Great emotion very quickly becomes the undoing here; it is seen as too feminine, too soft, too private.

But conversely, a powerful, demanding demeanor also leads to irritation: "hair on her teeth," "governess," "diva," "complicated" are attributions for which there is hardly any male equivalent. Expectations of women have hardly changed in 70 years. She" is supposed to be friendly, communicative, balancing, and by no means complicated or hysterical.

And she should smile! After all, she is "a cheerful woman, a friendly woman," said RBB presenter Jörg Thadeusz a few weeks ago, uncomprehendingly, to his talk show guest Professor Dr. Maja Göpel. The latter holds a doctorate in political economy and transformation research and has written a much-discussed bestseller ("Rethinking Our World: An Invitation"). But hello: "Why are you looking so serious on the cover?" he asked her. That made him feel "not advertised."

Women must be a normal case in all positions
Of course, the world should change, especially the world of work. And I am convinced that it will change when women are the norm in all positions. But there is still a long way to go before this normal case is achieved. And even if narrow perceptions particularly stand in the way of women's careers: Ultimately, these stereotypical role expectations do neither men nor women any good.

That's why: Tackle them when you feel like it, and support women who do. If you experience a woman and think: "Good idea, but somehow embarrassing, too much, too loud, too whiny or too vulgar", "She won't reach her goal that way" - then that's exactly the right moment to get to the bottom of your own ingrained perceptions. Support women who do things differently than you do or differently than the classic role expectations dictate. This can only lead to more freedom for all of us.

Sebastian couldn't change women or work contracts. I suggested "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker for him to read. In this book, the protagonist says, "I can cry and lift a coffin." And with that phrase in hand, he then managed quite well to get into a conversation about exactly that with the women whose tears he feared: How much coffin carrying, how much talking, how much arguing goes on - despite tears.

Also always "so emotional"?
Ways out of the dilemma
We won't change the world in a day. But there are already tips on how we can express our enthusiasm or anger in a way that underlines what we have to say:

The general rule at work is to name emotions instead of acting them out. ("That annoys me," says instead of reacting angrily. "I think that's an outrage" works best in a firm, calm voice).
Use emotion purposefully and intentionally. Refer to the facts that excite or excite you. Mix euphoria or outrage with numbers, arguments. When enthusiasm is high: say it once clearly and proudly, then get back to the point.
If something outrageous has happened, you are very angry or hurt: Take your time. Respond with delay. Reasoned silence is not agreement. ("The way this was decided doesn't sit well with me at all. I will bring this up again shortly.") And when you have calmly, perhaps with the advice of a good friend, working out your response, come back to it. Clearly and concisely, and without belittling or denying your anger or outrage.
Know your audience, get comfortable with them and them with your ideas. A stable basis for a conversation can tolerate more irritation.


 

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