Cryin' Out Loud

Research shows tears can damage women's careers

"Women in business don't cry, my dear."
- Martha Stewart to a teary female contestant on "The Apprentice"

   In "A League of Their Own," Tom Hanks coaches a women's professional baseball team. As he dresses down a player, she bursts into tears, provoking Hanks to shout one of cinema's classic lines:
   "Are you crying? Are you crying? ARE YOU CRYING? There's no crying! THERE'S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!"
   University of California Davis professor and NCAA faculty athletic representative Kimberly D. Ansbach suspects there might be a good deal of bawling in baseball (she's not far from the San Francisco Giants home field). But the management professor and researcher knows there's not much room for tears on the job.
   Ansbach has researched and continues to investigate crying in the work place. "I'm focused on how it affects women in professional work settings," she says. "The reasons people cry are justified, both as a way of coping and to solicit emotional response."
   But weeping is jarring to bystanders she's found. "It's hard to ignore." Crying has "effects on co-workers and supervisors," she notes. "It's as or more upsetting to the people who watch it. It really affects those around you.
   "People resent having their productivity disrupted."
   Studies suggest that crying is so strongly associated with children in distress that "we respond to crying adults the same way we respond to crying children," observes Ansbach. "It's an expression of helplessness. We see the person as infantile. And that's not what you want to be perceived as as you go up the corporate ladder."
   Women are far more prone to this reaction than men. Some studies say a woman has an average of 5.3 cries per month (as opposed to 1.4 among men). Researcher William Frey II in his book "Crying: The Mystery of Tears" cites hormonal differences that result in different tear gland development. The cellular makeup of tear ducts even makes women's crying more obvious than men's.
   To Ansbach, nurture is more compelling than nature. "If we asked boys and girls of five, you might not find much difference," she says. "But boys start to be socialized (away from crying) at that age."
   By adulthood, there are times when "it's very hard for a woman (not to cry)," observes Ansbach, whose interest in the topic stemmed in part from her own experience with crying at work.
   Crying is not actually an emotion: "It's an expression of many emotions. It is a specific behavior." And as such, not all crying is equal.
   "Context is important," Ansbach cautions. In some settings, such as hospital units dealing with chronic illness, crying as an accepted part of the professional culture.
   "There's some general agreement that in response to personal loss, such as death or divorce, society sees crying is far more acceptable," she notes, even in men.
   Reactions are "less damaging ... in a situation where you are being attacked, bullied or surprised," notes Ansbach, such as an unexpected browbeating during a staff meeting. In fact, such a situation can "allow bonding with other women - and it's almost always women - when there's a boss or co-worker bully that picks on a lot of people. They think, 'It's not just me.'"
   Crying is "most damaging ... in response to what people perceive as normal job stress," Ansbach says, such as in meetings or performance reviews. "The bottom line for a lot of women is that it's very damaging to their careers."
   Ginger Atwood, writing for the Society of Women Engineers Web site (, suggests keeping a "crying kit" in the office, which would include a mirror, facial tissues, makeup, eye drops and other comfort items. As part of a broader strategy, she suggests:

- Anticipate and rehearse difficult situations.
- Terminate any situation if you are losing control.
- Disassociate what is said from what is meant.
- Learn your crying triggers & break them.
- Have a recovery plan.

"If all else fails," she writes, "consider taking an early lunch, or the morning or afternoon off to regain control."

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