On the first page of her recent biography, “Bossypants,” comedian Tina Fey wrote, “If you are a woman and you bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace, here they are. No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly.”
And with that thought, Fey became every working woman’s heroine.
But if we remove the tongue from cheek and look a little more closely, does her simple, and funny, post-feminist mantra hold up? Well, like most of us, Fey is a work in progress, and a few years ago she was taking a different line.
In a 2007 Chicago Tribune interview after the public airing of an angry message her “30 Rock” co-star Alec Baldwin left on his daughter’s phone, Fey said: “InTouch Weekly said, ‘Alec makes Tina cry,’ No. Other than the fact that it’s just not true, I was like, ‘Don’t make it sound like I cry in my workplace. I’m 37. I don’t cry at my workplace. I cry in my kitchen. About the fact that I’m always working.’”
So what changed between 2007 and 2011? For Fey, maybe just some mellowing and reconsideration, and the difference between a new, struggling show and an Emmy-winning one that’s run five years and counting. But in the world at large there have been big changes that make women less defensive about tears at work.
As the numbers flowed in after the recession, which devastated male-dominated industries such as construction, there were headlines proclaiming that women made up the majority of the American workforce for the first time. This is a big deal. Four decades into the era of all women expecting and being expected to work for a living, we can finally and fully move beyond phase one, in which working women more or less tried to simulate maleness.
Obliged to Adapt
As workplaces filled with women, men had the luxury of behaving more or less the way they always had. Women, on the other hand, were obliged to adopt and adapt to the dominant male standards of professional behavior.
To be successful, many late 20th-century women felt they had to suppress distinctly female parts of themselves -- their essential femininity, their nurturing impulses, aspects of their intrinsic emotional biology. Such as crying.
When Martha Stewart, on her “Apprentice” television series, told a contestant, “Cry and you are out of here; women in business don’t cry, my dear,” she was fully embodying that first-generation feminist viewpoint about “manning up.” Despite women’s rising prominence the workforce, this notion, that a woman’s tears at work are prima facie evidence of failure or weakness, remains deep-seated.
Recent books such as “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office,” “Leading From the Front: No-Excuse Leadership Tactics for Women,” or “If You Have to Cry, Go Outside: And Other Things Your Mother Never Told You,” buy the old-school norms. But this point of view denies real underlying differences between the genders, not just socially conditioned but neurobiologically hard-wired.
In research I conducted for my latest book, I discovered that 41 percent of women and 9 percent of men reported that they had cried in the workplace during the past year. This finding conforms to the national gender split that neurologists have found. Women, who produce higher levels of prolactin, the hormone that controls tear production, cry on average 5.3 times a month, compared with 1.4 times for men. Women’s tear ducts are also anatomically different from men’s -- they are smaller, which means that when women cry tears tend to spill out and down their faces, whereas when men cry their tears merely well up.
No Crying Ceiling
What surprised me in the data from my surveys, however, was that there was no crying ceiling. Successful people at every level of the professional hierarchy, women and men, reported that they cried at work, bosses (like Fey) as well as junior staff. Additionally, whether someone had cried at work seems to make no difference in how much they like their job, for men or women.
Tears are a biological phenomenon, and when they appear they should be regarded not as bad in and of themselves but as a message, like the check-engine light going off on the car dashboard. Tears at work signal that something’s not quite right. They aren’t necessarily a moral failing or a sign of weakness.
I suggest readers follow Fey’s “Bossypants” advice on pigtails, tube tops and how much to cry. But I’d make an addition, and suggest you do as Fey does: Don’t take yourself too seriously.
(Anne Kreamer is the author of the recently published book “It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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