Do people of different gender identities process emotions differently?

sexual harassment at work

“Men are from Mars, Women from Venus” was all the rage during the 1990s. Whether there’s actual proof that we are emotionally wired differently is yet to be conclusively proved (especially with gender fluidity much more highlighted these days). Controversially, according to psychologists Bobbi Carothers and Harry Reis, men and women are from Earth

Are women in power nastier than men?

Some say women in power are nastier than men, a point compellingly illustrated by an Atlantic article last year. The reality is that nasty people are remarkably similar, no matter what gender or race. Their mode of expression might vary, but both have little to no empathy for others and are ruthless when it comes to protecting their own interests. 

How about women in previously male-dominated fields?  Professions like law, engineering and medicine have some way to go, despite record numbers of female graduates and boardroom quotas. Women are pushing back, but because of lingering notions of so-called behaviour and “toughness”, this space is still being negotiated.

Whatever the field, you’ll find great managers and colleagues are in touch with their emotions while recognising and skilfully assisting others with theirs.

How we react to bad news

Anyone who’s been made redundant or compelled to resign in fraught circumstances experiences the same gutted sensation. Granted, women are probably more likely to become tearful, but a man experiences fury and grief notwithstanding. Unless you’re made of stone, a person’s feelings in this context are loud and clear, even if they say very little. How someones gender influences this is where it gets interesting. If you’re brought up to be polite, you might well refrain from telling the bad news bearer that they are a jerk and you’re only too glad to be leaving that cesspit. Some of us are more forthright. Company litigiousness and “grievance policies” being what they are, not a lot of people will choose this path.

When it comes to emotions, what is and isn’t okay?

People of different gender identities are still largely brought up to process and express emotions in particular (and different) ways. Assertiveness continues to be perceived as a more masculine prerogative, while showing empathy is “touchy-feely”, or in other words, feminine. This reflects an ongoing double standard which is anything but praiseworthy. The good news is that what’s an acceptable way to process emotions in the workplace is changing, compared to even a decade ago.

Having emotional feelings is normal … but be cautious at work

There’s a host of reasons beyond gender why people might not express their emotions. They could be afraid to lose their job, they might feel that they lack important information, or they could be jeopardising another person’s role.  Lots of people with mortgages, family responsibilities, bills and debts are unwilling to disclose their true feelings, particularly if their management is far from transparent.

Emotions are 100% legitimate and a barometer of what’s really going on — however (as the old saying goes) they make ‘good servants but bad masters’.  You have to consider not just the validity of your feelings, but how much is sufficient to display in the circumstances, and what they’re likely to achieve. As tantrums are the province of toddlers and those with entitlementality, you’re best off opting for caution.

If you can’t be sure of the best way forward, seek advice from someone you trust

When faced with untenable demands that were eating up her family hours, ‘Trudy’ sought advice from an acquaintance who worked in the same profession. She didn’t know him well but in desperation made an appointment. It transpired over coffee that her colleague had previously experienced a near-emotional collapse in similar circumstances. He was so unexpectedly kind that ‘Trudy’ burst into tears. This had nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with empathy and understanding. They had a good (professional) hug and together discussed a plan of action, which she put into immediate effect.

Treat people the way you’d like to be treated

This is especially necessary in an era when work environments are increasingly dispersed and impersonal.  Be helpful, collegiate, patient. The office is not a place to be needy or petulant. We all have low-quality days, but maintaining a sense of humour and perspective helps others to likewise do so, and then we all cope that much better. Think of it as a kind of discipline, the same you require if you’re wanting a gym-toned body. With practice, you’ll improve.

When you know someone’s been struggling, ask them how they are, even if they look like they are coping. If someone has been putting in a massive effort that has been ignored, make a point to notice. That’s what keeps people motivated and prevents people feeling upset and unappreciated.

Observe what others are experiencing and respect differences. Make allowances for cultural differences and different personality types. Above all, remain genuine and offer your support, unobtrusively, where possible.

Direct your feelings where they can be usefully deployed

If you can’t immediately change what’s happening, and it is not likely to come into your control, take steps to emotionally protect and look after yourself (it is a cliche but it is true nonetheless). If making valid, reasonable points about an unfair situation is not being heard by those you report to, consider applying for other jobs and use your energies in the meantime as wisely as possible.

The day when it’s as valid to be an expert in emotions as it is to be an in-demand professional will herald a major shift in workplaces, and in society generally.  Whether people of different gender identities process emotions differently won’t matter nearly as much as how they’re processed, for the betterment of us all.

NOW READ: How leaders can deal with overlooked emotions by using an inner “lookout”

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