Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Only (Weak Unprofessional Emotional) Gurrrrls Cry

My mentor is a woman in her forties who has left academia; I am in love with her, she is wonderful, and I wish I'd met her years ago. Be advised, o women scientists: go ye forth and find women mentors, for verily, thy quality of life shall improve.

It was such a pleasure to connect with someone who has experience!! and useful advice!!! So we were talking about the need to be tough and on guard all the time, and I said, 'It's just been really hard...' and burst dramatically into tears.

Of course she was wonderful about it.

But here's the thing: I could not under any circumstances cry in front of my advisor, or any of the male professors; they would never take me seriously again. This is true of some of the female professors, but on the whole, I would expect it to be less career-destroying.

Why is there such a heavy penalty for women to cry in professional settings? I have a few theories:

1) Men project their own socialized constraints onto women: The social expectation that men only cry in serious crisis is projected onto women in professional settings. Because the dominant paradigm is still so male, a woman who cries in a situation where a man would not is judged by the male stereotype, and seen as weak and overly emotional.

2) Crying is simply not seen as professional: Emotion has no place at work, and showing emotion violates the normative code. Because the paradigm is dominated by a male tradition, especially in academia where turnover is glacial. See this Chronicle article: after a miscarriage, a woman holds back her tears, because "justified or not, I could not get past the thought that women who cry at work cannot easily, in the next breath (or on the next page), describe themselves as competent professionals."

3) Men are conditioned to be uncomfortable when a woman cries: Men are not expected to respond well to tears. Perhaps they have difficulty gauging the magnitude of the upset because of (1). This is complicated in professional settings because physical comfort might be seen as harassment. WISELI has a guide(pdf) which mentions this effect: the male prof next door sends all his crying advisees to the female prof, even when it's about, say, grades. Which she can't help with.

The problem is, this is a structure which fundamentally discriminates against women. First we're socialized to believe crying is okay, and then we're penalized for it. Even if it's women who are applying this paradigm, they are still guided by a norm which was not established by women.

-Opinions? Feel free to completely disagree.

-Have any of you ever cried in front of your advisor or committee? Other profs?