A few months ago, I received feedback from a manager that I needed to “be less emotional.”
Picture it. Me, one of the only technical women on our team, voicing my opinion about a release date in a way in a way that was too emotional. No, I wasn’t screaming or sobbing, I was just passionate about my point. Yes, he had a valid point about using more data in my decision-making process, but the fact of the matter is: women shouldn’t be called “too emotional” for doing their job.
Truthfully, the only shocking part of this encounter was that it had taken this long for it to happen. Since my first few weeks in industry, I knew I needed to avoid seeming weak or emotional if I wanted to fit in. Back then, I was the only woman on the team so the pressure was really on.
The data backs up my fear, a Harvard Business Review study of 1000 360-feedback reports on female executives found that when women speak up against a majority opinion they receive feedback like “she was too hyped up” or “she was emotional”. The women see themselves expressing their opinion passionately, but that’s not how their coworkers see them.
Even outside of Tech, emotions are seen as a hindrance to doing jobs properly. Back in 2015, rapper T.I. said he could never vote for a woman president because “women make rash decisions emotionally”. Though he later recanted the statement, he is not alone in this opinion. This was a common thread throughout this presidential cycle. Whether it’s POTUS, CEO, Vice President, or just a software engineer, emotions are seen as a hindrance to the job.
Being too emotional is often associated with menstruation, society tells us that PMS makes women unpredictably emotional. But as anyone who has ever menstruated knows, going about your day in the midst of debilitating cramps is a heroic effort that is the opposite of weakness. Like so many others, I’ve successfully led meetings, shipped features, and debugged customer issues while on my period and no one knew I was suffering. Many of us actually feel an obligation to hide our pain from those around us. Perhaps because the experience is gendered and associated with acting crazy, we don’t want anyone to discount us or attribute our failure as additional evidence that all women are crazy.
So here’s my confession: I am an emotional person. I love my friends deeply and will fight to protect them, I care about others and seek to understand their perspectives when I see them hurt or left out. Injustice makes me angry, I clench my fist, yell out, and write blog posts and letters representatives, and media companies when I hear about sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, racism, homophobia, you name it. Sometimes these emotions come up at work. Like when I’ve spoken up to defend my mentees against their managers, spoken up about bias I’ve seen in interview loops, or got the right people involved that time a company used my friend’s deadname in the application process. Of course my emotions are not always so positive, but I believe they make me who I am and allow me to bring a unique perspective to the table.
Emotions do not make me weak, they make me human.
I am even so emotional that I have cried at work. Many times. Why?
- Personal reasons unrelated to work.
- Yet another manager said I wasn’t technical enough.
- Someone who I trusted refused to believe my experiences of sexism and I felt like I’d now ruined our professional relationship.
- Project cancellations. It’s never fun to see all your hard work amount to nothing.
Each time I’ve left my desk, forced myself into a bright smile as I passed anyone in the hallway, and found privacy in a place devoid of people thanks to the same systematic bias that sent me there: the women’s restroom.
I know I’m not alone, a few of my mentees have cried during our one-on-one meetings, expressing their very real and very valid feelings in response to mistreatment. They are not weak. They gave their all, worked really hard, cared a lot, and sometimes people at work mistreated them.
But of course, emotions are not entirely gendered. Many, many women in industry have never cried in the office, many men have, and nonbinary folks may or may not have experienced this. Please don’t walk away from this assuming that all women do X, or all men do Y, not only will you simplify this all to a binary, but you’re missing the larger point: emotions are part of being human. Some of us have been taught to suppress them more than others, but asking employees to only focus on data and not on the human element — whether the experience of the customer or the experience of the employees designing the software — limits the company’s potential.
A week or so after being told I was “too emotional”, a guy stopped by my desk wearing a shirt featuring a company mascot crying at their desk. It wasn’t directed at me, but the message was clear: emotional weakness isn’t tolerated here and it’s humorous enough to broadcast publicly. This isn’t just one experience, one person, or one company. This is a larger issue that prevents many employees, often women and other underrepresented minorities in tech, from thriving.
So where do we got from here?
I wish I had the perfect answer. Like most inclusion issues, it’s very complicated (people have written books). I can only share from my experience and what I wish would have happened:
- Stop viewing emotions as a hindrance to success at work.
- Be open about experiencing emotions. If you feel safe doing so because of the supportive environment, your position of authority, your gender, etc. Not everyone can speak up, but when some people do, it makes things better for others.
- Stop joking about people crying at their desk or otherwise showcasing emotions. Just because you haven’t seen it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
- Seek out and actively support inclusion initiatives at work. Seek out people sharing their experiences, do your own research, and participate in initiatives designed to make the workplace more inclusive.
- Listen and believe those around you.