Women and Tears

Have you ever wondered why you feel like crying during a well-executed AT&T advertisement, even when you know you’re being emotionally manipulated? Do you think you cry more often because you were socialized growing up to feel that emotions mattered and women are more naturally care-givers? Sure, society certainly plays a role in how we develop, but perhaps more importantly, women are, biologically wired to cry more.

We have higher levels of the hormone, prolactin, which controls, among other things, the development of tear glands. That means that we are 4 times more likely to cry than men. And our tear glands are even constructed differently from men. According to Dr. William Frey, who studies tears, when men cry 73 percent of the time tears do not fall down their cheeks  they get misty-eyed. Tears, on the other hand, almost always flow down women’s cheeks.

Are there times at work when you’ve cried and you wish you had not?


  1. Melanie Magness says:

    Hi Anne: I picked up your book the other day and haven’t been able to put it down. Out of curiosity, I looked you up online only to find that you have another book coming that I will also relate to–in fact, I wish I wasn’t arriving to the conversation late!

    I was the HR Director for a computer firm until the birth of my second child (at which time I took a leave of absence and then ended up resigning to be a stay-home parent.) One of the aspects of my job was that I was present for all higher-level disciplinary meetings and job terminations. This was always upsetting and by far the hardest part of my job, but to diffuse what could potentially be very high conflict situations, the managers and directors I worked with relied on me to be calm and unemotional. Which I was able to do, and therefore was regarded as “professional.” My ability to “remain neutral” and “handle myself well” was cited in every performance review and as a reason for every promotion I received. To cry or to get angry would have totally derailed my reputation with my peers and supervisors–other women who gave in to tears at the office were widely considered not just to be unprofessional, but unreliable.

    It would come up when promotions were being considered, for example: “Michelle in charge of the new division? Hmmmm….I don’t know. She can be pretty emotional.” or “Joan should never be put in charge of people. We can’t have her trying to lead the staff when she can’t even control herself.” (Both of these were highly qualified managers who were overlooked for promotions purely based on the fact that their supervisors had seen them give way to tears.)

    I certainly never would have been made the Director if I hadn’t been able to put a lid on my emotions at work. (What people didn’t see was the many times I’d be at my desk sobbing after a termination meeting. Tissues, visine, and “repair makeup” were just as much a part of my necessary office supplies as laptop, pens, and staplers.)

    This company downsized half of its staff during my final year; in the months before I resigned, I was part of over 50 job terminations. Many of these were undeserved in terms of job performance, and came as a shock to the people who received the news.

    This was unbelievably stressful: having to tell good workers that they were about to lose their livlihoods, trying to console distraught and crying men and women, or soothe angry ones, all the time having to maintain a professional, non-engaged veneer…the covert tissues at my desk got a lot of use that year.

    One time, one of the division directors (another woman) turned to me after a dismissal meeting with one of her employees. She had left her office in tears during the meeting, leaving me to deliver the bad news. After it was over, she came to me and said,
    “You’re so good at this. I just don’t know how you manage to keep it from getting to you. You just must not have a heart.”

    Ouch. That comment stabbed me straight in the heart (the one I didn’t have.) It was so unfair and untrue. But there it was: for me, in that job, the choice was either to reveal my heart but get nowhere professionally; or hide my emotions, advance in responsibility, but be perceived as the cold hatchet woman. What a choice.

    I think many professional women have this dilemma, particularly in male-dominated industries (as the computer company I worked for certainly was). To allow yourself to express your emotions is to be perceived as weak and unprofessional. To hide your emotions, though, makes you less of a person. In the end, I couldn’t stand that dichotemy–it’s one of the reasons I made the decision to step out of that particular workforce world for a while.

  2. Always! finally I decided to just tell people when it happens..I am a cryer! It’s how my physical system expresses frustration (and that’s true) nothing wimpy about it…the world might instead be thankful I cry as opposed to punching someone out?

  3. Hi Anne

    I’m in the midst of your book and can’t put it down. I’m plucking up my courage at the moment to go grey. I’m 44 and have two daughters aged 3 and 7 so am a bit confronted by looking more like their grandmother than their mother!.

    But….as to tears at work. I’ve always cried easily, including at work and this has made me feel a bit unprofessional. I hate looking puffy eyed and pathetic at work so try and go out for a quick walk instead. However, one of my colleagues is Italian and very free with her emotions (including anger) so I think it’s that an Anglo Saxon thing to try and seem composed at all times. I’ve been a bit inspired by my colleague to be hide my emotions less. (And inspired by your book to stop hiding my grey hair and be more real).

  4. christine eisner says:

    I have always felt that emotions, tears, smiles or anything in between, are the fibers that weave our disparate parts together. While some people may have greater range, I think that they are the key to effective communication.

    Women are fortunate in that we are given “permission” to use them. It is an invaluable tool, but one that needs to be used with respect and consderation.

    Cudos to you for shining the light on this topic!

  5. Hi Anne
    Just finished your book, but alas I am 60 and do colour my hair, however I am going to try, not to do it.
    My reason for writing is not about Hair, you mention workplace emotions. If you have a few minutes I would like to explain, my career has been the most fulfilling and rewarding part of my life, you see My Career is Wife,Mother,Grandmother and homemaker. I love my career and go through all the emotions and tears etc that have been mentioned on your blog. This is probably not the type of thing you had in mind about career women, but I feel the Women who have chosen this career are often disregarded and we don’t get a pay cheque each month. We are made to feel like second class citizens with terms like “Oh your JUST a housewife..or..How come you don’t have a REAL job?” I am writing a journal for my 60th had things I needed to vent, it has been good for me, enough ramblings loved your 1st book look forward to the 2nd.
    Best wishes