A few of our pals will be graduating next month and leaving academia for the professional unknown, so there’s a lot of career advice going around campus right now. In the past two weeks, I’ve met with more than 20 media professionals for Q&A group sessions offering advice on resumes, CV’s, interviews, and negotiations. Since the (greatly appreciated) advice is being offered from experienced and successful professionals to younger and emerging graduates, a few differing or perhaps generational opinions should be expected:
- One person recommended bringing a suitcase along to interviews but leaving cell phones in the car.
- Most professionals felt that resumes are not the place to use design skills, like Adobe.
- “Gender specific: don’t cry.”
That last one had to be the most interesting, especially since it came from a woman who works for a public institution. I’m not saying she’s necessarily wrong to give this sort of advice, but I do wonder whether it’s still the best answer to an old question:
Admittedly, my first thought was “I hope not.” I have suffered through loud, emotionally unstable co-workers who brought their problems to work and didn’t do much problem-solving. Not fun. Those same people were never very good at their job anyway, so maybe there’s just less empathy for annoying co-workers.
What really made me question this advice was acknowledging that I’ve cried at work. Is that OK? Is it OK if it fits into a certain context?
I was working at my desk when I received the mid-morning phone call that the woman who’d raised me had been taken to the hospital and might not live, so I excused myself to the break room and cried while I collected the rest of the details. My boss came in looking for me, hugged me and left. After I’d calmed down, I went back to my desk and finished the work day, not because I “had” to, but because I felt safe to do so. She would have understood if I’d needed to leave at any point, and that was comforting enough.
In the ‘don’t cry’ rules, women are allowed to have a cry in cases of death (guess I’m excused, then) or divorce, as long as it’s not excessive. Other than that, crying is typically regarded as manipulative or problematic. For students about to graduate into challenging careers, how will we handle a ‘slip up’ if we cry? Hillary Clinton expressed a half-sniffle of emotion during a 2008 presidential campaign speech and it nearly stopped the presses. This video makes a quick summary of the double-standard scrutiny the media applied to Clinton as opposed to her similarly teary male counterparts.
But it’s certainly not just the media that objects to professionals who have cried: it’s other professionals. In describing one woman’s experience, Forbes staff writer, Jenna Goudreau, wrote:
Caprino was asked into the president’s office to speak about her supervisor, whose competency had come into question. The president asked her to keep an eye on the supervisor and regularly report his mistakes. Feeling it would be wrong and disloyal, Caprino said she wouldn’t snitch. He was adamant, however, and demanded that she do it. That’s when the tears came—first out of frustration that she’d been backed into a corner and then compounded by disappointment in herself that she’d lost control. She watched as the president’s eyebrows raised in shock and embarrassment and then slowly contort into anger.
The crying itself was never mentioned between them, but Caprino immediately saw a shift in the president and in their relationship. “It was awkward thereafter,” she says. “I knew it was the absolute worst thing in the world; crying in the workplace is inappropriate. When control is everything, crying will get you alienated.”
But what if this is archaic? Leaders like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg disagree that women need to fit into the old ideal of masculine-appropriate conduct, where women should never cry because they should be more like men (guess what, men also cry sometimes). In an interview with Jezebel about her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sandberg said:
“Look, I’m not suggesting that the way to get to the corner office is to cry as much as possible. Nobody is going to publish the next Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and say that crying is one of them. But I am saying that it happens. It has happened to me. It has happened to me more than once. It will happen to me again. It happens to other women. Rather than spend all this time beating ourselves up for it, let’s accept ourselves. OK, I cried, life went on. And I think that’s part of the message of Lean In, like we are human beings, we are emotional beings and we can be our whole selves at work.”
So maybe this idea is evolving right now. As more women enter professional leadership roles in their careers there’s less need to ‘pass’ for a stoic leader. Trying to be more like an emotionally challenged man is not going to be your ticket to success, and the more we present ourselves as normal, functioning people the more our presence becomes normal. Do we, as a nation, need to speculate over the appropriateness of Hillary Clinton’s breasts or Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy? Or that one time some woman cried in her boss’s office? No, because it reinforces the (il)logic that successful women should not be women.
There’s no use in trying to make ourselves over into robots because it’s unrealistic: life can be tough, our careers can be tough, and sometimes it takes blood, sweat and tears to get the job done. It’s not that we shouldn’t be ourselves but that we should be our best. That’s not gender-specific.