Musk usually swats criticism away, often via angry tweets.“But in the interview,” the Times wrote, “he demonstrated an extraordinary level of self-reflection and vulnerability, acknowledging that his myriad executive responsibilities are taking a steep personal toll.”
Self-reflection, vulnerability, acknowledgment of the effects of work on one’s well-being—these are admirable qualities in a leader of any company. And it is important, in a culture that too often rewards work at the expense of well-being, to discuss openly the often unsustainable results of that culture. But as I watched the responses to Musk’s tell-all roll in, I tried to imagine what would happen if a female CEO of a major company gave a similar interview. How would she be perceived?
Both men and women take a risk when they reveal stressors or struggles, but their candor doesn’t usually garner the same reaction. For women, the risks of being open are far greater, and they can manifest in tangible ways.
“Women incur social and economic penalties for expressing masculine-typed emotions because they violate proscriptions against dominance for women. At the same time, when women express female-typed emotions, they are judged as overly emotional and lacking emotional control, which ultimately undermines women’s competence and professional legitimacy,” according to the Handbook on Well-Being of Working Women, a collection of research and literature on the topic.
Masculine-typed emotions, female-typed emotions. The guidebook for being a female CEO is, at its core, the same as the one for being a female anything: No matter your title, the double bind remains. Speak assertively, and risk being labeled “bossy.” Display anger, and be seen as “bitchy”. Remain stoic, and be called an “ice queen.” Cry, and get pegged as too emotional. Women in the workplace are constantly walking a tightrope.
A 2008 series of studies from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program found that displays of anger from men in professional contexts are often viewed as responses to external circumstances, while the same from women are seen as representations of their personality. In other words, men are provoked, while women are naturally prone to anger. The research also found that women who expressed anger in work contexts were perceived as less competent and received lower wages, while the opposite was true for men.
Meanwhile, according to It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace by Anne Kreamer, women who cry at work “feel rotten afterward, as if they’ve failed a feminism test.” Men, however, tend to feel better after crying: Kreamer’s research showed that “their minds felt sharper, the future seemed brighter, and they felt more physically relaxed and in control.” When HuffPost interviewed 15 high-profile female leaders about crying in the office, the majority considered it taboo and bound to produce negative results. “If the person you’re confronting is male, it provides one more excuse to make him think ‘Isn’t that just like a woman?’” said Marina Whitman, the former vice president and chief economist at General Motors.