What If a Female CEO Acted Like Elon Musk?

The Tesla CEO’s tearful New York Times interview reveals a lot about the double standards men and women face.

Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty

On Thursday night, The New York Times published an interview with Elon Musk that offers a view into the billionaire entrepreneur’s life in the last year. Musk choked up “multiple times,” the Times reported in the story, and “alternated between laughter and tears.” He explained that he was overworked at Tesla, his electric-car company—which has spent the past several months scrambling to meet ambitious production goals—and that the situation has taken a toll on his physical health, family time, and social life.

“I thought the worst of it was over—I thought it was,” Musk said. “The worst is over from a Tesla operational standpoint. But from a personal pain standpoint, the worst is yet to come.”

The interview crystallized the incipient narrative that not all has been well in the state of Musk this year. The first hint of trouble came in May, when Musk berated investors on a Tesla earnings call for asking “boring, bonehead questions.” Then came his war with the press over news coverage of Tesla, and then his attack on a cave diver who had criticized Musk’s attempts to aid in the rescue of a soccer team in Thailand. And then, earlier this month, he floated the idea of converting Tesla into a private company, a suggestion that has reportedly prompted an investigation by federal securities regulators.

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.

And because women are so underrepresented in the executive ranks of business, displays of emotion can serve to “reconfirm broader cultural beliefs that are out there that women aren’t quite the right fit for senior leadership or certain kinds of senior leadership positions,” Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, told NPR in 2016.

Gender has infused public discussion and media coverage of female CEOs even when, on the surface, it may not seem entirely applicable. In 2013, the decision by Marissa Mayer, then the CEO of Yahoo, to end telecommuting for the company’s employees prompted considerable criticism. Some of the news coverage took aim at the work policy itself, smartly dissecting the persistence of a system that seems a poor fit for the internet age.

But other stories viewed Mayer’s decision through the lens of her gender; Mayer, some critics believed, had picked being an executive over a woman. “I’d thought that while she was breaking some barriers—becoming the youngest woman CEO ever to lead a Fortune 500 company, and certainly the first to do it while pregnant—she might take on the challenge of breaking a number of others,” Lisa Belkin wrote in HuffPost. “That she’d use her platform and her power to make Yahoo an example of a modern family-friendly workplace.”

Jennifer Erickson, also in HuffPost, scoffed at that assessment. Mayer “was not made CEO to make a case for specific workplace policies. She was not hired to talk about the difficulties of having a young child and still working at the office. (Quick question—do you know if Larry Page or Sergey Brin have children?) Marissa Mayer was hired to do a job.” She pointed out that days after Mayer informed employees that they could no longer work from home, Hubert Joly, the CEO of Best Buy and, like Mayer, fairly new to the job at the time, announced the same policy. Joly did not receive the same kind of attention.

So far, the reactions to the Times’ interview with Musk have been mixed. Fans of the Tesla CEO have offered their sympathy and support, or bashed the paper’s framing as unnecessary commentary. Beyond his base of fans, some are poking fun at Musk, while others are wondering, with sincerity and concern, why the entrepreneur has not sought more assistance in running his company. If a female CEO of a major tech company had teared up to reporters, would she have been seen as “vulnerable,” as the Times put it, or weak? Would she “acknowledge” that her responsibilities were taking a toll on her health, or would she admit that she was cracking under the weight of the job?