Following the Script: Women and Crying in the Workplace


Recent paper analyzes gender dynamics in the office

Professor Kimberly Elsbach from the UC Davis Graduate School of Management and Beth Bechky of the Stern School of Business at New York University analyzed interviews of 65 full-time working professionals to show how employees evaluate women in the workplace using cognitive scripts.

The study consisted of data from 41 female and 24 male professionals. The average age of the professional they interviewed was 39.87 with an average work experience of 17.7 years and had diverse roles in the workplace. The study extended the theories of Ad Vingerhoets, which focused on answering crying-related questions.

There are four scripts for four common situations in which women cry at work: dealing with personal problems [like death in the family or divorce], receiving critical feedback at work, like a negative performance appraisal, dealing with work stress and being involved in a heated meeting,” Elsbach said. “In each of these situations there are certain behaviors that are typical and allowed, like showing some emotion, and others that are not, like crying extensively and interrupting the work of others.”

The power dynamic in the workplace assumes different roles for men and women. If women don’t follow the script, they are seen as unprofessional. Women are told to behave in a certain way before they even enter the workplace.

“Before becoming an academic, I worked in the field for over 10 years,” said Jeanette Ruiz, a lecturer in the Department of Communication. “One of the first pieces of advice my mentor gave me was don’t cry at work, don’t let anyone at work see you cry. It is also information I share with my students in my interpersonal communication course — women and men are still expected to behave, engage, and interact differently in the workplace. It’s unfortunate but we have a very long way to go.”

Office dynamics are both cultural and context-specific; dynamics in the workplace are a part of the organizational and social cultures in which the workplace resides.

In a masculine culture such as the U.S., qualities such as being strong, assertive, competitive, and self-reliant are highly valued,” said Bo Feng, an associate professor in the Department of Communication. “Women who cry off script in the workplace may thus be assigned negative attributions and may even jeopardize their career. The same behavior, however, may elicit very different responses and outcomes in a feminine culture such as Sweden, where gender roles are more fluid and flexible and quality of life is the sign of success. In this cultural context, it wouldn’t be surprising if a female employee crying off script receives empathetic, supportive responses from her coworkers and manager.”

This study highlights the importance of understanding office dynamics to prepare women entering the workplace and also make employees more aware of the fact that such a dynamic exists.

“It’s important for managers to know that crying is just another way of expressing emotion and that it shouldn’t be penalized,” Elsbach said. “Women who are prone to crying at work should understand the scripts and try not to violate them, to keep the negative effects to a minimum. It’s important to know that I don’t believe that women should have to follow the scripts — but that is what we found in terms of how they are perceived.”



Written by: Kriti Varghese —