Of Course, Calling Women ‘Emotional’ Undermines Their Authority At Work

But now a scientific study has actually proven it…

calling women emotional at work

by Lydia Spencer-Elliott |
Published on

Whether getting called ‘aggressive’ instead of ‘assertive’, ‘bossy’ rather than ‘a leader’, ‘difficult’ instead of ‘honest’ or ‘awkward’ rather than ‘inquisitive’— almost all women have experienced some subtle workplace sexism or emotional gaslighting.

And now a new study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly has officially confirmed what we long knew to be true: calling a woman ‘emotional’ (rather than passionate) or telling her to ‘calm down’ will make her point appear less credible to those around her and weaken her argument.

To prove this theory, scientists asked participants to read examples of arguments - some where a woman was told to ‘calm down’ and others where they weren’t. Significantly, in instances where the woman was told to ‘calm down’ the participants thought her argument was markedly less legitimate and therefore lacked creditability. Similarly, research found the same when women are called ‘emotional’ while trying to prove a point.

Infuriatingly, men’s credibility isn’t negatively impacted they’re told to ‘calm down’ or labeled ‘emotional’ because people don’t generally believe that men can be over emotional, whereas women have long been burdened with this sexist gender stereotype right back to the days of ‘hysteria’.

And these sustained biases genuinely have a massive impact on the world. In fact, a huge one in eight people still think women might be too emotional to work in politics, according to a 2019 study. Famously, David Cameron attempted to weaken shadow Treasury secretary Angela Eagle’s argument during Prime Minister’s Questions in 2011 by telling her to ‘calm down, dear’.

‘I don’t think a modern man would have expressed himself in that way,’ she later told the BBC of the incident. ‘What I was trying to do was point out he had got some facts wrong. I have been patronised by better people than the prime minister.’

Of course, women can’t win either way, though. For all of her wrongdoings, Liz Truss was equally critiqued by the tabloids for not having enough of an ‘emotional connection’ with the public during her speeches. Body language experts even claimed her movements betrayed a ‘lack of emotion’. But you can guess how the same papers would have mocked Truss if she had chosen to show some passion.

‘Gender stereotypes of emotional present a fundamental barrier to women’s ability to ascend to and succeed in leadership roles,’ Yale management professor Victoria Brescoll proves in her work%20Leadership%20Quarterly.pdf){href='https://icos.umich.edu/sites/default/files/lecturereadinglists/Leading_with_their_Hearts-Brescoll%20(2016)%20Leadership%20Quarterly.pdf' }. ‘Female leaders can be penalized for even minor or moderate displays of emotion…but being emotionally unexpressive may also result in penalties because unemotional women are seen as failing to fulfill their warm, communal role as women.’

Essentially, as the system stands—women can’t win.

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