Emotions in the Workplace. Is there A Place For Them?
By Katherine Fry, CEO/President of Mediafy Communications Group
Before the advent of WWII, men comprised the majority of the workforce. These men encompassed the backbone of industry in America, and represented what we call today “men’s men.” Individuals such as these lived by the unspoken standard of “boys don’t cry,” and “work… is… not a place for (the) display of emotion.”(1) When the US government called these men to war, they left their positions, as well as that mentality, to the women who stepped up and took over their professional positions. The country thrust these women into environments where the philosophy advocated, “work should be a place of logical, rational thought, where you don’t give in to emotional thinking.” Furthermore, these working environments asserted that one “certainly (does) not display any emotions… (because) it’s both not professional and leaves (one) too vulnerable.” (1) However, then and now, women have often struggled to follow these unspoken rules of how they should conduct themselves in the workplace.
Scientific studies have shown that men and women are different physiologically. In essence, we process information differently. For example, one study showed that the “neural circuitry recruited during emotion processing differed between the sexes. Women showed neural activity in the anterior insula cortex, which processes bodily sensations. This means that they deeply experienced emotions within their bodies. Men, on the other hand, showed neural responses in the visual cortex. While processing these images, male brains immediately activated circuitry involved in regulating shifts of attention to the world (i.e., the dorsal anterior insula cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex). This allowed them to shift the emotional impact of the images away from themselves.” (2) Essentially, women feel emotions deeply-even physically-while men are able to shift their thought processes away from an emotional response and deal with the matter at hand. With differences like this now being unveiled by science, and with women comprising 47% of the total workforce, is it really fair to expect women to think like men? And is this line of thought what is best for the workplace as a whole? (3)
Critics argue that differences such as these make the workplace better suited for men, then for women. Others argue that women bring authenticity to the workplace, in line with the “woke” movement or the “authentic living movement.” (4) Either way, it can be argued that it is not realistic to require women to literally change the way their brains process information. But if women are being held to an unreasonable standard, then what is the solution regarding their inclusion in the workforce?
One solution for women in the workplace is learning to disassociate themselves from emotion. Some scientists argue that this is an adaptation women can learn, and thus contribute to a rational and logical workplace for all. Indeed, learning to remove personal feelings for others in the workplace can help women prevent burnout and feelings of being overwhelmed. Learning to categorize thoughts and responses can lead to an overall less dramatic work environment. However, women who fall short of this expectation often are categorized as “crazy” when they display emotion, and women who don’t display emotion are categorized as “lacking empathy.” One can also argue that, since men and women spend more than half of their lives at work, this lack of emotion can and will bleed into our homes and society. “Such distancing….allows one to ignore the pain of others or to freely inflict such pain with little distress to oneself. Such distancing may be adaptive for combat, torture, or cruelty, but can prove problematic for developing prosocial competencies.” (2) Is a workplace and thus a society without empathy really what is best for humankind?
Another solution lies in compassion training for both genders. If women process emotion deeply-even physically, and men dissociate themselves from feelings of emotion, then “such training allows both sexes to learn to disengage in a manner that fosters benevolent action rather than succumbing to overwhelm or resorting to uncaring dissociation.” (2) Thus, with both genders learning to show compassion to others in a benevolent way, a more harmonious and empathetic workforce may likely result.
In conclusion, men and women process information differently, leading to conflicts in the workforce over proper standards of behavior. While most men dissociate themselves from emotion, most women process emotions in a deep, often physical level. Such differences can, arguably, be reconciled through compassion training for both genders. Such training teaches men and women to disengage in a manner that is benevolent rather than one lacking empathy. The result may well be a more realistic standard of behavior for both genders and a more authentic workplace for all.