The Audacity of Emotion

After the sudden death of her husband, Dave Goldberg, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg did exactly what the social networking site encourages its 1.65 billion users to do: she shared her life experience online. In a lengthy Facebook post, she marks the end of sheloshim, a thirty-day Jewish tradition for the mourning of a spouse, writing, “When people say to me, 'You and your children will find happiness again,' my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. 'You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good' comforts me more because they know and speak the truth.”

Over the last year, Sandberg has publicly grappled with her feelings in several Facebook posts, with her colleagues, and even during her commencement speech at Berkeley. In April, Sandberg hosted an event for Facebook’s advertisers and their agencies. As she stood to welcome the attendees, Sandberg disclosed her struggle to find meaning during the dark days in front of a silent room of business executives. She expressed deep sorrow about her husband’s absence during a school event for her children earlier that day. Instead of putting on a good face to get through the dinner, she opened up, and spoke honestly about her pain.

This tragic experience prompted more than deep feeling; it also caused her to rethink aspects of her 2013 book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. A modern women-in-the-workplace manifesto, Sandberg’s book nonetheless received a fair share of criticism for failing to address the forces of class, race, and single parenting that prevent some women from “leaning in.”

Detailed in another heartfelt Facebook post on Mother’s Day, Sandberg acknowledges how the death of her husband opened her eyes to a whole new perspective. She admitted that her book didn’t properly address the challenge of single parents. “Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right.” She continued by calling for improved policies on paid maternal leave and better support for single mothers.

Sandberg’s vulnerability, honesty, and willingness to share her loss with the public (and shareholders) challenges convention on what we expect from a Fortune 500 leader. While many responded favorably to her handling of the situation (the outpouring prompting Sandberg to begin penning a new book on resilience), this rare moment of emotional honesty also brought out the trolls. I was unsurprised by the detractors. After all, in the business world, success requires checking our feelings—if not our private lives entirely—at the door. We soon learn that mixing personal matters with work is unprofessional, or worse, a sign of weakness. Hold it together, hide your struggle, and absolutely do. not. cry. This mindset affects women the most, for whom showing emotion in the workplace is tantamount to career suicide.

Initially, Sandberg had her own reservations and even some of her Facebook colleagues were concerned by the possible outcomes of such a personal outpour. Would she be viewed as soft, distracted, unfit for the job? If she boldly soldiered on, there was professional risk there too. Is she that cold, heartless, an “ice queen”? Consider other recent examples. When Hillary Clinton choked up during a Benghazi hearing, she was accused of being weak and playing her “woman card” to turn down the heat. On a separate occasion, she was dubbed "Heartless Hillary" for expressing a plan to crack down on gun laws. It can seem like there is no way to win. But when one of the most powerful women in the corporate world reveals her humanity during a time of deep struggle, it makes an important social statement that challenges the future of business leadership.

Here’s the truth: women or men, we are human. A work environment that doesn’t take into account our humanity will be reflected in the health and morale of the company and affect its bottom line. If our business leaders are able to model their humanity gracefully, they create room for trust and connect with employees and customers alike.

Where Are the Mean Women?

The focus on much of my blog—and of my forthcoming book—is corrupt CEOs and badly behaving leaders across a spectrum of industries. All of those featured happen to be men. The paucity of female counterparts—mean women—has sparked a series of spirited debates on my LinkedIn posts with some readers taking this as a biased, unfair critique of men, while others argue that behavior like this from a woman would never fly. In this election season of intensely charged political mudslinging, and the final battle shaping up to pit a man and a woman against each other, the question seems more pertinent than ever: Whither the mean woman? As I’ve discussed at length, mean men are often perceived as powerful, persuasive, competent, and in control. Their very meanness may in fact help them convince others that they deserve to be top dog. But does it work as well for women?

In 2006, Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, asserted that then Senator Hillary Clinton was too angry to be elected president. In a time when shouting down one’s opponents has become normative political behavior, why was Clinton singled out for being mean? Politicians have always used tactics like this to defame their opponents, but when the comments were picked up by the media, this case began to raise questions about a double standard. The problem wasn’t so much about anger or meanness per se, but that Clinton was being accused of behavior that wasn’t considered befitting a woman. Columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Times categorized the issue in this way:

They are casting Hillary Clinton as an Angry Woman, a she-monster melding images of Medea, the Furies, harpies. . . . The gambit handcuffs Hillary: If she doesn’t speak out strongly against President Bush, she’s timid and girlie. If she does, she’s a witch and a shrew.

Clinton’s experience perfectly expresses the bind many female leaders find themselves in. Women are expected to be kinder and more modest than men and suffer if they fail to conform to this prescriptive stereotype. Groundbreaking studies by Victoria Brescoll and Eric Uhlmann, professors at Yale and Northwestern, respectively, confirm what many of us suspect: that while men may be perceived as better leaders because of mean behavior, the opposite is true for women.

Women are conditioned away from being mean, but men essentially get a free pass on displaying anger due to our own cultural biases. We see male anger as a natural response to objective, external circumstances. When women show anger in the workplace, it seems out of context, and thus we naturally presume it’s a product of her personality. Her anger is viewed as internally caused (“she’s an angry person”; “she’s out of control”) rather than externally instigated (“the situation was frustrating or unacceptable”).

The Brescoll/Uhlmann study examined the very real consequences of these biases. The expression of anger by men actually increased their potential to be seen as having higher status by others. Angry men were more likely to be seen as leaders. However, professional women who expressed anger were consistently assigned to a lower rung on the ladder and also earned lower wages. Angry women were seen as less competent than angry men and unemotional women.

Another study, by Larissa Tiedens of Stanford, found that men who expressed anger in professional settings were more likely to be hired than men who expressed sadness and were also given more status, power, and independence in their jobs. Unlike with men, a woman’s occupational rank (whether CEO or trainee) in no way influenced the judgements made about their behavior. Angry women were consistently seen as out of control.

These studies jibe with my personal experience researching and writing about the subject of mean behavior in the workplace. Examples of mean men abound, but try as I might, I had incredible difficulty finding examples of powerful women who exhibit the same set of traits. What I found was that women leaders were held to a distinct double standard. Men can get away with mean, but if women are to maintain their status in any social system (politics, organizational life, entrepreneurship, to name only three), then they may have to suppress some of their emotions in order to be seen as rational, lest they be perceived as less socially skilled, and therefore less hirable for jobs that require social-interaction skills than are men who behave identically.

And it’s not only about meanness: women who demonstrate assertiveness, competitiveness, independence, and courageousness experience backlash and have to continue to walk the fine line between appearing incompetent and nice versus competent and cold. If a woman shows anger, she is the ice queen, the ballbuster, the dragon lady, the bitch.

Experimental studies consistently find that, unlike men, when women try to negotiate greater compensation, they are disliked. When they succeed in a male occupation, they are disliked. When they fail to perform the altruistic acts that are optional for men, they are disliked. When they criticize, they are disliked. See a pattern here? The same behaviors that enhance a man’s status are the ones that make a woman less popular. In leadership roles, women may find themselves in a never-ending double bind of figuring out how to direct, command, and control their followers without appearing to do so.

So are women just better human beings, more prone to generosity and agreeableness than they are to getting ahead, making the deal, crushing the competition? The research suggests to me that while inherent goodness isn’t gendered, how we react to and reward the expression of mean traits reflects a deep gender bias in society. Would we have more mean women if we gave the same allowances for powerful women to express their anger? Maybe or maybe not. What we do know is that women are strongly conditioned away from mean, while men realize early on that mean can work to their advantage. As a society, we need to take a hard look at the behavior we reward and that which we punish, and the monsters we’re creating as we do so.

Is Hillary Mean?

As a follow-up to my last post regarding Donald Trump as the quintessential Mean Man, I did some thinking about Hillary Clinton and her rise to leadership. In today’s political climate, Mean Men abound, but what about Mean Women? In all my years working with high-powered entrepreneurs, I have never encountered women behaving in some of the psychotic ways I’ve seen men behave. Now, thanks to the antics of the Republican front-runners, what should have been a historic campaign of ideas between would-be leaders has morphed into a blazing rocket of tabloid fodder and idiocy. I’d argue that Trump and Cruz embody the Mean Man, and it got me to wondering again—Are there Mean Women? Is Hillary allowed to be mean? Would we put up with such behavior from the candidate who aspires to become the first female president of the United States, or is she held to a different standard? Every time I’ve posted on the gender expectations around mean in the past, my comments section is flooded with stories from women about the egregious double standard that exists in terms of what is deemed acceptable behavior for men and women. Research validates these anecdotes, offering that women are punished rather than celebrated for being mean. Is there a biological difference, or does outsized ambition just not square with our idea of femininity? Given the context of the 2016 presidential election, let’s examine the perception of women in roles of power, as well as the roles of women adjacent to power, the wives and girlfriends. As the latest scandals from the Republicans demonstrate—be it the Twitter wars between Trump and Cruz, or the National Enquirer story regarding infidelity—we’ll obviously tolerate outrageous behavior from male candidates. The misogyny on display from this side of the aisle, from Trump’s comments to and about female journalists, to the Cruz camp’s attempts to shame Melania Trump, is stomach churning.

But how does this apparently low bar for “presidential behavior” apply to the female candidate who is the most likely nominee for the Democratic Party? What might we hypothesize are the larger cultural perceptions of a woman who seeks power?

Slate tackled this recently in a fascinating piece concerning Hillary’s “likability.” The writer noted that she had “come to believe that saying nice things about Hillary Clinton can be a subversive act.” And noted the disproportionate number of personal attacks on her personality when compared with her male peers. Likability is always an issue for candidates, but we’re well versed in men being able to display power and forcefulness while still finding them likable (think Obama, Reagan, the other Clinton). But women? It’s trickier.

Many female leaders likely find much to relate to in the double bind Hillary finds herself in when it comes to the public’s perception:

Hillary Clinton absolutely cannot express negative emotion in public. If she speaks loudly or gets angry or cries, she risks being seen as bitchy, crazy, dangerous. (When she raised her voice during the 2013 Benghazi Senate committee hearings, the cover of the New York Post blared “NO WONDER BILL’S AFRAID.”) But if Hillary avoids emotions—if she speaks strictly in calm, logical, detached terms—then she is cold, robotic, calculating.

Simply put, male politicians can get angry and they’re being passionate. Female politicians? They’re being bitches and harpies.

Why is this? And what are we asking of our leaders and ourselves? Is it contradictory to say that there really are no Mean Women? Or do our perceptions of female archetypes run so deep as to define Hillary primarily on personality attributes rather than her vision and goals for our country? Is Hillary really mean? Based on what’s trending in and driving our national discourse, it seems that leadership and femininity remain sadly incongruent. This despite study after study showing that qualities such as empathy (a trait more frequently associated with female leaders, and women in general) is one of the most crucial traits for a leader to possess.

As we examine gender roles in leadership, we must recognize the bias that guides our decisions. And now we must ask ourselves, as this campaign continues to spiral into the absurd, are we so myopic as to overlook behavior one wouldn’t tolerate from a nine-year-old in our leaders?