12.18.10

Why Do Women Cry More Than Men?

Over the past few weeks, we've seen prominent Republican men display emotion in a way rarely seen in public. Anne Kreamer on the biology of tearing up.

As a person who chokes up at a news story most days and full-on cried during Toy Story 3, I feel for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, fellow members of the crying tribe.

Both Speaker-Elect Boehner and Senate Minority Leader McConnell recently had a good cry as the cameras rolled, creating an enormous buzz and provoking widespread derision among my fellow liberals, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Crying at work is something both men and women do, though not equally. Women cry, on average, four times as often as men—according to University of Minnesota neurologist William Frey, an average of 5.3 times per month, compared with 1.4 times for men. This isn't just a function of cultural training—women actually produce far more prolactin, the hormone responsible for milk production that also controls the neurotransmitter receptors in our tear glands. Women’s tear ducts are also anatomically different from male tear ducts, resulting in a larger volume of tears. A propensity to cry is, in part, biologically driven.

In a national survey I conducted last year with J. Walter Thompson for my forthcoming book probing the nature of emotion in the workplace, I discovered that both women and men divide themselves, in roughly the same fractions, into two large camps: those 25 percent who cry regularly, and those 75 percent who tend not to cry frequently. McConnell, Boehner, and I are part of the 25 percent. We also discovered in our survey that when we do tear up on the job, women can be our own worst enemies. A plurality of women consider people who cry at work "unstable," whereas roughly that same fraction of men see tears on the job as only "slightly unprofessional." In other words, women see tears at work as some kind of moral or psychological failure, but surprisingly, men don’t.

The reason for this is deeply entrenched in our feminist history. Men completely controlled the workplace when women first went into the labor force in significant numbers during the late '60s and '70s. We females believed that to be successful we had to “man up” and emulate masculine emotional restraint. For forty years, women have had to adhere to a poker-faced workplace persona that denies essential aspects or our emotional wiring. “You know what?" Pelosi said of Boehner in The New York Times Magazine, "He is known to cry. He cries sometimes when we’re having a debate on bills. If I cry, it’s about the personal loss of a friend or something like that. But when it comes to politics—no—I don’t cry."

Crying politicians are nothing new. Remember Democratic presidential candidate Ed Muskie, who lost the 1972 nomination after he teared up during a press conference in New Hampshire while defending his wife? And Hillary Clinton, who also famously choked up in 2008, also while campaigning for president in the New Hampshire primary? Both took hits for crying in public, which is perhaps why politicians like Pelosi are adamant that they don't do the same.

But a hard outer shell of pseudo-invulnerability comes at a cost to both genders. “We will stop here briefly to contemplate what would happen if she [Nancy Pelosi], or any female lawmaker, broke into loud nose-running sobs while discussing Iraq troop funding or giving a TV interview,” Gail Collins wrote in her December 16 New York Times Op-Ed column about Boehner.

A propensity to cry is, in part, biologically predetermined.

But instead of denouncing the operative gender double standard and suggesting that the no-crying rule be enforced equally for male and female Speakers of the House, I think it would be much better to abolish the no-cry rule for both genders. Women (and men) who are belittling Boehner and McConnell for getting emotional are not helping—all people should feel comfortable being as authentically themselves as possible. We can continue to despise their politics and cynical maneuvers, but still grant them their humanity.

Anne Kreamer is the author of It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace, as well as Going Gray: What I Learned About Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else That Really Matters. Kreamer was a former executive vice president and worldwide creative director of Nickelodeon and part of the founding team of SPY magazine. She’s been a columnist for Fast Company and Martha Stewart Living. Visit her at AnneKreamer.com.