Election fever in Karnataka has begun. We are four months away from the elections and most Kannada TV channels are full of political debates with the major national and regional parties in attendance.

A couple of days ago my husband and I were watching a debate that featured two women panelists that represented the two major national parties. The debate was heated, and at one point one of the women panelists said something sharp and the other woman left the stage in tears. She returned in a while, and here were some of the comments that were heard.

  • The moderator tells the other woman panelist that “being a woman she should have been more sensitive”
  • The panelist who left comes back saying “Is this how a woman should be treated?” And she uses the Kannada usage of “Hennu Magu” for woman, meaning “girl child”.
  • The immediate reaction to the incident, in my head, is “Why is she so weak?”

There were several insights for me from this incident-

Tears are still a sign of weakness.

For some reason, anger is an acceptable reaction, but tears are not. What made her walk away from the camera and take a private moment? Would someone who had a fit of anger on camera do the same thing? Probably not. We don’t feel the need to hide our anger the way we need to hide our tears. Is it because of the lack of women in the public life for the longest time that acceptable behaviour has been bench-marked based on a male perspective?

And this is not only in public life. Being in HR I have come across many managers who are distinctly uncomfortable handling a woman who cries. To the extent that it restricts their ability to give necessary feedback, thereby impacting performance in the long term. The same managers don’t find it difficult to handle male team members who get angry and throw a fit.

We tend to put people in boxes

Society expects an elevated standard of behaviour from women. And men are constantly surprised when a woman does something apparently out of character. The moderator’s comment about what he expected from the panelist “being a woman” comes from this conditioning. Would the same comment have been made if it were two men involved? “Being a man, how can you treat another man in this way?

Today, with gender roles becoming more fluid and complex, we need to appreciate that all women will not display “communal-feminine traits” as laid out in social science theory. Just as all men will not display “agentic-masculine traits”. When a woman is in the role of a panelist and needs to make her point effectively, she would need to bring forth her agentic-masculine qualities of pushing back, and a degree of aggressiveness even. A male manager having a development discussion should be able to tap into his nurturing self, coming from a communal-feminine frame.

Women do use gender as a crutch

The implication by one panelist that she should be treated differently because she is a woman is an insult to professional women everywhere. I go back to the old saying “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen”. This applies not only to women, but men as well. Be a 100% prepared for whatever role you are carrying out.

As women, we do use gender as a crutch when it suits us. I remember being in a road accident once. The other party was a truck driver, and I instinctively used the gender card, tears and all,  to get the crowd on my side. But this is not appropriate in a professional environment where we expect to be treated as individuals based on our capability, not gender.

The panelist was trying to play the gender card to elicit sympathy from the audience, and thankfully, was called up on it by everyone present.

Just come prepared for your job, do your best and you will be fine.

 In closing

I consider myself well read and with a degree of expertise on issues relating to gender. I realise I need to work on the assumptions I make as well. My immediate reaction that tears are a sign of weakness were a result of my own conditioning. This awareness not only makes me more sensitive about not labeling people, but also makes me more forgiving of others’ judgements and lapses.

What else can one do to remain sensitive about not judging people?

Will be glad to hear from you.

Categories: Women Entrepreneurs


Jyothi · January 28, 2018 at 11:18 pm

Very well articulated Aparna. Workplaces are uncomfortable with all emotions that may be perceived as “extreme”!! Could be anger, sadness and even laughter! ( I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to leave a meeting to laugh on my own- of course because I continued long after others stopped ). But there’s no denying that tears probably are very high up on the list of “hard-to-handle-emotions”
If leaders are able to pause and assess the “why” behind tears, important workplace improvements could take shape!

Shabari Madappa · January 29, 2018 at 9:39 am

Well written Aparna, thank you for sharing. I too have worked hard in my professional roles, to suppress feeling overwhelmed by emotion, worried that it would be seen as a sign of weakness. And been my own sharpest critic when I felt tears welling in my eyes while at work. But hold on..also when in anger, I made a sharp, caustic remark. Strange, how these incidents are crystal clear in memory, more than the many incredible moments when expressing my emotions was powerful and moving for me and the other. I’d like to remember them all! And then, I marvel at Roger Federer who once again inspires and moves me with his vulnerability and tears of exhaustion and joy. So I submit, there is a range to every emotion..when we are hurt, stung & cry to when we are able to deeply connect & inspire through our tears. So I don’t know about being 100% prepared for our roles. I’d like to be a bit unprepared; ready to feel overwhelmed and learn from those intensely human experiences too!

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