After Messner and Gen see Carmen crying in Chapter Five, Gen comments, “It would be hard on a girl, all of this,” to which Messner silently agrees. When I read this my first instinct was that it was a sexist comment, implying that Carmen is weaker and more emotionally vulnerable than the men in the room simply because she is a woman, but then I stopped and thought about it. Perhaps Gen and Messner are not attempting to reinforce gender stereotypes, but are merely making an observation of a real phenomenon. Is the way we experience emotion somehow rooted in our gender? If so, is it a biological or a learned, socially enforced difference? Or could it possibly be that the genders experience emotion similarly, and the perceived difference lies in the expression of emotion? These are the questions I sought to answer in my research on the connections between gender and the experience of emotion.
I initially read a number of articles that explore why females are perceived to be more susceptible to negative emotions and whether this perception is accurate. According to Dr. Stacy de Coster at N.C. State University, there is a commonly held misconception in the field of psychology and among the general public that females experience stress more frequently and at higher levels than males. This idea, however, is rooted in misleading research conducted in the 1980s and ’90s that focused on depression as the main indicator of stress. Because women suffer from stress-related depression at a higher rate than males, researchers concluded that women experience stress more often and they are more “vulnerable” to stress (de Coster 156). Additionally, there seems to be something either inherent in people or a pervasive, socially constructed idea that gives rise to gender stereotypes in regard to emotion, as even preschoolers associate specific emotions with each gender in much the same way that adults do (Kelley 108). Janice Kelly, a professor at Purdue University, recognized that sadness and happiness are emotions commonly associated with women while anger and pride are related to men, but she questioned whether this is true in all circumstances. She conducted a research study in which college-age participants were asked to rate someone’s over or underreaction to either academic or interpersonal scenarios, and she found that women were expected to become emotional in personal interactions and men in academic situations, confirming the stereotypes of gendered emotions (Kelly 114-117).
While there is clearly a perception that the genders experience emotion differently, are the stereotypes founded in fact? An article I read by Alice Eagley supports Kelley’s context-driven nature of gendered emotion, suggesting that the stereotypes are accurate. Eagley’s research suggests that women are not necessarily more vulnerable to stress than men, but rather males and females are susceptible to different stressors. Because women are taught from a young age to place emphasis on their relationships with other people, females are more vulnerable to what Eagly calls communal stresses, anxieties regarding one’s preservation of social connections. Males, on the other hand, respond to stress that relates to themselves in isolation such as academic stress and personal failures (Eagly et al. 158). This research suggests that the differences in how the genders experience emotion are based in socially constructed norms and gender roles, but I was also curious to know if there is some type of biological component. According to a study conducted at the Montreal Department of Psychology, dissimilarities in the experience of emotion between men and women are caused by not only cultural and psychological factors, but also physiological, hormonal differences. Researchers measured the hormone levels and scanned the brains of participants as they were shown sad images and found that participants who had higher levels of testosterone (regardless of gender) were less sensitive to negative emotions. Furthermore, the connection between the amygdale and the prefrontal cortex was more pronounced in men than women, and the greater the interaction between the two areas, the weaker the emotional response. The amydale serves as a threat detector whereas the prefrontal cortex controls reasoning associated with social interactions; a stronger connection between these areas suggests a “more analytical” response to emotion (Lungu). De Coster’s research indicates that not only do men and women have different stressors and experience emotion in different ways, but they also respond to extreme levels of stress in different manners. In her study, women who were stressed were far more likely than males to develop depression, whereas men showed much higher levels of criminal delinquency in response to stress (de Coster 172). Research on the sociological, psychological, and biological nature of the relationship between gender and emotions confirms that there are significant differences in the way men and women experience and express their feelings.
One common argument that is made against accepting women into traditionally male-dominated professional spheres is that females are more likely to allow their emotions to affect their work. Because my research has shown that there are significant differences in the way men and women experience and express emotion, I decided to look at studies that compared the genders in the workplace. How do gendered emotional dissimilarities affect performance in the professional world? Researchers at Pittsburgh State University decided to find out by comparing the experiences of men and women in traditionally male and female-dominated workplaces. They found that men in both types of workplaces experienced less work-related stress and felt they had more control over their performance than did women, attributing the difference to the acceptance of traits correlated with gender roles in a work environment. While men tend to exhibit traits like aggression and rationality that are welcome in corporate settings, women tend to be more passive and nurturing, attributes that are often criticized (Horchwater et al. 70). Another study indicates that the differences in stress level can be attributed to their placement within the work environment. Women tend to work in positions with “built-in strain” and “high demand and little discretion,” and often for lower pay than men who have less stressful positions. Additionally, women in male-dominated atmospheres may experience communal stress due to the absence of female colleagues and mentors with whom they can identify, as well as the perception that female workers are not capable of performing at the same level as men (Jick and Mitz 413). At least in the workplace, it appears that differences in emotion can be attributed to the cultural approval of male characteristics as professional and the added stress placed on females in a male-dominated atmosphere.
Coster, Stacy De. “Depression and Law Violation: Gendered Responses to Gendered Stresses.” Sociological Perspectives 48.2 (2005): 155–187. JSTOR. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.
Eagly, Alice H., Wendy Wood, and Amanda B. Diekman. 2000. “Social Role Theory of Sex Differences and Similarities: A Current Appraisal.” In The Developmental Social Psychology of Gender, edited by T. Eckes and H. M. Trautner. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Hochwarter, Wayne A., Pamela L. Perrewe, and Mark C. Dawkins. “Gender Differences In Perceptions Of Stress-Related Variables: Do The People Make The Place Or Does The Place Make The People?” Journal of Managerial Issues 7.1 (1995): 62–74. Print.
Jick, Todd D., and Linda F. Mitz. “Sex Differences in Work Stress.” The Academy of Management Review 10.3 (1985): 408–420. JSTOR. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.
Kelly, Janice R., and Sarah L. Hutson-Comeaux. “Gender-Emotion Stereotypes Are Context Specific.” Sex Roles 40.1-2 (1999): 107–120. link.springer.com.librarylink.uncc.edu. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.
Lungu, Ovidiu et al. “Sex Differences in Effective Fronto-Limbic Connectivity during Negative Emotion Processing.” Psychoneuroendocrinology. n. pag. http://www.psyneuen-journal.com. Web. 30 Sept. 2015.