Chapter 5: Gender and the Experience of Emotion – Diane Gromelski

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.

Works Cited

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.

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4 thoughts on “Chapter 5: Gender and the Experience of Emotion – Diane Gromelski

  1. sariegel says:

    My immediate reaction to the comment you mentioned Gen making about Carmen’s emotional state was one of frustration, as I too took offense to what I considered the sexist nature of the comment. However, in my research last week on perceived and actual realities of women in organized crime, I began to wonder whether the feminine qualities I was reading about were inherent biological influences for women. Therefore, I applaud the scope and depth of your research into this question.

    One thing that caught my attention in the explanation of your research was the early beginnings of this emotional bias, whether true or not. For me, it begs the question: Are some emotions more common in females? If so, do these emotions make women less adept in certain situations, or have historical biases in gender equated “feminine” emotions for weaker emotions? We spoke some in class about bias of some studies done on emotions, and how they are perceived for each sex. One study I found last week on South African women project managers actually listed the women’s interpersonal skills, most likely driven from their emotions, encouraged better job performance of employees.

    In addition, you mention that it seems that girls are often encouraged from a young age to place more emphasis on the relationships and having people like them, while boys are encouraged to be ambitious. First of all, is this true? According to the World Bank, 50.4% of the United States’ population is female; yet, females are much more likely to attend and graduate college. Does this mean that we have misjudged that ambition is more prevalent in men? Or perhaps because academic stress is more common to men, they have a harder time staying in school? Are primary schools more tailored to female strengths, thereby discouraging male success?

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  2. bsejdiu942 says:

    Hey Diane,

    I was interested in the biological aspect you described behind these gendered stereotypes. I wonder if it has some sort of relationship with how our species evolved over time to have females in a group behave in a certain way versus males. Although I have read it is a bit difficult to ascertain whether or not our female ancestors lived lives predominately taking care of the family while the men went out and hunted. That it could have been a mixture of both, and that this bias of men being the “bread-winner” stems from how our society has is structured, and our extension of our cultural ideals onto our prehistoric ancestors.

    When you were discussing about how individuals with higher testosterone levels, whether male or female, were less sensitive to emotion, I thought of a research avenue you could research further. I wonder if there is any study on individuals who are transgendered, undergoing hormonal therapy, that are being researched for changes in their behavior and emotions? Possibly providing further insight into how injected hormones alter the brain chemistry.

    Another idea that came up was researching precedents of female or matriarchal societies and then compare them with current societal systems. There is currently no modern matriarchal society although some smaller societies and larger ones that have been recorded in history. Some current groups include: Mosuo, Minangkabau, Akan, Bribri, Garo, and Nagovisi communities. The Minoan are a female dominated society who worshipped a female deity. They existed in the Mediterranean between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE, on the island of Crete. They were mostly a trading society, and became very wealthy as a people. They also were not attacked throughout their entire history nor committed any military actions against others, which is striking in an area where there were conflicts between fairly militaristic patriarchal societies like the Mycenaean. Their architecture represents this as they laid out their palaces and cities in a non-defensive way, no walls, open vulnerable windows, a fairly easy society to take down. However, their society eventually collapsed due to natural disasters and not aggressors nearby.

    When looking nature however, we don’t see the same thing happening in female dominated primates like Bonobos. Bonobos have an extremely complex social structure compared to other primates. Research from anthropologists show them to be just as aggressive as the male counterpart groups. Perhaps they have a different hormonal system separate from humans, and may not be the best species to compare ourselves to?

    – Bekim

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  3. Colin Murphy says:

    Hi Diane,

    Thanks for your post (and your reply to what I had previously written this week)!

    You’ve done a particularly excellent job of letting Slow Research guide you through exploring your interests; this really is a conversation between you and your research. I too thought Gen’s comment toward Carmen was sexist and completely stereotypical. And as I read through your research questions I figured any perceived differences between males/females were based entirely on societal factors – nothing biological. As you were, I too was surprised to read of the findings of the Montreal Department of Psychology. It’s an interesting topic, and one that certainly is brought up occasionally throughout the novel!

    What you’ve done really well here is reflect on a thought from the reading, pose some initial questions, and begin researching. From there your research builds on itself and leaves you with new thoughts, whereby you continue searching for possible explanations. More specifically, you begin simply by questioning any differences between male/female hormonal anatomy and wind up researching the relevancy of this topic in the workplace. Well done – I believe this is precisely the the right idea behind Slow Research! From your conclusion you might choose to tailor your thoughts of next week’s chapter to the information you’ve found. In other words, you might like to identify any other stereotypes Patchett might leave scattered throughout the novel’s dialog.

    I look forward to hearing where Slow Research will take you in the coming chapters when we discuss during our next class together.

    – Colin

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  4. annawallace003 says:

    You chose a great topic that was very relevant tochapter five. I also had the same reaction to Gen’s comment about girls and their emotions so I was interested in reading about the your findings. It is very obvious that the way male and females react to certain situations can a lot of times vary greatly but what’s not so obvious is the reason why. It’s something that I have never taken the time to think about and I have always just accepted the differences. This topic has a lot of potential findings and you did a great job of looking at a variety of studies.

    I enjoyed reading about what you researched because I felt like I learned something that I can use in the future and be more of aware of the stereotypes that I may have to encounter in my future career.Gender roles have become such a large topic of discussion these days especially in the workplace. As a business major I am very much aware of how woman can be discriminated against and I feel like emotions are a big reason for this. Because women are viewed as more emotional and nurturing they are often times taken less seriously. I mentioned this in class but there are a lot of events going on in the city of Charlotte as well as on campus regarding woman in the workplace. As unfortunate as it is, discrimination between genders has been present for quite some time however your research appears to portray a positive future for women in the workplace.

    -Anna

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