Big Girls Do Cry Sometimes. So What?

by Latifa Lyles on August 5, 2013 · 1 comment

Every time women break the glass ceiling, it seems like they still end up with a few shards stuck in their hair.

Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times, was recently the subject of a 3,300-plus word profile in Newsweek/The Daily Beast, but two of those words are getting the most attention: “I cried.”

Girl cryingAbramson admitted to a moment of quiet sadness back in April after a Politico article quoted colleagues and subordinates (anonymously of course) criticizing her for occasional snappishness and an imperious management style.

Not even the most powerful woman in print journalism, it seems, enjoys any protection from gender typecasting, from simplistic attitudes about how women should project authority and otherwise conduct themselves in the workplace.

There was plenty of substance to contemplate in the Newsweek/Daily Beast profile – the difficulties of leading the world’s most influential newspaper into the digital age; the Times’ four 2013 Pulitzer Prizes and its standout coverage of the Boston terrorist bombing; the decision to publish a story criticizing the Chinese head of state, thus jeopardizing the Times’ inroads into a key commercial market. But instead of Jill Abramson’s accomplishments or Jill Abramson’s challenges, the chatter focused on Jill Abramson’s tears.

When men exhibit leadership, what people mostly want to know are the results: Is he effective?  Can he motivate people?  Is the organization successful? But Abramson can’t win: she’s accused of being too tough on the job, a criticism that leads her to cry, which leads to the criticism that she’s too soft.

Why do we care?  While women constitute 51.5 percent of those in management, professional, and related occupations, they only constitute 14.3 percent of executive officers, 16.6 percent of corporate board members, 8.1 percent of top earners, and 4.2 percent of CEOs. We can’t ignore the role of cultural schemas and gender norms in the disparity between men’s and women’s advances into the upper management ranks.

As discriminatory practices and negative gender stereotyping continue to take their toll on women, the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau – the only government agency whose mission is to advocate for the economic advancement of women – is more important than ever before. Of course, just about every working woman in America has less power and fewer resources than does Jill Abramson. Many work on shop floors, in restaurants or in call centers. These women can’t afford to be judged on anything other than whether or not they get results. For these women, many who support their families as the sole breadwinner, our continuous demand for dignity and respect in their work lives is essential.

More men in positions of power have been caught choking back or wiping away a tear or two. But for the most part, they get a pass for their public displays of humanity. Maybe this is a good sign? Or maybe, it’s time to move workplace sentimentality off of the judgment checklist, along with hours spent with family and other false measures of effectiveness, at least for women.

The Women’s Bureau was established in 1920 to “…promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency and advance their opportunities for profitable employment.” To fulfill that mission, we must fight every day against clumsy stereotypes and damaging double standards that hold women back.

Latifa Lyles is acting director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Julia Dozier August 9, 2013 at 2:08 pm

I find it interesting that although the article specifically stated that Ms. Abramson was alone, at night, in her home when she cried – not in the middle of a Monday morning staff meeting – she still was criticized. As your significantly low percentages state, the US has a long ways to go before women are a large enough part of the corporate leadership ranks to shift the cultural expectations of behavior. Until then, we are still all expected to “cowboy up” regardless of the situation. It’s a shame: sometimes an emotional response is appropriate, even at the office. And at home? We all should be able to wail as much as we need, and then get back on that horse the next day. It makes us human, and therefore better at what we do.

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