The Psychology of Women and Gender: Half the Human Experience + - Nicole M. Else-Quest, Janet Shibley Hyde 2018
Gender and Emotion
“When I get upset, I can’t express myself at all, but if my wife’s upset, you’d think you were hearing poetry. She can express exactly what she’s feeling inside.”
James, age 47 (quoted in Brody, 1999, p. 1)
James’s description of the difference between him and his wife resonates with many of us. It reflects not only ubiquitous gender stereotypes about emotional expression and emotional competence, but also why those stereotypes matter. The ability to accurately express one’s emotions is important for intrapersonal and interpersonal reasons, and social relationships can be strained when this ability is lacking. In this chapter we explore gender stereotypes about emotions and evaluate their accuracy. We also examine how real gender differences in emotional experience, expression, and competence might develop.
Gender Stereotypes About Emotions
Women have long been stereotyped as more emotional than men (Brody et al., 2016; Broverman et al., 1972; Shields, 2005). That is, stereotypes hold that, compared with men, women experience and express more emotions and do so more intensely. This stereotype is among the most pervasive of gender stereotypes: It is found in the United States and across most other cultures (Brody, 1999; Fischer & Manstead, 2000).
The stereotype that women are emotional can hurt women as they try to succeed in education and in the workplace. Since it was founded, Virginia Military Institute (VMI), a state university supported by taxpayers’ money, had been for men only. VMI is very prestigious within Virginia, setting up networks for its graduates that lead them into the halls of power. Women were denied access to all this. When the men-only policy was challenged in the 1990s, the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The interesting aspect for us is the argument made by VMI in the courts defending its policy (Shields, 2000). One expert gave testimony that VMI “was not suitable for most women, because, compared with men, women are more emotional, less aggressive, suffer more from fear of failure, and cannot withstand stress as well” (Greenberger & Blake, 1996, p. A52). If that expert were right, women would have difficulty succeeding at any competitive university or demanding job. Fortunately, the expert was wrong and was only parroting gender stereotypes, and the Supreme Court ruled that women must be allowed admission. Still, it is clear that stereotypes about emotions can have a huge impact on our lives.
Gender stereotypes hold that not only are women more emotional than men, but there are specific emotions that are appropriate based on one’s gender. In one study, psychologists gave a list of 19 specific emotions to participants (including undergraduates as well as adults from the community) and asked them to rate how much men and women are expected to experience each emotion in our culture (Plant et al., 2000). The findings of this study are shown in Table 6.1.
You will notice several important patterns in the table. First, the vast majority of the emotions—13 out of 19—are stereotyped as appropriate for women. This echoes the stereotype of women being generally more emotional than men. Second, those 13 female-stereotyped emotions encompass positive emotions (love, happiness, sympathy) as well as negative emotions (embarrassment, fear, guilt). Third, all three male-stereotyped emotions—anger, contempt, and pride—are associated with dominance and power. Those three emotions are consistent with men’s dominant position in society (Brody, 1999; Hess et al., 2004). By contrast, most of the female-stereotyped emotions (such as sadness, distress, and shame) convey vulnerability and powerlessness. Fourth, there are only six emotions that men can experience without violating a gender stereotype: In addition to the three male-stereotyped emotions, men are expected to experience amusement, interest, and jealousy about as much as women. That’s not much of an emotional range for men, is it? In Chapter 16 we will explore the consequences of restricting the expression of vulnerable emotions in men and boys.
The stereotypes listed in Table 6.1 reflect what participants said when asked about stereotypes in “American” culture, and most of the participants were White. Might those same stereotypes ring true across other ethnic groups in the United States? Different cultures hold quite different views on the experience and expression of emotion. Asian cultures, for example, value great restraint in the expression of emotion. Might we see different stereotypes at the intersection of ethnicity and gender?
Source: Data from Plant et al. (2000). Table created by Nicole Else-Quest.
To answer this question, Amanda Durik and I (JSH) asked African Americans about gender stereotypes of emotion among African Americans, Hispanic Americans about gender stereotypes of emotion among Hispanic Americans, European Americans about gender stereotypes of emotion among European Americans, and Asian Americans about gender stereotypes of emotion among Asian Americans (Durik et al., 2006). The results demonstrate that gender stereotypes vary across ethnic groups, which suggests that the social construction of gender hinges, in part, on ethnicity. For example, we found that African Americans stereotype African American women as expressing almost as much anger as African American men, and anger stereotypes for African American women are about the same as for European American men. Of the four groups, European American women are the ones who are stereotyped as not expressing anger. The expectations for women, then, depend on those women’s ethnicity. This is a key point of intersectionality.
In Figure 6.1, we show Durik et al.’s (2006) findings on stereotypes of pride and love within each of the four ethnic groups. Notice that European Americans are highly gender stereotyped about pride, whereas African Americans are not; the findings show that African American women express about as much pride as African American men do. European Americans and African Americans reported considerable gender stereotypes about love, whereas Asian Americans’ ratings were less gender differentiated, probably because of the cultural norm of nonexpression of emotions, which results in restraint in women’s expression of love. Interestingly, Asian Americans rate women from their group as expressing about as much love as Hispanic Americans (a far more emotionally expressive group) rate Hispanic men as expressing. The larger point is that there is substantial variation from one ethnic group to the next in their expectations about which emotions are expressed by women and which are expressed by men.
Figure 6.1 Gender stereotypes of emotions in four ethnic groups.
Source: Durik et al. (2006). Figure created by Nicole Else-Quest.
What are the practical implications of the findings on ethnicity and gender stereotypes? Consider the case of African American women and anger. In African American culture, it is acceptable for women to express anger about as much as men do. This norm is caricatured by the “angry Black woman” stereotype. Among White Americans, it is not acceptable for women to express anger; expressing anger violates the female gender role requirement to be warm and submissive. At work, an African American woman might express anger over some issue in a way that is completely appropriate in her culture, but her White male boss may react to her as being completely inappropriate because, to him, women are not supposed to express anger. He may see her as a problem employee, or he may find confirmation of his stereotype that African American women are angry. Gender stereotypes of emotion, then, can have a powerful impact on interpersonal interactions in highly important situations.
While intersectionality involves examining how gender is constructed differently across ethnic groups, it also involves identifying similarities. Indeed, many similarities were found across ethnic groups as well. All ethnic groups, for example, expect women to express more embarrassment and guilt relative to men (Durik et al., 2006).
Some Consequences of Gender Stereotypes About Emotion
In previous chapters we discussed how stereotypes factor into how we process information about people. In general, our stereotypes make us see all the confirmations of them and filter out exceptions to the stereotypes (see Chapter 3). When a really major stereotype violation that we cannot ignore occurs, we are likely to respond negatively to the stereotype violator. All these processes occur with gender stereotypes of emotion. Consider the emotions of anger and sadness: Anger is male-stereotyped and sadness is female-stereotyped. Because we don’t expect women to express anger, we may inaccurately perceive and explain their anger.
For example, in one study, researchers showed participants slides of two men’s and two women’s faces displaying specific emotions (Plant et al., 2000; see also Plant et al., 2004). In some of the slides, the poser displayed anger, in others they displayed sadness, and in some they displayed an ambiguous blend of anger and sadness (see Photo 6.1). The posers were experts, graduate students who were emotion researchers and had been trained to contract exactly the right facial muscles to display particular emotions. Participants were asked to rate how much sadness and anger were being expressed by the posers in each of the slides.
Photo 6.1 What emotion is this woman expressing? When women display an ambiguous blend of anger and sadness, as observed in this photo, people believe that women are sad, not angry, whereas a man with a similar ambiguous expression is seen as angry (Plant et al., 2000).
Photo courtesy of the authors.
The researchers hypothesized that gender stereotypes would influence participants’ ratings most when the emotional expressions were ambiguous. That is, in the anger-sadness blend, a man would be rated as angry (a male-stereotyped emotion) and a woman would be rated as sad (a female-stereotyped emotion). The results were consistent with this hypothesis: Participants rated men’s blends as significantly angrier than women’s and women’s blends as significantly sadder than men’s. Gender stereotypes affect the emotions we see people displaying, even when the facial expressions are identical.
What happened when the emotional expression was clear and unambiguous? Participants rated women’s unambiguous anger poses as significantly less angry than men’s unambiguous anger poses. The raters simply saw less anger in women’s anger than in men’s anger. And as if that weren’t enough, participants saw sadness in women’s anger poses but not in men’s. Anger just isn’t an acceptable emotion for women. People fail to see it in women’s faces, or they misinterpret it as sadness. How difficult for women not to have their anger be perceived, much less taken seriously. Gender stereotypes of emotions are harmful, in part, because they can lead us to inaccurately perceive another person’s feelings.
Gender stereotypes of emotions may also lead us to inaccurately explain or attribute another person’s feelings. In one study (Barrett & Bliss-Moreau, 2009), participants viewed pictures of faces expressing sadness, fear, anger, and disgust paired with descriptions of situations that explained the emotions. For example, the experimenters paired a picture of a man expressing sadness with the description “Attended the funeral of a grandparent,” or a picture of a woman expressing anger was paired with “Argued with a coworker.” Participants viewed 32 such face—description pairings four times; the experimenters were careful to make sure that an equal number of each emotional expression was displayed by both genders. Next, the participants viewed the faces again, but without the descriptions explaining them. This time, they were asked to describe the person in the picture as either “emotional” or “having a bad day.”
For expressions of sadness, fear, and anger, participants attributed women’s emotions to their being more emotional; that is, they made dispositional, internal attributions for women’s emotions. Yet when men expressed the same emotions, participants made situational, external attributions, attributing men’s emotions to their simply having a bad day. In other words, men’s emotions were judged as being justified by the situation, but women’s emotions were judged as being due to their more emotional nature. In sum, gender stereotypes can lead us to ignore information about the situational causes and overemphasize the dispositional causes of women’s emotions or exaggerate the situational causes and minimize the dispositional causes of men’s emotions.
Focus 6.1 Gender and the Politics of Emotion
As we consider the consequences of gender stereotypes of emotion, a feminist analysis would propose that emotions are political (Shields, 2005, 2013). Emotion stereotypes regulate people’s behavior and help to preserve the organization of social groups. For example, in the South before the Civil War, enslaved Black people were forbidden to express anger, and that worked very well for their White masters, maintaining the power of master over the enslaved. In the 19th century, women were stereotyped as emotional and therefore weak and incapable of rational thought; the essence of this stereotype persists today. When a culture tells men or women what emotions they may or may not express, the culture is preserving one group as more powerful and the other as less powerful.
Social psychologist Victoria Brescoll (2016) has proposed that gender stereotypes of emotion create emotional minefields for women in leadership roles. She points to the gender stereotype about emotionality, explaining that men are believed to have better control over the expression of their emotions compared with women. That is, the stereotype holds that men and women differ in their emotional expression but not in their actual emotional experience. Because of this perception about men’s ability to control their displays of emotion, people infer that men are therefore more rational and less likely to let emotion sway their decision making. This emotional restraint is stereotyped as masculine and reflective of good judgment (MacArthur & Shields, 2015). Effective leadership requires a calm, cool-headed, and dispassionate nature, but these traits don’t mesh with the stereotype of women as emotional. In turn, Brescoll notes, women are perceived to be less competent as leaders. It might seem, then, that the solution for women is to control their emotional expression and to demonstrate that they are capable of rational decision making. However, Brescoll argues that this alternative is also risky, because they might be perceived as cold, calculating, or dishonest if they don’t display enough emotion. That is, too much emotional expression violates their leadership role, but too little emotional expression violates their gender role. This double bind was echoed by Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign, when she explained to a reporter that she wanted to acknowledge and express her feelings, but knew she had to be cautious about it:
As a woman in a high public position or seeking the presidency, as I am, you have to be aware of how people will judge you for being, quote, emotional. It’s a really delicate balancing act—how you navigate what is still a relatively narrow path—to be yourself, to express yourself, to let your feelings show, but not in a way that triggers all of the negative stereotypes. (quoted in de Cadenet, 2016)
Photo 6.2 How much emotion can a female leader express? Former U.S. secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images & Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.
Do the data support Brescoll’s (2016) theorizing? One recent study examined how people perceive men and women who control or restrain their emotional expression (Hess et al., 2016). The results demonstrated that, when men showed emotional restraint, they were perceived as more emotionally competent and more intelligent than when they expressed their emotion immediately, yet the opposite finding was true for women. When women showed emotional restraint, they were perceived as less emotionally competent and less intelligent. Thus, women seeking leadership roles must walk a fine line between expressing and restraining their emotions lest they violate the expectations for their leadership role and gender role. We will return to this dilemma in Chapter 9.
Gender and Emotional Experience and Expression
Just how accurate are these gender stereotypes of emotion? What do we know about the real emotional lives of women and men and how similar or different they are?
Emotional Expression and Display Rules
Emotion researchers distinguish between the experience of emotion and the expression of emotion. Every day you may experience some emotions that you express and others that you do not express. You may mask socially inappropriate emotions to be polite, for example. Display rules are a culture’s rules for which emotions can be expressed or displayed. In American culture, for example, it is acceptable for people to express happiness; in fact, they are encouraged to do so. In contrast, expressions of grief are discouraged. Gender stereotypes contribute to display rules, so some emotions are acceptable for men but not women and vice versa. Have you heard the expression “Boys don’t cry”? The restriction on boys and men crying is an example of a gendered display rule of emotion. Another example is that it is acceptable for men, but not women, to express anger. Can you think of other gendered display rules of emotion?
Display rules: A culture’s rules for which emotions can be expressed or displayed.
In light of display rules, we need to ask two distinct questions: Do women and men differ in their experiences of emotion? Do they differ in their expressions of emotion? Before those questions can be answered, though, you need to know how psychologists go about measuring emotion.
Emotion researchers have measured emotional experience and expression in a variety of ways. There is no one best way to measure emotion. Instead, the different methods tap into different aspects or modalities of emotions.
One approach is to measure physiological aspects of emotion. In addition to being governed by display rules, gender roles, and other cultural factors, emotions have biological foundations. You have no doubt noticed that, in a situation that provokes intense fear, your heart pounds and your palms sweat. A pounding heart can also go with anger. Different regions of the brain are active depending on the emotion a person is experiencing. Emotional stimuli trigger the firing of neurons in the amygdala (a small region deep within the temporal lobes of the brain), which activates neurons in the brain stem, which in turn triggers the autonomic nervous system—reflected, for example, in changes in heart rate. The prefrontal cortex (the very front of the brain) and hippocampus (a small structure lying close to the amygdala) are activated as well. All of these physiological phenomena are part of the experience of emotion.
Modern neuroscientists are miles away from saying that, because brain regions are activated with the experience of emotions, emotions are “hardwired” or biologically determined. Rather, neuroscientists studying emotion emphasize the plasticity of the brain (Davidson & McEwen, 2012). Activation of a certain brain region may create a particular psychological state, but the reverse process occurs as well: Behavior and experience can create changes in the brain. The brain is plastic and capable of change.
Thus, emotion researchers use a variety of techniques to measure these physiological aspects of emotions. These measures may include blood pressure, heart rate, and skin conductance, which assess autonomic nervous system activation, or arousal. Researchers may also include neuroendocrine components of emotions by measuring levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine, or they may measure electrical activity in the brain by using an EEG (electroencephalogram). Neuroimaging techniques, such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and PET (positron emission tomography), are used to explore and identify the areas of the brain associated with specific emotions. Many of these techniques continue to be refined to be more precise, and researchers are learning more about the physiological aspects of emotions every day.
An alternative approach is to examine people’s own subjective experience of emotion, typically with self-reports. The reports may take a variety of forms, from checklists on which respondents identify the emotions they have experienced in the past week to daily diary methods in which participants record their emotional responses to events at the time they occur. Self-report measures assume that people recognize and are aware of the emotions they experience, yet it seems likely that some people are better than others at recognizing their emotions. Of course, emotional experience is inherently internal and subjective, and self-reports are able to capture that aspect in a way that physiological measures cannot.
Researchers might also choose to focus on emotional expression. The pattern of facial muscles that contract when a person expresses anger, or disgust, or happiness is present from infancy and is universal across cultures (Ekman & Oster, 1979). Facial expressions of emotion may be measured with visual observations as well as with facial EMG (electromyography), which assesses patterns of electrical activity associated with facial muscle contractions. And verbal expressions of emotion may be captured in measures such as the number and kind of emotion words that people use in their language, for example, in a conversation or diary entry.
An important point to remember here is that no single measure of emotional experience or expression is perfect. Each measure has costs and benefits, depending on the needs or aims of the researcher. For example, some physiological techniques are very informative when participants are not aware of their emotional experiences or are motivated to mask their emotions because of display rules, but those techniques are also quite expensive and sometimes imprecise. Ideally, researchers can use multiple measures of emotion (for example, using skin conductance, EMG, and self-report) to get a clear picture of participants’ emotions.
Experience Versus Expression
One study provides a particularly nice example of research on gender differences in these multiple aspects of emotion and demonstrates why it’s ideal to use multiple measures (Kring & Gordon, 1998). Undergraduates viewed brief film clips designed to stimulate happiness, sadness, or fear. While the participants viewed the film, their skin conductance was measured and their facial expressions were videotaped. At the end of each clip, they rated how much they had experienced each of four emotions: sadness, fear, disgust, and happiness. In short, the researchers used physiological, facial expression, and self-report measures.
The results showed both similarities and differences between women and men. For all emotion clips, women were significantly more facially expressive than men. While men and women reported similar emotional experiences, men showed significantly higher skin conductance reactivity to the fear films than women did (contrary to the stereotype that fear is unmanly!). Men also showed more skin conductance reactivity to the happy clips, as did women to the sad clips, although the differences were not quite significant. In short, patterns of gender differences can reverse themselves depending on the aspect of emotion that is measured. Women tend to be more facially expressive than men (except perhaps in the expression of anger). But men, at least for some emotions, show more autonomic nervous system reactivity.
How do we make sense of these complex patterns of gender differences and similarities in emotional experience and expression? This study found that women were more likely to be externalizers, in that they were facially expressive but had a low skin conductance response (Kring & Gordon, 1998). By contrast, men were more likely to be internalizers, being facially inexpressive but having a higher skin conductance response. Other researchers argue that, although men are more likely to show the internalizer pattern, women are more likely to be generalizers—that is, to express emotions on all measures (Brody et al., 2016). The internalizer pattern of men corresponds, of course, to the gender role requirement that men restrain or control their emotional expression (MacArthur & Shields, 2015).
In a follow-up experiment by the same group, the first experiment was replicated but with different film clips and, in addition, the measurement of participants’ gender role identity using the Bem Sex Role Inventory, discussed in Chapter 3 (Kring & Gordon, 1998). Again, women were more facially expressive than men across all film clips. In terms of skin conductance, men showed more reactivity to the anger and fear films and women showed more reactivity to the sadness and disgust films. Interestingly, gender role identity showed larger effects on emotion responses than gender did: Androgynous people were more facially expressive than masculine people. This finding provides evidence of the importance of gender roles in determining which emotions we express or do not express. It also reminds us that gender is much more complex than the gender binary would suggest.
Recall that most emotions are stereotyped as feminine, whereas only a few are stereotyped as masculine or gender-neutral (Plant et al., 2000). Are these gender stereotypes accurate? Many studies have been conducted on the experience of specific emotions, and meta-analysis helps us find patterns among those studies. Here we’ll describe three meta-analyses of gender differences in emotion.
We conducted a meta-analysis of gender differences and similarities in child temperament, which includes traits such as emotionality and the tendency to express specific emotions like anger and fear (Else-Quest, 2012; Else-Quest et al., 2006). Parent and teacher reports of children’s behaviors were the primary source of data for the meta-analysis. In contrast to gender stereotypes, boys were not more prone than girls to express anger (d = 0.04), and girls were not more emotional than boys (d = 0.01). Girls were only slightly more prone than boys to express fear (d = —0.12) and sadness (d = —0.10).
Temperament: Constitutionally based individual differences in reactivity and self-regulation, such as emotional intensity, inhibitory control, activity level, and distractibility.
Another meta-analysis examined gender differences and similarities in children’s expression of specific emotions (Chaplin & Aldao, 2013). Among the female-stereotyped emotions, such as happiness, surprise, sadness, fear, and disgust, gender differences were generally close to zero or very small, with the exception of shame (which was higher in girls). Among the male-stereotyped emotions, findings were mixed. Girls actually expressed more contempt than boys did, and boys expressed only slightly more anger than girls did.
My (NEQ) students and I conducted a meta-analysis of gender differences and similarities in a subset of emotions known as self-conscious emotions (Else-Quest et al., 2012). Self-conscious emotions are emotions about the self, such as guilt, shame, pride, and embarrassment, and often have to do with morality or adhering to social norms. Gender stereotypes hold that women experience more guilt, shame, and embarrassment but that men experience more pride (Plant et al., 2000). Our meta-analysis found that, while women and girls reported experiencing more guilt (d = —0.27) and shame (d = —0.29), gender similarities were the rule for embarrassment (d = —0.08) and pride (d = —0.01).
Self-conscious emotions: Emotions about the self, which often have to do with morality or adhering to social norms; includes guilt, shame, pride, and embarrassment.
In sum, meta-analyses of gender differences in emotional experience and expression indicate that gender stereotypes about emotions tend to be exaggerated or, in some cases, just plain wrong.
Another important pattern has emerged across studies of gender and emotion. That is, just as gender stereotypes of emotion may vary across ethnic groups (Durik et al., 2006), so can gender differences in actual emotional experiences. For example, we found that for guilt and shame experiences, people of color displayed gender similarities but White people displayed gender differences (Else-Quest et al., 2012). Similarly, in a study of low-income, primarily African American adolescents, gender similarities were the rule for expressions of anger (Panjwani et al., 2016). These patterns remind us to take an intersectional approach to gender.
Researchers have found gender differences in self-reported intensity of emotional experience and expression, with women reporting the greater intensity (Brody et al., 2016). And, whether in conversations or in writing samples, girls and women use more emotion words and talk about emotions more than boys and men do (Brody et al., 2016; Goldschmidt & Weller, 2000). But does this mean that women are actually more emotional than men? A feminist analysis—which suggests that emotions are political—can help us make sense of these findings.
Consistent with the feminist analysis of gender and emotion discussed earlier, emotions that function to display one’s power and dominance and encourage competition—such as anger, contempt, and pride—can be considered powerful emotions. By contrast, emotions that function to display one’s vulnerability and maintain harmony within a relationship—such as fear, sadness, shame, and guilt—can be considered powerless emotions. We know that powerful emotions are stereotyped as masculine and that powerless emotions are stereotyped as feminine, but do men and women actually differ in their expression of these emotions?
Photo 6.3 While gender stereotypes suggest that girls don’t experience as much pride as boys do, empirical data show a pattern of gender similarities in pride experience.
© iStockphoto.com/Steve Debenport
Photo 6.4 Cultural display rules of emotion prohibit women from expressing anger, yet these rules may not apply equally to people of color. An intersectional approach to gender and emotion reveals ethnic variations in gender differences in emotional expression.
©iStockphoto.com/drbimages & ©iStockphoto.com/Juanmonino.
Analyzing data from 37 cultures, Fischer and her colleagues (2004) tested the cultural universality of gender differences in the experience of powerful and powerless emotions. They found gender similarities in the experience of powerful emotions; that is, men and women reported experiencing the same intensity of anger and disgust, regardless of culture. However, compared with men, women reported experiencing significantly more intense powerless emotions. In other words, men’s experience of fear, sadness, shame, and guilt was less intense than women’s experience of these emotions. Women’s emotional intensity did not vary across cultures, but men’s did. Men’s experience of powerless emotions depended, in part, on gender equality: Men in more gender-egalitarian countries tended to report less intense fear, sadness, and so forth, compared to men in less gender-egalitarian countries. How might societal gender equality be linked to gendered display rules for powerless emotions?
Gender roles may account for the gender difference in intensity of emotion (M. Grossman & Wood, 1993). For women, endorsement of gender stereotypes and reports of intensity of personal emotional experiences are positively correlated: The more that women believe in stereotypes, the more intense they report their own emotions to be. For men, the correlation between endorsement of gender stereotypes and reports of emotional intensity is negative: The more that men believe in gender stereotypes, the less intense their emotions. Stereotypical men don’t express emotions and stereotypical women do.
In a related experiment, researchers removed gender role pressures by exerting pressure for both men and women to be emotionally expressive—specifically, by telling participants that research showed a positive correlation between emotional responsiveness and psychological adjustment (M. Grossman & Wood, 1993). In the control condition no such instructions were given, and presumably gender role pressures were in force as usual. Under the control condition, women gave more extreme emotional responses to negative slides than men did, but under the instructions encouraging emotional expressiveness, men’s responses were the same as women’s. Women’s greater emotionality is thus not a biologically determined Natural Law. This study shows powerfully that it is determined by gender roles.
Being able to perceive, appraise, and express emotions accurately and clearly, to understand, analyze, and use knowledge about emotions to think and make decisions, and to regulate the emotions of oneself and others is known as emotional competence (sometimes emotional intelligence). On most of these abilities, women score higher than men (Brody et al., 2016). For example, compared with men, women tend to display more complex emotion knowledge when describing how others might feel in hypothetical situations (Ciarrochi et al., 2005). Elementary school teachers report that girls are better at regulating their emotions than their male classmates (Rogers et al., 2016). One meta-analysis found that women are more skilled than men at recognizing the emotions of others, whether in photographs, films (with or without audio), or audio recordings, d = —0.27 (Thompson & Voyer, 2014). Women also demonstrate more awareness of their own emotions and seem to encode their emotional experience in more detail in memory than men do (Barrett et al., 2000; Gohm & Clore, 2000; Seidlitz & Diener, 1998).
Emotional competence: The ability to perceive, appraise, and express emotions accurately and clearly; to understand, analyze, and use knowledge about emotions to think and make decisions; and to regulate the emotions of oneself and others.
Similarly, women are generally more accurate than men at what psychologists call decoding nonverbal cues—that is, at reading other people’s body language (Guerrero & Jones, 2006; McClure, 2000; see Chapter 5). For example, women are better than men at reading facial expressions of emotion (Hall & Matsumoto, 2004). The evidence indicates that this gender difference develops early in the lifespan and persists into adulthood. In adolescence, girls are able to read facial expressions of emotions faster and more sensitively than boys (Lee et al., 2013). Even as young as 3½, girls are better at identifying emotions than boys are (Bosacki & Moore, 2004; Nelson & Russell, 2015).
Emotionally competent behavior sometimes includes masking socially inappropriate emotions and feigning polite ones. For example, cultural display rules dictate that when children are presented with a disappointing gift, they should not show how disappointed they feel and they should instead express happiness and gratitude. By elementary school, girls are better than boys at controlling their emotions and displaying socially appropriate emotions. For example, first- and third-grade girls, when presented with a disappointing gift, display less negative emotion and more positive emotion than their male peers (Davis, 1995). Should we take these findings as evidence that men and boys cannot read others’ emotions or understand their own emotions? Are men destined to be emotionally incompetent? Thank goodness, no! In fact, several studies have indicated that, when motivated, men can be just as emotionally competent as women are (Ciarrochi et al., 2005; Klein & Hodges, 2001).
It seems that, unlike the female gender role, the male gender role does not entail many aspects of emotional competence. Given that emotional competence is associated with social and emotional well-being (Salovey et al., 2008), wouldn’t it be better if everyone were emotionally competent? For example, it is often an asset to be able to read others’ emotions accurately, whether those emotions are expressed by one’s boss, one’s employee, or one’s romantic partner. Indeed, emotional competence even appears good for one’s physical health (Mikolajczak et al., 2015). Thus, an important question for psychology is this: How do we encourage and socialize all aspects of emotional competence for children during development, regardless of their gender?
There is one area of emotional competence in which women do not seem to do as well as men, and that is in some aspects of emotion regulation. We will return to this issue in Chapter 15, when we discuss gender differences in rumination and depression.
Emotions Beyond the Binary
As you’ve probably noticed, much of the research on gender and emotion is firmly planted in the gender binary. Studies have generally focused on differences between cisgender men and cisgender women in emotional experience, expression, and competence. When psychologists have studied emotions in transgender men and women, the focus has been on their experience of negative emotions and psychological distress (Budge et al., 2015). Consequently, psychologists do not know enough about the full range of emotional experience, expression, and competence of trans people.
As more and more researchers begin to incorporate new knowledge about gender diversity, we expect that research on gender and emotion will flourish. New questions about gender and emotion are being asked, and researchers are discovering new knowledge about the emotional world of trans people. For now, much of this research is in its infancy. Some lines of research have begun to shift focus away from gender assigned at birth. For example, several studies demonstrate that gender role identification plays a larger role than binary gender in shaping emotional expression (e.g., Fischer & LaFrance, 2015). Other lines of research specifically examine the emotional experiences of trans people. For example, one study of transgender men and women examined how changes in levels of testosterone and estrogen during medical transition might shape emotional competencies such as the ability to recognize emotions (Spies et al., 2016).
Another study with transgender men, conducted by Stephanie Budge and colleagues (2015), explored how masculinity and trans identity may shape the experience of positive emotions across the transition process. The men described the experience of emotions such as pride, happiness, awe, and love, as well as a lack of shame and fear. For example, one participant described pride in his identity: “I’m proud that I’m myself now, that I’m being myself. You know? And that I wasn’t like that before, and now I am. I’m me. And I’m proud to be me” (p. 418). Another participant described the change in his emotions across the transition process: “I’ve had people say, my friends say, you know, you’re so much more relaxed. You’re so calm. You know, much more easygoing and happy. That I look happy” (p. 419).
These are exciting times for the study of gender and emotion, and we are on the brink of many new discoveries.
The Socialization of Gendered Emotions
An 18-month-old, frustrated at not being allowed to play with a captivating toy that is in plain view, will not say, “I’m angry.” Instead, the child experiences frustration and rage and expresses these emotions facially and in other ways. The parent may respond by saying, “You’re angry, aren’t you?” or “You seem sad,” or “Don’t get mad.” The child learns differently depending on the parent’s response—in the first case, learning to label their feelings as anger; in the second, to misinterpret them as sadness; and in the third, to restrain or regulate their feelings. Between the ages of 2 and 5, children rapidly learn to identify their own emotions and those of others (Saarni, 1999). Parents guide this process, socializing their children about how to label and interpret their feelings and what to do with them (Eisenberg et al., 1998). In the process, parents are likely to impose gender stereotypes. Here we consider both the family and peers as early socializers of gendered emotions.
Photo 6.5 The socialization of emotion: Mothers display more intense facial expressions of emotion to infant daughters compared with infant sons.
Socialization in the Family
In general, the family is an important source of gender socialization. With regard to the socialization of gendered emotions, several patterns emerge from the research. One pattern in the data is that parents sometimes treat sons and daughters differently. A number of studies demonstrate that parents talk about emotions differently with sons compared with daughters (Denham et al., 2010; Fivush & Buckner, 2000). For example, mothers talk about emotions more with daughters than with sons (Brody, 2000; Fivush et al., 2000). And when parents do talk about emotions with their children, it’s often in a way that conveys gender stereotypes (van der Pol et al., 2015).
In a classic experiment, a videotape was made of a baby’s emotional responses to a jack-in-the-box popping open (Condry & Condry, 1976). The baby stared and then cried. The videotape was shown to adults, half of whom were told the baby was a boy and half of whom were told it was a girl. Those who thought the baby was a boy labeled the emotions “anger”; the other half, who thought the baby was a girl, called the emotions “fear.” In short, the adults read the emotions differently depending on the baby’s gender. This partly explains why parents socialize children’s emotions in gender-stereotyped directions: The parents, viewing a child’s behavior through the lens of gender stereotypes, perceive the child to be experiencing gendered emotions.
Have things changed since this classic study was conducted? Recent attempts to replicate Condry and Condry’s (1976) findings have produced more complex results. For example, raters who tend not to endorse gender stereotypes rate the emotions of boy and girl infants similarly. Raters, especially male ones, who tend to endorse gender stereotypes are the most likely to perceive a baby boy’s reaction as angry (Plant et al., 2000). In other words, it seems that some adults may still see the baby’s behavior through the lens of gender stereotypes. As gender stereotypes change and people become more vigilant about stereotyping, we might expect gender socialization of emotions by parents to change, too.
Another pattern in the research is that mothers and fathers differ in emotion socialization behaviors. For example, mothers are more emotionally expressive than fathers (Dunsmore et al., 2009). Compared with fathers, mothers talk about emotions more often with their children (Zaman & Fivush, 2013) and are more supportive and less unsupportive of their children’s negative emotions (Nelson et al., 2012). Other research suggests that, while fathers are more likely to play the role of a playmate, mothers are more likely to serve as emotional gatekeepers for children (Aznar & Tenenbaum, 2013; Denham et al., 2010). Being an emotional gatekeeper involves taking on the work of regulating children’s emotions and fostering children’s emotional competence.
Moreover, differences between mothers’ and fathers’ emotion socialization behaviors may depend on how involved they are in caring for their children. That is, when fathers become more involved with their children, patterns of gendered emotions are different (Brody, 1999). Girls with more involved fathers express less fear and sadness, compared with girls whose fathers are less involved. Boys with more involved fathers express more warmth and fear. Consistent with Nancy Chodorow’s theory (see Chapter 2), fathers’ involvement in the family seems to be crucial to breaking down stereotypes in the next generation.
In addition, both parent gender and child gender interact in the socialization of gendered emotions; that is, they both matter. Mothers actively encourage boys, more than girls, to respond to angry situations with anger and retaliation (Brody, 1996). Boys get the message and expect their mothers to react more warmly to them when they express anger than when they express sadness (Brody, 1996). Fathers pay more attention to their daughters when they are displaying sadness or anxiety and to their sons when they are displaying anger (Chaplin et al., 2005). This attention probably encourages more expression of those emotions.
How mothers and fathers respond to their children’s expression of negative emotions may depend on the child’s gender and also differ across ethnic groups. For example, one study examined how mothers and fathers of three ethnic groups (European American, Lumbee American Indian, and African American) responded to their children’s expressions of negative emotions (Brown et al., 2015). For responses to their daughters’ negative emotions, mothers were more supportive than fathers across each group. In responses to their sons’ negative emotions, European American mothers were more supportive than European American fathers, Lumbee mothers and fathers were equally supportive, and African American mothers were less supportive than African American fathers. Some of these patterns are consistent with gender stereotypes within those specific racial/ethnic groups.
Why do parents socialize children’s emotions in stereotypical ways? Parents’ patterns of socialization likely reflect the roles that they anticipate sons and daughters will hold in adulthood (Brody, 1999). Men’s roles focus on employment, where competition, power, and control are thought to be functional. Boys are therefore shaped not to express their emotions, especially emotions that would reveal vulnerability. The exceptions are anger, contempt, and pride, which boys and men are allowed to express and which seem consistent with high-status work roles. Women’s roles focus on caregiving, whether as mothers or in occupations such as teacher or nurse. Girls are therefore socialized for qualities such as warmth and empathy. At the same time, in their anticipated lower-status roles, they can express vulnerability by revealing fear and sadness.
Importantly, these differences in emotional expression then serve to perpetuate power and status differences between women and men. An openly fearful person is ill-suited to be the CEO of a corporation, and a person who is too ready to express anger and contempt is ill-suited to be a preschool teacher.
Socialization by Peers
A college student recalled to one of us how, around fifth grade, his expressions of sadness were literally beaten out of him by other boys. Some sad events happened in his family that year, and that in turn made him more emotional at school. He learned that if he cried in front of his peers, they would ridicule him and engage in dominance behaviors such as punching him. That only made him feel sadder and more like crying. But he learned, painfully yet quickly, never to cry, no matter how much he was hurting, emotionally or physically. This is a clear example of how peers may socialize one another and enforce gendered display rules of emotion.
Data suggest that this student’s experience isn’t unusual. One study asked adolescents to imagine how their friends would react if they expressed negative emotions like anger in response to a negative event, such as getting bad news or discovering that someone had done something unfair to them (Klimes-Dougan et al., 2014). Girls reported that their friends were likely to engage in behaviors such as asking questions about the situation, rewarding or magnifying the emotions, or overriding the emotions and telling the girl to cheer up. By contrast, boys reported that their friends would likely ignore or neglect their negative emotions or engage in physical, verbal, or relational victimization.
Other studies also find that, when it comes to expressing negative emotions such as sadness, boys and girls are socialized differently by their peers. Boys and girls differ not only in how much sadness they express to their peers, but also in how their peers respond to that emotional expression (Perry-Parrish & Zeman, 2011). In turn, boys who do express sadness in front of peers are less accepted and popular, and more likely to be teased (Perry-Parrish & Zeman, 2011).
In sum, these studies tell us that peers are active gender socializers who enforce gendered display rules about negative emotions such as anger and sadness.
Brody’s Transactional Model
Feminist psychologist Leslie Brody (1999) has proposed a comprehensive model for the development of gender differences in emotional expression, building on the work of Chodorow (1978; see Chapter 2) and emphasizing the complex interactions among biological, social, and cultural factors. Brody’s model is a transactional model in that it emphasizes the bidirectional influences of children and parents, interacting and shaping each other’s behaviors. That is, the process begins in infancy with subtle differences in temperament between girls and boys. While boys are more physically active than girls, girls are more sociable than boys. Girls also have better and earlier language skills than boys, and they develop self-control earlier than boys. Parents respond to the temperamental traits that they perceive in their children, such as by reinforcing girls’ sociability and empathy with more opportunities to develop their social skills and emotional competence. Parents also socialize their children in socially acceptable gender-stereotyped ways, preparing them for their adult gender roles. In turn, the subtle gender differences in activity, sociability, language, and self-control develop into meaningful gender differences in emotional expression.
As children continue to develop, peers play an increasingly important role in gender role socialization. According to Brody, peers enforce gender stereotypes and gendered display rules of emotion, especially in the context of gender-segregated groups. That is, within same-gender peer groups, gendered patterns of social interaction and emotional expression are reinforced, such that girls continue to hone their skills for warm and intimate dyadic interactions and boys continue to develop their capacity for intense competitive interactions. Because those who violate these norms are socially excluded, children and adolescents are motivated to adhere to their gender role and follow the display rules. The result, according to Brody, is social acceptance in the short term but decreased mental and physical well-being in the long term.
Experience the Research: The Gender Socialization of Emotions
In this exercise, you are going to investigate the differences in two mothers’ emotion words, comparing the conversations of a mother with her daughter and a mother with her son. Find two mothers with kindergarteners, one a boy and one a girl. Get their permission to record a conversation between them and their children. Ask each mother to think of two specific events her child has experienced and would be likely to remember and then to engage the child in conversation about first one event and then the other. Record the conversations, which should last between 5 and 10 minutes. After you’ve completed the data collection, transcribe the tapes—that is, type up exactly what was said in each conversation. Count the number of positive emotion words and negative emotion words that each mother used. As you do this, consider these questions: How are you going to define which words count as emotion words? Did the mother of the daughter use more emotion words than the mother of the son? Were there any other differences in patterns? For example, was anger discussed with the son but not the daughter?
Women are stereotyped as expressing a wide variety of both positive and negative emotions, including fear, sadness, sympathy, happiness, and love. Men, in contrast, are supposed to express only anger, contempt, and pride. Such stereotypes not only reflect women’s and men’s roles in adulthood, but also help to perpetuate these differentiated roles.
Although there is great similarity across U.S. ethnic groups in gender stereotypes of emotion, there are also some notable differences. African Americans, for example, believe that African American women express anger nearly as much as African American men do. Gender stereotypes of emotions can have important consequences, leading people to misread others’ emotions and evaluate people based on different standards.
Beyond the stereotypes, the issue of gender differences in actual emotional experience and expression is complex. Emotion manifests itself in many ways, including facial expressions, subjective feelings captured in self-reports, and arousal of the autonomic nervous system. Patterns of gender differences may be inconsistent across these various modalities, thus highlighting how oversimplified the stereotypes are. With regard to gender differences in the experience of specific emotions, the evidence suggests that gender stereotypes are often exaggerations or just plain inaccurate. Gender differences in emotional expression are complex and enforced by gendered display rules of emotion.
Emotional competence is important for social, emotional, and even physical well-being. Consistent gender differences in most aspects of emotional competence demonstrate that boys and men lag behind girls and women in this aspect of emotion. Still, emotional competence is socialized and learned, which indicates that these gender differences can be eliminated.
Much of the research on gender and emotion rests on the assumption of a gender binary. Emerging lines of research examine emotional experiences of transgender individuals and emphasize the importance of gender identity over gender assigned at birth.
Gender socialization shapes emotional expression, beginning with parental socialization from infancy. As children grow older, peers play a larger role in gender socialization, including the socialization of emotional expression. We have just seen that peers from preschool to middle school exert powerful pressures in favor of gender-stereotyped expressions of emotion. Gender-segregated patterns of play are influential as well. Boys play with other boys, and girls play with other girls. In those same-gender groups, gendered display rules and gender roles are honed. Relative to boys and men, girls and women are more facially expressive of emotion and talk more about emotions. Brody’s developmental model ties these diverse findings together and proposes that subtle differences in infancy grow into real gender differences in emotional competence because of family and peer socialization practices within a cultural context.
It is important to remember the cultural context in which we develop. The media, for example, portray women and men displaying different emotions. And, as we have seen, different cultures and ethnic groups have different expectations about gendered emotions. These cultural norms shape our gender development.
Suggestion for Further Reading
Barrett, Lisa F., Lewis, Michael, & Haviland-Jones, Jeannette M. (Eds.). (2016). Handbook of Emotions (4th ed.). New York, NY: Guilford. This handbook, with chapters written by leading emotion researchers, reviews the diverse empirical research on emotional experience, expression, and development.