This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
On Monday, just as the Tim Hunt "women get in the way of science" thing seemed to be dying down, London mayor Boris Johnson stepped in with the helpful clarification—via his Telegraph column—that Hunt had simply been describing a "natural phenomenon." The reason women are crying this sea of snot and tears into petri dishes, he said, is largely down to their lady bodies.
Johnson pointed to "all sorts of biological explanations" for the fact that women cry more. And cry more they do, particularly in certain cultures, such as ours. According to world crying expert, Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University, who Johnson quoted, women cry 30 to 64 times a year on average, compared to six to 17 times for men.
"Men are said to have differently shaped tear ducts, for instance, and can therefore retain the tears for longer before they splash down the cheek," Johnson wrote. "Women are said to have more prolactin, a hormone associated with weeping. I would have thought that all this stuff could be filed as the latest stunning discovery from the University of the Bleeding Obvious."
Except, as with anything gender-related, it's not obvious at all. Vingerhoets himself is certainly not making any such simplistic claim.
"I have no doubts that with respect to crying there are substantial differences between adult men and adult women," he told VICE. However, Vingerhoets cites a range of influences affecting this propensity to sob, including exposure to emotional events, relative feelings of helplessness, and socialization.
The latter, of course, is key. I grew up with four brothers and have clear memories of my dad stepping in when I was fighting with them. I couldn't untangle it back then, but hearing my brothers told, "Stop, you'll upset your sister," put me instantly in the weaker position and, most likely, I'd cry. Well, boo-hoo, you say. But the cultural acceptance of women's tears and, for men, the shame associated with crying, has far-reaching effects.
There are some gender differences in the frequency with which children cry. But from 12, the difference becomes marked.
"In terms of social learning, the reactions of peers are more important than those of the parents," Vingerhoets says. "Especially boys aged 12 to 15 are very sensitive to this influence. They don't want to be considered 'sissies.'"
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The fact that, in the UK, the male suicide rate is three times that of women's suggests that telling boys to bottle up their tears in those extra-large male tear ducts might not be working for anyone.
Biological explanations are inconclusive. A Dutch study comparing the crying frequency of menstruating and non-menstruating girls failed to demonstrate expected differences in crying, suggesting the hormone prolactin isn't so important.
Neuroscience is often used as evidence for the biological basis of gender difference in emotions. In their book, Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps, Allan and Barbara Pease suggest that, whereas men's emotions are compartmentalized, women's are splashed all over the place, appearing in MRI imaging as messy splodges scattered across both hemispheres of the brain. Women's emotions "switch on simultaneously with other brain functions," say the authors. In other words, women's tears will totally get in the way of their mathematical decision-making.
In her slash and burn critique of this type of "neurosexism," Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine tears apart research around hard-wired emotional differences in the brain. Fine points to a study in which a dead salmon was shown emotionally charged pictures. When its brain was scanned, the fish appeared to be "thinking about the images." Clearly, dead salmon are too emotional for the lab.
The volume of research around gender and emotions illustrates how much we care about this. Huge value judgements are involved. A 2013 study revealed that only 56 percent of men in the UK believe women should be free to do any job they like. Female pilots and electricians were particularly mistrusted.
Vingerhoets says there's no evidence he is aware of that suggests crying at work affects women's performance. "But there are a lot of stereotypes," he told me. "Crying at the job can be perceived as a sign of sensitivity and of agreeableness, but also as a sign that one is not fit for the job, emotionally unstable, or even manipulative."
Whatever the underlying reason for the tears that Boris describes as "splashing down women's cheeks," what we should be asking is whether crying is a bad thing. Does crying make you unfit to do a job, or do we just associate crying with weakness because we associate it with women?
Last year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, told Harvard graduates that crying at work is nothing to be afraid of. "I've cried at work," she said. "I've told people I've cried at work. […] It is all professional and it is all personal, all at the same time."
I've been on and off antidepressants since I was 17, and the times I'm off them I inevitably end up crying at some point. I've cried in pretty much every job I've ever had. Has it affected my ability to work? No.
One in four adults will experience a mental health problem in the course of a year, with anxiety and depression topping the list. Of course, crying doesn't always indicate a mental health issue, but a culture which resolutely refuses to tolerate emotions or vulnerability is toxic. There's plenty in real life—never mind the size of our tear ducts—to make us cry. The way forward seems to be more, not less, acknowledgement of this. Bring on the male tears.
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