At the top of the list of unwritten rules for women of all professions is this one: No matter what happens, you don’t cry at the office. That’s especially true if you’re one of the few women on the team. Guys hate it when women cry. It weirds them out and makes the woman look unprofessional. So no crying. Well, maybe. Sometimes a woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do.
Our interviewees agree that while there’s no crying in engineering, there is some sniffle room.
“I have never had to cry in my whole career,” says Dr. Bianca Scholten, partner at Ordina Technical Automation, a Netherlands-based consultancy. “My advice would be don’t cry, and if you have to, don’t do it in front of everybody.”
If you do cry, turn your engineering mind to the phenomenon, says Diana Bouchard, freelance technical writer and editor. “Avoid crying as much as possible,” she says, “but if it happens, it’s not the end of the world. I would take it as a data point. If the situation was bad enough to make me cry, this is information that tells me it needs attention now.”
Alicia Bauer, director of global marketing for control systems and products at ABB, says, “Crying is not that horrible. When men get upset and frustrated, they swear. Women cry. But you don’t want to get the reputation that you cry when things get tough.”
But try as we might to stop them, sometimes the tears just come. What then?
“Act like it’s not happening,” says Bauer. “Try not to have a complete meltdown. Try to just continue the conversation and stop crying. Some can work through it; others get really upset. I just say, ‘Look, I’m frustrated.’ And the fact is most men do understand that it’s just a reaction.”
Bouchard says an apology never hurts. “I would go back and say, ‘I really lost it there. I’m sorry.” I might add something like, “I was blindsided by my own reaction. I didn’t realize how this situation was affecting me. We really have to do something about this.”
The crying question is the marker for a deeper issue: How tough do you have to be to play with the boys? Let’s put it this way: A strong and healthy ego is a prerequisite for success.
“Yes, I’m a woman. Deal with it. That stance is a characteristic of every woman in engineering I know,” says Dr. Angela Summers, president of SIS-TECH, Houston. “If a woman is not centered in herself and confident of who she is, it’s very difficult to accomplish anything.”
And you need to develop a thick skin, says Bauer. “You don’t want to be crying in the boss’s office. There will always be people telling bad jokes or saying things that are offensive. You don’t need to report everything to HR. A lot of it is in how you react. You can shut a lot of things down.”
In the end, says Bouchard, it comes down to being resilient. “You need the ability to pick yourself up and keep going after disappointment and frustration. Aside from the obvious usefulness of this, men expect it. To some extent, they expect women to be devastated when they’re emotionally hurt; if you have resilience, it helps you play the game better. You have get a little tougher than maybe you want to be. I’ve had to be a lot tougher than my mother would have wanted me to be.”