A new study published last week in the journal Nature dispels the widely held gender stereotype that women are more emotional than men.
Researchers from the University of Michigan and Purdue University followed 142 men and women over 75 days and tracked their daily positive and negative emotions. Each night during the study period, participants would complete a 20-minute online survey that assessed their feelings. They found that men and women's emotional stability and fluctuations are "clearly, consistently and unmistakably more similar than they are different," said Adriene Beltz, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and the study's lead author.
Beltz and her fellow researchers also intentionally included women with "natural menstrual cycles" and women who were using different types of oral contraceptives in the study "to explicitly address the notion that women are more emotionally variable — or liable — due to varying hormone levels across their cycles," she explained. Similar to their findings between men and women, the researchers found "no meaningful differences" among the women in these different groups.
'No biological basis' for emotional stereotypes
Dr. Robert Blum, a professor of public health and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said the findings of this study show there is no biological basis for females to be more emotional than males, but that there's still "a strong and global finding that males are socialized to hide their emotions while it is far more legitimate for females to share them."
Blum cited many examples from a recent Unicef study that he was a part of where several adolescent boys admitted to being told they should not cry, express themselves or show their emotions. He said some males have been conditioned to believe that showing emotion is a "sign of weakness," and that "most societies around the world are patriarchal and as a consequence, everyone reinforces the hegemonic myth that boys and men are strong, and that girls and women are vulnerable."
Beyond males being asked to suppress emotions even though they feel them as often as females, the Nature study shows that men's emotions also fluctuate for different reasons than those of women beyond the proportion of hormones that are unique to both genders. "Men's emotions fluctuate for different reasons than those of women because in our society men and women have very different opportunities and pressures," said Barbara Risman, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Risman cited numerous examples of the different pressures and experiences that men and women have throughout their days including men not having as many outlets for their emotions and feeling added pressure to provide for their families: "If a woman can't find work outside the home, no one thinks she's a bad mother. But if a father doesn't work for pay, many people will question why he isn't a capable breadwinner," she said. She added that workplace discrepancies more commonly affect women ("when men are very directive with their subordinates, they're considered good leaders. When women do the same, they're considered b------...") and that women experience unique pressures at home, too. "If a child shows up to school with mismatched socks, the mother is the one that will be talked badly about, not the father." She explained that "you can always trace back how people feel and respond emotionally to the different experiences they are going through in their lives."
Risman said there are numerous reasons for the discrepancies and stereotypes that have been perpetuated over the decades, but noted that much of it comes down to "how the American economy was built." She explained that during the industrial age, families were paid a "family wage" and that typically only one member of the household was able to work. She said that the men were usually the ones expected to do the hard labor common to that period while the women were the ones taking care of domestic needs, expected to show and nurture emotion at home.
"Stereotypes don't just appear out of thin air," she said. "Once upon a time, these roles were real and reflected how society actually was." As times changed, however, those past realities became stereotypes that hindered progress and stigmatized attempts to adapt economically and emotionally.
She said that progress can continue to be made through representation of more females working in more places, through female "and especially male" role models that are willing to be vulnerable and demonstrate their emotions, and when gender stereotypes are proven to be false — the latter something the Nature study accomplishes.
Why it's important to normalize emotions for all genders
"Our research does not directly speak to the origins or persistence of gender stereotypes, but we do hope that our findings will help to dismantle them," Beltz said. "Normalizing daily ups and downs in both positive and negative emotions for both men and women will hopefully help prevent women’s experiences from being dismissed as well as help free men to be more expressive."
Indeed, these findings have implications beyond normative life. For instance, women have historically been excluded from research participation in part due to the assumption that ovarian hormone fluctuations lead to variation — especially in emotion — that can't be experimentally controlled. As a result of such exclusion, "we've ended up with a medical and social scientific literature that overwhelmingly describes the biology and psychology of men," Beltz lamented.
Alexander Weigard, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and another of the study's authors, explained that the notion that men are easier to study because they are less variable, "has led to disparities in biomedical research that have serious real-world consequences for health." He provided examples such as breast and ovarian cancer research as being historically understudied and said he hopes their work will "aid initiatives that push for inclusion and equity in research." Beltz added: "Our findings directly challenge the notion that women’s emotional fluctuations are disproportionately driven by their cycles."
This study also has the power to lay to rest the idea that even when men are taught to suppress emotions, no gender is more emotional than another. "People’s emotions fluctuate from day-to-day. That is an important part of being human," Beltz said. "But it is misguided to claim that those fluctuations are unique to women. We all are riding a similar emotional roller coaster."