Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Time I Cried in Front of the Dean

It was the Fall of 2015 when I found myself crying in the Dean's office. I forget the documented reason for the meeting, but I was discouraged. As the Dean and I discussed my (lack of) funding and other career challenges, I felt that special tingling in my eyes, a prelude to the tears that would meander down my cheeks and into my lap before I would get up to find myself a tissue.

I was over it, really.

The Dean continued to listen as I talked. There was no judgement in his gaze, and I felt no urge to apologize or verbally acknowledge my tears. He said many supportive things regarding my career challenges and told me a personal anecdote that made me feel better1.


I've spent most of my life mortified by my own tears. Perhaps because, as a child, I would be made fun of for them. Perhaps because I got a message that they are a sign of weakness. My attitude towards my salty accessories changed only once I arrived at Carnegie Mellon, and the work-life tango began in earnest. Being a new professor is stressful. Dealing with frequent, unrelenting professional rejection is stressful. Add in the personal - family illnesses, intensive house renovations, and the medical/physical/emotional ramifications of years of infertility - and there is most certainly reason to cry.

And so, I became a pro at crying at work, because work was life, and life was work. I stopped caring because I wasn't crying about trivial stuff. What were people going to say? Oh, she's crying because she had two grants rejected and she miscarried in the same week?!!?! Boo hoo, what a wuss.

Maybe a man wouldn't cry under the same circumstances, but I don't care about that either, because I am not a man. I am a woman2. And if we want women to be scientists, if we want women as professors and engineers, if we want them as leaders - for all of the good that they do, for their creativity and collaboration and emotional intelligence - then we need to be more accepting of tears in the workplace.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by supportive advisors, friends, and colleagues throughout my graduate and professional career. I've cried in front of my Ph.D. advisor, my postdoc advisor, my Department Head, my Dean, and a fair number of mostly male colleagues. Most recently, I cried during one of my lab's group meetings following an upsetting personnel issue. That last one caught me by surprise, but ultimately I decided that it was good for the group to see me like that, because I am setting an example for them.

I have also been the "recipient" of tears in the workplace, hosting both crying colleagues and students in my office. I keep tissues in close proximity to my meeting table, particularly in the last several weeks of the semester. I am pretty darn good at not passing judgement in these situations, although for the record, it is really not cool to get snot all over a professor's office furniture. (I have to say that I've been pretty surprised by the variety of assaults that office furniture must withstand in a university setting.)

How to handle tears in the workplace, no matter your gender? I have included a handy table below for your reference! [Edited to add: the best thing to do is to treat crying the way you would a sneeze.]

And finally, I will close with an apropos exchange from one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes.
Jerry :     "What is this salty discharge?"
Elaine:    "Oh my God, you're crying."
Jerry:      "This is horrible. I care!"

1I have a pretty amazing Dean.
2Testosterone suppresses the act of crying.