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The Boston Globe

Business

Shirley Leung

Big girls do cry, and that’s OK

Is it OK for big girls to cry?

Last week I cringed when Jean Yang, the executive director of the Massachusetts Health Connector, made headlines for openly weeping during a board meeting. She was frustrated by a broken website that had demoralized her staff and potentially left thousands of people in insurance limbo.

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I cringed for her, for her Harvard MBA, and for working women everywhere. There are so few of us at the top, that when one wails we wonder if the whole movement has been set back.

But when men bawl, they’re deemed leaders of the free world. Bill Clinton. John Boehner. Only Ed Muskie, the poor senator from Maine, was seen as weak — when Muskie’s eyes welled up in New Hampshire, his presidential bid washed away. (He would later deny he sniffled, insisting those were snowflakes melting on his cheeks.)

Big girls have been taught never to let the boys see you cry. Even though I work with some of the nicest people around, one of my biggest fears is that they will drive me to tears. And they have.

But I am starting to wonder if it’s time to wipe away our fear of tears.

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg told us last year that it’s acceptable for women to cry at work. In fact, the superwoman-billionaire herself has shed many a tear in the office, even in front of her boss Mark Zuckerberg.

How and why is this all right?

“Sharing emotions builds deeper relationships,” Sandberg wrote in her book “Lean In.” “Motivation comes from working on things we care about. It also comes from working with people we care about.”

Hillary Clinton choked up the day before the New Hampshire primary in 2008, and the media declared the ice queen was indeed human. She went on to win the primary in an upset victory.

Yang, the head of the connector, tells me she has since heard from many people, all offering encouragement and support after her unusual display of emotion. Crying didn’t fix the website, but at least people knew how deeply she cared about her employees.

“I am 42 years old. That was my first time crying in the workplace,” said Yang.

Now, Yang makes a distinction here. She readily admits to breaking down privately at the office, which is very different, from letting go in public.

If the stiletto were on the other foot, I would still be mortified, but not Yang.

“I have moved on. I am sure there are people who felt a little disappointed,” she said.

As a manager, Yang has been on the other side, dealing with teary-eyed employees. She doesn’t see it as a sign of weakness.

“I would appreciate people being truthful and sharing their struggles,” she said. “We’re all adults here. People don’t cry for nothing. People are under tremendous pressures. The fact that we’re crying suggests it’s a difficult problem.”

Anne Kreamer sobbed in front of her staff after boss Viacom founder Sumner Redstone berated her. Kreamer, an executive at Nickelodeon, had just inked a huge deal for the children’s TV network, but Redstone was upset it hadn’t moved the stock price.

The incident motivated her to study emotions in the workplace and write a book about it. Her survey found that, yes, women cry in the office more than men — 40 percent compared with 9 percent. But surprisingly, managers at all levels, both male and female, reported they had wept at work.

“There is no tissue ceiling,” said Kreamer, who has since left Nickelodeon. “If you cry, you are not management material, that is not true. The occasional display of empathy and emotion, not pushed under the carpet, can be healthy.”

To help put closure on all of this, I needed to hear from Patricia Schroeder.

In 1987, the congresswoman from Colorado wanted to be the barrier-breaking female Democratic presidential nominee in a field that included Mike Dukakis. But it was not to be. When she told supporters she was dropping out, she got weepy. The press ridiculed her, portraying her as unfit for the White House.

The reaction was, “we don’t want the person with their finger on the button to cry,” Schroeder recalled in a phone interview this week.

But the retired congresswoman thinks her critics got it all wrong. What should have been noted, she said, is this: “I don’t want someone with their finger on the button who doesn’t cry.”

Big girls do cry. Everyone, deal with it.

Shirley Leung can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter on @leung.

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