Are Men Expected to Grieve Differently From Women?

Much has been written and debated about the double standards that are present in the corporate world. While today’s media and politicians like to expound on differences in wages, balancing work/life issues, and examining the glass ceiling, today I am going to write about a theme that rarely gets considered and how it specifically targets men—not women—in the workplace. Namely, when thinking about grief in the workplace, are different expectations set on men as opposed to their female counterparts?

It’s true that to a large extent, men and women both exhibit the same emotional and psychological responses when facing the loss of a spouse. However, the main difference in this regard tends to relate to an individual’s attempt to control an outward reaction. Now, when you combine this with traditional male norms in the workplace, studies show that not only is a man less likely to ask for help in a corporate environment, but that if he does, he is more likely to receive negative backlash over a grieving female who attempts the same.

Of course, it could be examined why women leaders aren’t judged when they say they need help after facing a tragic loss of a child, spouse, or partner. While it could be easy to claim that “as the fairer sex,” a cry for help is allowed—but that is a subject for another post. For now, I’m going to focus on the male perspective and today’s business environment when considering grief. Accordingly to new research by The Leadership Quarterly, published in April 2015, grieving male leaders are deemed less competent when compared to counterparts who decide to keep their lips shut about making their issues known.

Forbidden Grief?

Men are allowed to be emotional—but it seems that only certain emotions are valid in the world of gender stereotypes. For instance, it is okay for a man to get mad or angry—in the workplace and beyond. After all, we raise our sons to “be tough” and even considering the service of male military members, there is an expectation that a soldier be brave in the face of death or when dealing with the loss of a fellow compatriot.

Our society, ultimately, expects men to be the hunters and warriors of the world. They are meant to be stoic and unflinching in the face of tragedy—and a man who cannot do this is deemed weak or pathetic.   Moreover, today’s world continues to perpetuate the myth that a man can be hurt physically, but not emotionally—and grieving is rarely thought to be part of the “male character.” Think of it, this point of view makes a lot of sense. How many times does modern cinema or the media only consider the women’s perspective? Pretend a couple on the movie screen just faced the loss of a child. Painting the scene, picture the bereaved mother, shroud in black near the side of the child-sized coffin, crying into a handkerchief and leaning into her husband for help. In turn, her husband stands tall and unflinching, carefully curving his body around his wife, protecting her from the dangers presented by elements unknown. He is asked by funeral attendees, “How is Sally handling the loss? How’s she managing?”

But no one ever asks about how he is doing.

Societal norms will dictate that a man starts taking a loss hard when he starts turning to a socially acceptable recourse, such as drinking more than usual. And when this particular problem gets out of hand and his job performance starts to slide, then we, as a collective, wring our hands and mutter, “Oh wow! He is really taking it hard!” But no one offers a solution or assistance.

The Reality of Male-Oriented Grief

There have been many other studies done on the grieving process of survivors and the tendencies that are apparent between men and women.   Men, as a whole, are more likely to grieve privately while publicly presenting a façade of equanimity and restraint. However, it must be known that in the first month of mourning, there is no difference between the styles of men and women—different patterns begin to emerge in month two.

After the first month, the majority of men said that they were more accepting of the reality of the loss, while less than half of women polled gave this answer. Considering this, and the fact that I am well aware as an Executive Grief Coach about the true amount of time it takes to manage the loss of a spouse or child, I immediately point to the fact that since men are historically the wage earners and bread winners of families, they feel pressured to refocus on their work at a faster rate and try to return to a point of normalcy in their lives. Ultimately, if they cannot do this, their long-term career could be impacted for the negative, and the “hunter” instinct to provide for surviving family members is comprised. Men known that if they don’t project recovery, they are viewed negatively.

And this point is exhibited in The Leadership Quarterly study. The chief researcher, Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, stated, “We found that men who asked for help were evaluated as less competent than men who did not ask for help.” She went on to say, “When a person is perceived as though they are not competent because they are asking for help, that could probably have some long-term career implications with regard to promotions, appointments, and evaluations. Most importantly, these perceptions may serve as barriers to men’s willingness to ask for assistance when needed.”

Providing Assistance and Support

I wish I could snap my fingers and change the way that grief is perceived in the workplace and beyond. Since I cannot do that, I can ultimately provide some advice to those who know a man who is grieving and who may be unable to ask the people around him for help due in part to his genetic makeup and what he believes society expects from him. Consider the following:

  • Gender bias is real—and it impacts how we “decipher” the grieving of another. Try to put aside pre-conceived notions about how a man should grieve or how a woman should grieve. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to this.
  • Don’t take sides. Make a conscious effort to support all forms of grieving, no matter if it is done by a man or a woman.
  • If a man displays behavior that is deemed “inappropriate” by society, realize that he may be trying to avoid feelings or displaying his emotions publicly. Don’t judge him.
  • Men are less likely to seek the support of others in order to express their feelings, especially if they are worried about losing respect or feeling A man needs to be encouraged to share his reactions and emotions, and to explore what this death or loss means to him, acknowledging how it has impacted his life.
  • Realize that men are not necessarily farther along in the grieving process when compared to female counterparts. Even if a man appears to be okay, it is unwise to make an assumption about his feelings. When in doubt, ask!

In closing, no matter the gender of an individual, asking for help is not a weakness—it is an opportunity. Grief is not a phase for anyone—no matter if they are male or female.

Mary Ellen Wasielewski