Why you shouldn’t care if Zille cried or not

If you've been following Guptagate – and let's be honest, who hasn't – you'd know name-dropping has just been deemed ever so passé by the ANC government. So I'm going to start this column off with a "position-drop", if you will. And no, that's not a quick offloading of eminent people at say, a military airbase we all assumed to be a national key point. It's about my skills.

As the person in charge of the editorial team at the Mail & Guardian Online, I like to think I have a fairly good news sense. Like any other journalist I can smell a good story, even when it's ineptly buried at the bottom of the first draft of an article.

But every so often a news story comes along that has me nodding politely in a news meeting, sure that I'm missing something. It's only a bit later that my brain connects my gut feel with a budding sense of outrage.

The article about opposition leader Helen Zille crying was one of those stories.

"Why is this news?" I found myself asking. It was the same question I had when we reported last year that another female politician, Lindiwe Sisulu, also committed this apparently cardinal sin when she got the chop as defence minister at that little Cabinet reshuffle game President Jacob Zuma likes to play every year; a sort of shifting of the deck chairs on the sinking ship of his administration, if you're in the mood for an over-extended metaphor.

Both Zille and Sisulu reacted strongly, insisting that they had not, in fact, shed a tear. God forbid.

But I didn't care if they cried, and cared even less if either denied it. So why did our readers, whom I like to think I understand well as far as their taste in news goes, seem concerned with the revelation?

And then I got it. Women don't cry: especially not women in power. Zuma may have wept freely when he defended his multimillion-rand house in Nkandla built with state funds, but that was different. Of course. Male leaders can show emotion and vulnerability and wear it well. But not, apparently, women in power. If we do, it is something to be pointed at and exclaimed over because it is so terribly rare. And the women in question, especially these two who have spent decades cultivating a tough image, must fight to reclaim that persona from the claws of disempowering femininity.

Because that's the crux of it: to err is human, but to weep over it makes you a ninny if you are a woman.

It's not just a local phenomenon. In an iconic photograph released by the White House in 2011, US President Barrack Obama's inner circle is pictured in tense concentration watching from the situation room in Washington as the troops made the historic swoop that felled Osama Bin Laden. The picture made headlines for the intense emotions it portrayed: the various leaders on edge and their faces lined with anxiety as the situation unfolded.

But an undue emphasis immediately fell upon then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a rare woman in the room who showed the most sentiment, apparently, with her hand clapped to her mouth, her eyes "brimming with emotion", as some publications put it. She was quick to deflate the growing body of writing over her "emotional reaction" by stating it was down to mundane allergies.

Clinton is from the same generation of female political leaders as Sisulu and Zille. They instinctively know that to play in the male-dominated world of politics and be taken seriously they need to always be strong. To show emotion, while sometimes endearing in a male leader, may well be their undoing, as old tropes of "hysteria" and "unreasonable nature of women" threaten to undermine their authority.

A quick search of Obama crying, on the other hand, yields up a plethora of images and articles of various times when Obama has quite openly shown emotion.

As far as I know, Obama has never bothered denying his show of emotion, nor has Zuma. And neither have been accused of faking it.

I am an unashamed fan of Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In. The Facebook executive has brought previously taboo issues facing women in the workplace into the spotlight and finally started a long overdue conversation. She proves by looking at case studies that women automatically become less likeable the more successful they are, while the reverse is true for men. She tackles the minefields that exist for female leaders that are simply not there for their male counterparts. And she points out that, actually, it's okay to cry at work.

The writer blogging about Sandberg's comment calls herself "a crier" in the piece: "an uncontrollable physical response to emotions like anger and frustration".

It's much the same for me. I have often beaten myself up for allowing myself to cry in front of my male superiors, which always happens when I am overwhelmed by frustration in a difficult conversation. I immediately feel any points I've made seem confused and hysterical, no matter how valid they may be.

But Sandberg thinks it's okay to cry because "sharing emotions builds deeper relationships" and places an importance on striving for "authenticity over perfection", adding that "maybe the compassion and sensitivity that have historically held some women back will make them more natural leaders in the future".

And when I think about it, I seem to have an even better working relationship now with the three men I remember crying before. They genuinely trust and respect me and the times I've cried have not been held against me as I feared they would.

So perhaps we need to tell a different story, to say that it's okay to show emotion as a leader. Indeed, it would be weird if one didn't. And perhaps the tired phrase of "iron woman", which is applied to people such as Zille, Sisulu and Clinton will give way to merely a recognition of their strong leadership abilities as human beings, who, yes, sometimes get frustrated and show it, but are none the weaker for it, nor deserving of undue media coverage for the fact.

Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G Online. Read her weekly column and follow her on Twitter.

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