A Hysterical Stereotype  

When it comes to us women in the workplace, I think we can all agree we still have a long way to go in terms of equality.  Although we’ve made amazing strides over the decades, by more and more women going into previously male-dominated fields, and with creating laws and more awareness concerning sexual harassment, there are often gray, not-so-talked-about areas that can make us feel alone, awkward, or stereotyped.  Stigma surrounding menstruation is one of these gray areas: nobody talks about it in the workplace, yet when it comes to showing emotion, assertiveness, or displeasure, countless women are labelled in a negative way: “She must be on her period,” or “She’s obviously PMS-ing!”  Labelling only women with certain adjectives, when their male counterparts behave in the same way, is another.  The media doesn’t exactly help out with this – instead, it perpetuates the myth that women are helplessly emotional, unpredictable, and hysterical.  We see it in sitcoms, soap operas, and oh, all the time in real life.

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In June, California Senator Kamala Harris was labelled as “hysterical” during her question period in an intelligence committee held to investigate Jeff Sessions, and to hear him testify regarding ties to Russia.  Kamala Harris was asking pointed questions because Sessions dodged her answers with non-answers.   They were no more pointed than the other male members, and she was arguably less “aggressive” than the others.  She was being emphatic.  Her job, like all of her co-workers in the room, was to get to the bottom of the investigation.  Yet, for daring to, well, do her job, only she was labelled as hysterical.  Let’s review some definitions.  hys·ter·i·cal : panic-stricken, deriving from uncontrollable, extreme emotion, versus em·phat·ic : showing or giving emphasis; expressing something clearly.  There’s a clear difference – but apparently not if you’re a woman.  If a man is emphatic (or even upset) at work, he’s called… emphatic.  Or passionate, or maybe, “he can be a bit overzealous… he just wants to get the job done!”  If a woman is emphatic or assertive, she may very well be called hysterical – the adjective that seems to be reserved for us.

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When we see a member at one of the highest levels of government being labelled this way, for just doing her job in the same way her male counterparts did, it sheds light on how the job is certainly not done yet when it comes to workplace equality – because there are thousands of women out there who face stereotypes like this at work, who don’t make it onto the frontpage news.


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