Gender and Emotions

Emotional Reactivity in Male and Female Genders

Emotion Photo courtesy of Medical XpressOpens in new window

Gender is not the same as physical (biological) sex, although sometimes the terms gender and sex are used interchangeably. Gender is a social and cultural construct that may dictate appropriate roles for men and women and concepts of masculinity or femininity within a society.

Gender roles can extend to appropriate jobs, family roles, parenting, division of household labor, appearance, independence versus interdependence, intimacy, control, behavior, emotional expression, and many other areas. In many societies, males are socialized to suppress some emotions (e.g., “boys don’t try”) that are typically thought of as feminine and to express “masculine” emotions such as angerOpens in new window.

Gender differences in emotional expression have been observed as early as preschool. Socialization pressures tend to orient girls to convey submissive emotions (e.g., sadnessOpens in new window or anxietyOpens in new window) and boys to be more willing to express disharmonious feelings (e.g., angerOpens in new window).

In the United States, women are expected to be more relationship oriented than men, while men are expected to be more assertive or aggressive (Chaplin, Cole, & Zahn-Waxler, 2005). Gender socialization and emotions (experiences and behavior) are influenced by family structure and dynamics, parenting styles, culture, class, and individual temperament.

There are many stereotypes about gender and emotion. One stereotype is that women are more emotional (in expressiveness, intensity, and reactivity) than men. This stereotype extends across cultures and age groups.

While men are thought to be more logical and to experience and express anger and pride more than women, women are perceived to experience many positive and negative emotions (e.g., happiness, fear, disgust, and sadness) more than men.

Women are seen as more skilled than men at sending and receiving nonverbal cuesOpens in new window, smilingOpens in new window, laughingOpens in new window, and gazingOpens in new window (Brody & Hall, 2000). However, research has produced inconsistent results (McRae, Ochsner, Mauss, Gabrieli, & Gross, 2008).

Women are more facially and gesturally expressive than men. Although emotional expressions (facial, gestural) do not always reflect actual feelings, women’s expressions tend to be less discrepant than those of men. Women produce more genuine smiles than men, and men convey anger more clearly in their facial expressions than do women (Brody & Hall, 2000).

Gender stereotypes are reinforced by the popular media. For example, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (Gray, 1992) is a book that purports to help men and women in relationships communicate with each other. However, the book resorts to using stereotypes and oversimplifications to explain and justify behavior.

Cross-cultural studies have found that men report experiencing more emotions that are powerful (e.g., anger), while women report experiencing more powerless emotions (e.g., sadness, fear). Researchers posit that these findings are reflective of differences in status and gender roles throughout the world (Fischer, Rodriguez Mosquera, van Vianen, & Manstead, 2004).

Gender display rules are cultural norms that specify how, when, and where emotions can be expressed by males and females in a given situation.

Violating stereotypic gender display rules can lead to negative social consequences (e.g., social rejection, employment discrimination). Since much of the research on gender and culture relies on self-report measures (e.g., interviews, questionnaires), it is likely that research results are influenced by stereotypes and display rules. Therefore research findings should be interpreted with caution (Brody & Hall, 2000).

  • Emotional reactivity refers to the processes that determine the nature and strength of an individual’s emotional response.
  • Emotion regulation describes the processes individuals use to influence the nature of those emotions and how emotions are experienced and expressed.

Women are diagnosed almost twice as much as men with affective disorders (e.g., depressionOpens in new window, anxietyOpens in new window). There is a perception that men and women differ in their emotional responding, but research findings are mixed regarding differences in emotional reactivity and regulation.

Many affective disorder involve difficulties with emotional regulation, and treatments for these disorders involve training in emotional regulation, including cognitive reappraisal—techniques to learn to think differently about a situation or feeling.

Functional magnetic (fMRI) studies utilizing cognitive reappraisal techniques found no differences between men and women in terms of emotional reactivity, and men and women reported comparable decreases in negative feelings using cognitive reappraisal. However, it was found that during cognitive reappraisal, men showed greater decrease in amygdale and less prefrontal cortex activity (brain regions involved in emotion control and processing). It is posited that men may be able to regulate their emotions (using cognitive reappraisal) with less effort than women or that women may use positive emotions to regulate their emotions more than men (McRae et al., 2008).

  1. Shields, S.A. (2002). Speaking from the heart: Gender and the social meaning of emotion. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Brody, L.R., & Hall, J.A. (2000). Gender, emotion, and expression. In M. Lewis & J.M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (2nd ed., pp. 338 – 349). New York: Guilford.
  3. Chaplin, T.M., Cole, P.M., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (2005). Parental socialization of emotion expression: Gender differences and relations to child adjustment. Emotion, 5, 80 – 88.
  4. Fischer, A.H., Rodriguez Mosquera, P.M., van Vianen, A.E.M., & Manstead, A.S.R. (2004). Gender and culture differences in emotion. Emotion, 4, 87 – 94.
  5. McRae, K., Ochsner, K.N., Mauss, I.B., Gabrieli, J.J.D., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Gender differences in emotion regulation: An fMRI study of cognitive reappraisal. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 11, 143 – 162.