Do Women Take Things Too Personally?

I was recently sitting around the kitchen table with my wife, her mom, three of her mom’s life long friends and a couple of their daughters. Their ages ranged from late 40s and early 50s to early 70s. They were discussing an investment club that many of them had belonged to about a decade ago and how it dissolved due to disagreements and distrust.

Further, they commented that the investment club was destined for failure because it was an all-female group. I was perplexed, “Ladies, help me understand why you would believe a group like this is destined for failure?”  They responded that women can’t disagree or do battle with each other and walk away like nothing happened.

Women take things personally.

Wow! Women of HR, help me out.

Working in a human resources, a profession that is significantly occupied by approximately 70% female practitioners, does this gender dynamic carryover to your working world? ]Does debate create fissures in your organizations? Is the investment group an isolated case? Is it generational given the ages of the participants?

In his recent post Assorted Musings,  Ben Casnocha wrote:

 After I expressed detailed disagreement with another person’s ideas, the guy I was talking to said, “Ah, I didn’t know you didn’t respect [Person X.]” In fact, my hierarchy of respect is that if I don’t respect a person I’ll rarely expend the energy to issue detailed disagreement. It’s a sign of respect to engage in thoughtful disagreement. I think about this when I find myself routinely disagreeing with certain bloggers I read. And yet, I’ve been reading them for years, so on some level I respect them more than other folks with whom I may agree but don’t bother to read.

I love Ben’s perspective. Respectful disagreement and dialogue (at times, battles) will often generate bigger and better ideas and solutions.  Passionate debate must exist in an organization if it is to grow and thrive. But, an organization will die and be destined for failure if the participants can’t then embrace the results of that debate, not take it personally and move forward together.

If, as the women around my kitchen table stated, this dynamic is difficult for their gender to embrace, how are you dealing with it?

Photo credit iStock Photo

About the Author

Shaun Emerson

Shaun Emerson is a Partner at Tutto Persona. After 12 years with big companies, he has spent the last 11 years indulging his entrepreneurial spirit by starting two companies and running both a venture-backed and privately funded company. Shaun resides in Glen Ellyn, IL with his wife, a woman in HR, and his three kids. He blogs at Tutto Persona and you can connect with Shaun on Twitter as @shaunemerson and on LinkedIn.


Heather Stinson

I am not in HR, but I’ve observed this phenomenon in the places that I’ve worked and in myself in my working and family relationships. I take things really personally and recognize it as something that is holding me back, but have been unsure as to how to address it. I really appreciate Alan’s comment about the structure of business being designed to minimize male conflict. I wonder what an organization would look like that would minimize female conflict? I do remember an instance at a previous job where a conflict was arising between a female coworker and myself. The HR rep sat down with each of us individually to hear out our concerns and asked each of us if we would be willing to go to coffee, the three of us, and talk about our issue. We did, and it completely turned things around between us. For my part I felt like this worked because it happened early enough after the conflict was identified that we could nip it in the bud and it didn’t have time to grow into a war.

Alan Hill

Well, attack a man’s authority or position and you’ll see things get very personal, very fast.
Women fight on relationships, men on position (or authority).

The biggest difference, most men ‘know their place’ in the organization so that means conflicts are avoided. In addition, it’s primarily why they created hierarchy, if you know your place and you wait for a spot to open, there’s no need to fight for the next position.

Women attack your relationships, men attack your position. For men, being called incompetent is often seen as an attack on their positon. For women, attacking character, (being called bad names) means others won’t associate with you.

Both are threats – it’s just the structure of business (hierarchy) is designed to minimize man conflict, not women conflict.

Andrea Ballard

I think women and men in my office both take things personally. The big difference is how they deal with it. It’s rare for the men in my office to say “I don’t want to work with so-and-so again because….”, while women in my office will remove themselves from working with a particular person if things have gone badly in the past. As a general trend, the women remove themselves from situations where they could get more challenging work, and learn how to deal with a difficult person through repeated exposure. And the men don’t.

So, in my HR role, I work with the women on learning the fine art of emotional detachment so it doesn’t impede their progress and opportunities for advancement.

Shaun Emerson

Commentators…Interesting feedback…Thanks for writing…I agree with Jennifer that emotion in the workplace when channeled correctly is a good thing. In fact, it’s needed. But I am now more curious than ever. If you are representative of the general population, this is an issue still looking for an answer. How do people deal with it? Is it a case of “it is what it is?”

Kimberly Roden

I love this article Shaun… and I agree with it 100%. Must make sense that I function much better working for men than I do working for women. I prefer it that way as well.


Yes, women take things more personally. This in and of itself isn’t the problem. The problem arises when some women resort to high school behavior, and they perceive disagreement as a personal attack. Then we get into issues of agreement=validation, gossip, and all those destructive behaviors that stem from insecurity.

And this frustrates me immensely in the workplace. The more women we employ, the more issues we have. I hate that that’s true, but it is.

Not that men are entirely functional with conflict, but it doesn’t manifest in the same destructive ways. In my experience, male employees don’t make the leap to “he/she doesn’t like me & I must tell everyone to rally support” like many female employees do.

Then there’s the issue of being TOO emotional and our reality show world where some women think it’s okay to cry openly in the workplace and to use that to manipulation their circumstances. Women cry when stressed. I do it, too! But I go in the restroom, take a few breaths, and get myself back on track. I don’t run to my boss teary-eyed to make the point of just how upset I am. I mean, really. Work is grow-up time.

Jennifer Payne

Interesting points made. Yes, I do believe that as a gender, women may tend to take things personally. I think this is because, as a gender, we also tend to be more emotionally connected to people, situations, etc. Now these are grand generalizations because I know men that are emotional and women that are not. We do need to learn that not everything is a personal attack and that debate and dissent can be good. But on the flip side of that, let’s not forget that some emotion in the workplace can be good too, if it’s harnessed to keep us focused on ensuring that decisions we make are in the best interests of our employees, our customers, and our communities in general, that we’re using it to keep a “human touch” present in the way we do business. It’s all about learning to balance it.

Doug the Hairdresser

Being in a business that is 75% women, I can attest that women take things more personally than men in the workplace. Of course I would say that in my experiences, the level in which things are taken personal varies by factors of age, marriage status, and whether or not they have a “life” outside of work, as well as education level.

While I have witnessed things seemingly “rolling off one’s back” with women, the incidences of offence never seem to be forgotten. Where, in my own example, I tend to take something more in a “fight or flight” situation and move on (whether it means I stay or go from said job), I will see the clicques of women talk about the said incident ad nauseum. To the offender’s face, everything is hunky-dory; behind the offender’s back, however- it is anything BUT.

I don’t want to sound like a sexist pig on this topic, but these are merely observations from being a 20 year veteran of my industry. As I always say- your observations may vary.


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