Photo: Ven. Jampa and Ven. Damcho bring comedy and pathos to annual Abbey skits.

Are women more emotional than men?


Close-up of smiling nun. by Ven. Sangye Khadro

Ven. Sangye Khadro offered this Dharma reflection in a Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talk, and then followed up with further exploration. See videos below.

Over the last while there’s been a lot of talk about the systemic racism in our country, and the many problems thay people of color (POC) encounter. One day, in a conversation over lunch at the Abbey, I said it was hard to imagine what it would be like to be profiled and discriminated against just because of the color of my skin. Another monastic at the table reminded me that, as women, we too experience discrimination. It’s not to the same extent as POC endure. Nevertheless it does exist in this country, and probably in most countries in the world. Sadly it also exists in Buddhism.

Even when we were little kids our parents talked to us girls about how we have to be careful where we go, what we wear, how we act, how we talk, and so on. Otherwise we could get into big trouble. And we also sometimes face discrimination, unfair treatment, and stereotypes just because of our gender.

More emotional?

We came across an example of this recently in one of our classes here at the Abbey. A sentence in a book we are reading says, “Women tend to be more emotional than men.” This reasoning supposedly explained why bhikshunis (fully ordained nuns) have more precepts than bhikshus (fully ordained monks). It wasn’t the first time I have heard or read a statement like this in Buddhist teachings. In fact, it’s quite common.

But is it true? The Buddha advised us to not just blindly believe things we read or hear but to investigate them. Are they true or not? He said this even about his own words. So I thought to investigate this kind of idea.

When I started thinking about it, I immediately came up with a number of questions.

  • What does it mean to be emotional?
  • Does it mean having emotions—do women have more emotions then men?
  • Or does it mean expressing emotions—do women express their emotions more than men?
  • And could it be a matter of how emotions are expressed, such that women and men have different ways of doing that?
  • And what kind of emotions are meant in this statement? There are dozens of different kinds, and they are usually categorized as positive and negative, according to different criteria.
  • So is it that women have or express every kind of emotion more than men do, or only certain emotions?
  • And is it right to make generalizations—that all women are one way, and all men are another way?

Sociology and psychology

I wondered if there have been any scientific or psychological studies/research into these questions and found that yes indeed, there are lots of them. I didn’t have time to read all the various articles, but I found one article on Wikipedia that summarized some of the studies, so I will share a bit of this. The title of the article is “Gender and Emotional Expression.”

“…men and women from various cultures have been shown to accept the western stereotype that women are more emotional than men.”

So this seems to be quite a common view.

Research has shown that culture and context-specific gender roles have a stronger influence on emotional expression than do biological factors. “Empirical evidence suggests that girls are socialized to be emotional, nonaggressive, nurturing, and obedient, whereas boys are socialized to be unemotional, aggressive, achievement-oriented, and self-reliant. Peers continue this process as children develop and mature, in effect constraining how, where, why, and with whom certain emotions are expressed…”

So it sounds like any differences in emotional expression are not so much due to whether we happen to have a male body or a female body, but rather how we are conditioned— by our family, other kids we play and study with at school, our teachers, our culture, etc. This resonates with my experience, growing up in a family with three boys and two girls; I felt there were definite messages about how boys should be and shouldn’t be, and how girls should be and shouldn’t be. And these messages continue in school, at church, and so on.

Nature or nurture?

The article continues: “The social-developmental hypothesis (nature versus nurture) points to the fact that infants are not born with the same differences in emotional expression, and gender differences generally grow more pronounced as children age.

” … In a 2012 meta-analysis, researchers reviewed gender differences in emotion expression from the infancy period through adolescence in order to determine the impact of development and age on gender differences. Their findings support the notion that social factors in a child’s development play a large role in the gender differences that later emerge, as “gender differences were not found in infancy…but they emerged by the toddler/preschool period and in childhood.”

The article also mentions the role of biological factors and refers to a 2008 study using MRIs to monitor brain activity in participants. “The researchers found that men and women differ in neural responses when experiencing negative emotions. The way that male and female brains respond to emotions likely impacts the expression of those emotions.”

It would be interesting if they could have monitored the brain activity of those people when they were infants, before they experienced the socialization mentioned above. It seems likely that the brain activity they noticed in those adults was influenced by the conditioning they experienced growing up.

“Many psychologists reject the notion that men actually experience emotions less frequently than do women. Instead, researchers have suggested that men exhibit restrictive emotionality– that refers to a tendency to inhibit the expression of certain emotions and an unwillingness to self-disclose intimate feelings…”

We all have emotions

So in reading this article, it seems to me that we can’t conclude that women have more emotions than men do. This would be consistent with Buddhism, which says that as long as we are in samsara and have not realized emptiness—the antidote to all our afflictive emotions—we still have all of them, at least in seed form. When causes and conditions come together, those emotions will arise, whether we are male or female.

We all have the potential to experience anger, fear, jealousy, arrogance, lust, etc. There are many factors that would influence how we experience them and express them—family and cultural conditioning, whether or not one has learned and practiced methods for managing afflictive emotions like anger, or increasing positive emotions like compassion. We also bring our individual karma that with us from past lives, which influence which emotions are more habitual in our mind and which are less so.

But my feeling is that it isn’t right to make generalizations, saying that all men are like this, all women are like that. (I was thinking that if they did a study of Italian men and Nordic women, for example, they’d probably find the men more emotional than the women!)

In praise of precepts

One last comment—the larger number of bhikshuni precepts is sometimes seen/spoken of in a negative way, as if it’s a punishment for being bad/uncontrolled. I don’t think that’s a correct way of looking at them, and it certainly is not helpful.

Having more precepts is positive—it enables us to be more mindful, more careful in how we behave, so we are less likely to do harmful things to others, to create negative karma, etc. Also, keeping precepts is one of the best ways to accumulate merit/positive potential, which we need to progress along the path—so the more precepts, the better, both for ourselves and for others. We should rejoice that we have more, instead of feeling punished or disadvantaged!

Ven. Sangye Khadro continues to explore this topic in subsequent Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner talks:

Are Women More Emotional Than Men?

Going Beyond Gender Stereotypes

Is a Female Rebirth Inferior?