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In the modern workplace, tears for peers now OK

On the first page of her recent biography, "Bossypants," comedian Tina Fey wrote, "If you are a woman and you bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace, here they are. No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly."

And with that thought, Fey became every working woman's heroine.

But if we look closer, does her simple, and funny, post-feminist mantra hold up? Well, like most of us, Fey is a work in progress, and a few years ago she was taking a different line.

In a 2007 interview after the public airing of an angry message her "30 Rock" co-star Alec Baldwin left on his daughter's phone, Fey said: "InTouch Weekly said, 'Alec makes Tina cry,' No. Other than the fact that it's just not true, I was like,'Don't make it sound like I cry in my workplace. I'm 37. I don't cry at my workplace. I cry in my kitchen. About the fact that I'm always working.' "

So what changed between 2007 and 2011? For Fey, maybe just some mellowing and reconsideration. But in the world at large, there have been big changes that make women less defensive about tears at work.

As the numbers flowed in after the recession, which devastated male-dominated industries such as construction, there were headlines proclaiming that women made up the majority of the American work force for the first time. As workplaces filled with women, men had the luxury of behaving more or less the way they always had. Women, on the other hand, were obliged to adopt and adapt to the dominant male standards of professional behavior.

To be successful, many late 20th-century women felt they had to suppress distinctly female parts of themselves, including aspects of their intrinsic emotional biology. Such as crying.

In research I conducted for my latest book, I discovered that 41 percent of women and 9 percent of men reported that they had cried in the workplace during the past year. This finding conforms to the national gender split that neurologists have found. Women, who produce higher levels of prolactin, the hormone that controls tear production, cry on average 5.3 times a month, compared with 1.4 times for men. Women's tear ducts are also anatomically different from men's -- they are smaller, which means that when women cry tears tend to spill out, whereas when men cry their tears merely well up.

Tears are a biological phenomenon, and when they appear they should be regarded not as bad but as a message, like the check-engine light going off on the car dashboard. Tears at work signal that something's not quite right. They aren't necessarily a moral failing or a sign of weakness.

I suggest readers follow Fey's "Bossypants" advice on pigtails, tube tops and how much to cry. But I'd make an addition, and suggest you do as Fey does: Don't take yourself too seriously.

Anne Kreamer is the author of "It's Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace."