If you're part of the large majority of Americans who have used emoji in your work emails before, you might bristle at the latest findings from one set of researchers. According to a recent study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, people who use emoji at work are often seen as less competent than their emoticon-avoiding peers. That might make sense at first, but the researchers also found that most people who use emoji at work — and the people that others think would use emoji at work — are women. That association between emoji use, or the expression of emotion, and incompetence uncovered in the study thus carry a lot of underlying sexism.
That's not to criticize the researchers, of course. To carry out the study, researchers from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev had more than 500 people read and reply to anonymous work emails (some contained smiley emoji, of course, while others didn't). They found that, overall, participants judged the senders of emails with emoji as less competent — and when participants received an email that contained an emoji, they were more likely to assume that the sender was female.
Not only that, but participants almost seemed to punish those who sent emails with emoji: when responding to emoji-containing emails, they were less likely to include detailed information.
"Our findings provide first-time evidence that, contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence," the researchers wrote in their study.
While interesting, the findings highlight a larger problem that women run into in the workplace again and again: traits that are generally associated with femininity and women (like, you know, expressing emotions) are seen as negative or inferior. It's the reason why, when companies are looking to fill roles traditionally occupied by males, women are more frequently passed up for their male counterparts, despite having the exact same qualifications, according to Fast Company. It's the same reason female authors see more success when they send their manuscripts to agents under male pseudonyms.
Until implicit biases about women in the workplace start to change, we're going to keep seeing findings like this. Yes, women are often more expressive than men (as the result of socialization, of course) — both with emoji and in real life. But that doesn't affect their ability to do their jobs. In fact, research has found that being caring, passionate, and empathetic helps people become better leaders. That's a good thing. So why are we still judging these traits as negative, and punishing women for showing them?
Personally, these findings just make me want to keep using emoji in all my work emails. ;) But if you're worried about making a good first impression and being kept in the loop work-wise, the researchers advised, perhaps keep your emoji use to a minimum until you've sussed out your boss' and coworkers' communication style.