Serena Williams recently made headlines after losing in the U.S. Open final match to Naomi Osaka. The news wasn’t based on how Williams played the game, but instead focused on a heated debate she had with an umpire that led to her getting slapped with a $17,000 fine. The entire interaction sparked a much larger discussion about the consequences of women showing anger and emotion. Why are women consistently penalized for expressing traits that their male counterparts exhibit regularly? While Williams’ anger may seem symbolic of women’s larger rage, it is important to look at how double standards like this recent incident play out in the workplace, and how that impacts women from every walk of life.
Research has consistently found that there are big differences between the ways that men and women are treated for expressing emotions, and particularly anger. Men who express anger at work are perceived as higher status. Women who express anger at work, however, are perceived as lower status and less competent, and are also paid lower wages.
Beyond The Stereotypes
Media and literature frequently reflect, and perpetuate, the belief that boys and men are angrier than girls and women — and that their anger is righteous and violent. That perception may be why men seem to get a free pass on exhibiting that anger at work. However, studies have also repeatedly shown that women report feeling anger more frequently and in more sustained ways than their male counterparts. In early 2016, a survey conducted by Esquire and NBC found that women reported consistently higher rates of anger. Another, conducted by Elle magazine two years later, revealed the same pattern.
We all know that women are angry right now, and #MeToo, #TimesUp and the Women’s March are some of the ways that women’s long-simmering frustrations are boiling over. However, this anger is nothing new. Natalie Gil points out in Refinery 29, “We’ve always been angry – we’re underpaid, overworked at home and in the workplace, thwarted from reaching our potential and diminished.” It’s important to note that it doesn’t take a cataclysmic event to express anger in the workplace, it can be something simple and even routine, and something that may not warrant a second glance if a man were to point it out.
The fact is, anger is a universal human emotion, and given that we are angry, like our male counterparts, the big question is, how can women overcome the negative consequences of expressing anger? And how can we work together to create a workplace that allows women and men to express emotion, and not be penalized unfairly?
Navigating Anger in the Workplace
Perhaps the best way to create a workplace that works for all of us is to bring awareness to the fact that we all get angry and take steps to learn, individually and collectively, how to channel that angerappropriately. For example, if you’re angry at a situation, call that situation out, and discuss it with co-workers, don’t rain your anger down on those around you. We can also discuss, and perhaps even put policies in place, that allow men and women to express their anger in healthy, direct, non-aggressive and non-toxic ways. All explanation and justification is a waste of time. Once the anger has been felt, expressed and owned, impacted employees can look at the lessons our anger might teach us. Anger is usually an indication that you need to set a boundary, stop doing something that is no longer of service, change direction, face what is not being faced, or to just say no.
Anger can be a great motivator, and we can use that to address the issues surrounding emotion in the workplace. While women have plenty of reasons to be angry and frustrated, it is important to keep in mind that we weaken our ability to make change if we allow ourselves to be derailed by our differences. If we can work together, women and men, to look at this situation, remove gender stereotypes, and have an honest and open dialog, we CAN change the workplace, and create an environment that works for all of us.