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Why women are penalised for getting angry at work

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
It can be difficult to get along with people all the time, particularly in the workplace. Photo: Getty

Most of us try to contain our anger at work, even when we’re pushed to our limits.

From time to time, though, a useless boss, a passive aggressive colleague, or an unreasonable client can be the final straw. We erupt, even though we know we shouldn’t.

It can be difficult to get along with people all the time, particularly in the workplace — where many of us are stressed, under pressure, and exhausted. Tempers flare, but most of the time, we’re able to put our differences aside and move on. For women, though, getting angry at work can have lasting consequences.

Women are treated more harshly for displays of emotion in the workplace, particularly when they get angry, research shows. Meanwhile, professional men are far more likely to benefit from similar behaviours. A series of three studies led by Victoria Brescoll, a professor at the Yale School of Management, examined the relationship between anger, gender, and status.

“Male job applicants who expressed anger were shown to be more likely to be hired than those who expressed sadness, and they were subsequently given more power and autonomy in their jobs,” one study found. “However, women’s expressions of anger — because they run counter to social expectations — can decrease rather than increase women’s status and perceived competence.”

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Women incur social and economic penalties for expressing “masculine” emotions because it threatens society’s patriarchal barrier against the “dominance of women,” according to the researchers. They are also seen to be lacking in “emotional control,” which is seen to undermine their “competence and professional legitimacy.”

Men who display anger at work gain influence, studies suggest, whereas their female peers lose influence. In one study, conducted in 2018 by the Center for WorkLife Law, lawyers were asked if they were free to use anger at work when a case merits it — and if they felt they were punished for displaying aggression. White men felt much freer to express anger at work than any other group, including minority men.

Ultimately, men who get mad at work are perceived as strong and decisive. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be regarded as hysterical and irrational.

In recent years, women have talked more openly about things that make them angry. The #MeToo movement, for example, has been a profound cultural reckoning, with thousands of women coming forward with stories of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse.

But even when speaking about these subjects, women are still expected to show their anger in hushed, moderate tones — quietly, sensibly, and with none of the fury often deemed hysterical.

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Women of colour face even greater penalties for being livid, as they’re up against both gender and racial stereotypes. In 2018, Serena Williams made headlines after losing in the US Open final match to Naomi Osaka. Williams got into a heated debate with an umpire, Carlos Ramos, who accused her of being coached during the match.

After the umpire made the call, Williams disputed the accusation and called the umpire a thief. Williams, who is a 23-time Grand Slam champion and one of the best athletes in the sport, was then charged with $17,000 (£13,340) in fines.

Her reactions to the referee’s calls were no different to the way many of the top players react in the heat of a championship game. But the way she was treated was. Her meltdown wasn’t in the same league as those by past champions such as John McEnroe, whose racket-smashing tantrums became his trademark — yet she was still penalised harshly.

We can’t help getting angry sometimes, particularly when we’re under pressure. But it’s clear that while men’s angry behaviour is largely publicly accepted, women’s anger is not. The way we respond to it negatively affects women’s work, careers, and wellbeing.

Women are punished for expressing an emotion that is innate to us all — and if we’re to continue working towards equality in the workplace and in wider society, this has to change.