An actress, a lawyer, an academic, and even a former NFL coach weigh in on the double standard women face when expressing their emotions and how they can navigate it.
Serena Williams says she couldn’t have written a better past year for herself. Addressing a crowd of 10,000 at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women in Philadelphia last Friday, the 23-time Grand Slam champion and working mom radiated optimism. She sported a top from her new fashion line with “BE SEEN” printed across the chest and shared advice like “keep it positive” and “look at the bigger picture.”
As for the drama that erupted during her face-off with umpire Carlos Ramos at the U.S. Open women’s finals last month, Williams broached the subject with a clear message: “I’ve always stood up for myself, and I will always stand up for myself,” she told attendees of the annual conference, loosely referencing the debate over Ramos’s penalization of her anger on the court. While she was quick to move on, she was not about to apologize.
Fellow speakers, from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, also encouraged women to continue unapologetically speaking up and out against injustice. Yet doing so can be a challenge in the workplace, where women are disproportionately penalized for expressing emotions, especially when they are perceived as angry. Here, conference speakers share how they navigate the double standard and weigh in on how to create work environments where women don’t need to worry about how their anger is policed any more than men.
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While research shows that civility in the workplace leads to better performance, most psychologists view anger as a perfectly normal and healthy feeling, says Selena Rezvani, vice president at the women’s leadership consultancy Be Leaderly. “It’s just that as women, we’ve long been discouraged from showing it,” she adds. As current events illuminate gender disparities in how anger is policed, Rezvani recommends that employers invest in fostering psychologically safe workplaces, i.e. environments where all employees recognize they are part of a system where they have freedom to express anger without being unfairly judged for it, and are expected to maintain civility and productivity.
DON’T: GET DEFENSIVE. DO: LISTEN TO THOSE YOU’RE ADVOCATING FOR
Actress, comedian, and disability advocate Maysoon Zayid is exhausted just thinking about how often women and minorities are told they should tone down their emotionality to be taken seriously. As a senior at Arizona State University, she remembers getting passed over for a role in a school play that she felt she deserved and was quite literally born to play (like her, the character had cerebral palsy). She didn’t hesitate to express her anger to the decision makers at the time, and today she continues to speak out against sexism, racism, and ableism.
Women and minorities, she says, are frequently taught they need to shrink themselves in professional settings to succeed. That motivates her to continue spreading the opposite message. As she writes an autobiographical comedy series in development at ABC, she’s advocating for diversity and representation in Hollywood, where TV characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors 95% of the time. Her advice to allies not from a particular group? Listen. “When I tell you that a term is offensive to disabled people, don’t tell me, ‘But I use it all the time,’ Zayid says. “Believe the people you are advocating for.’”
USE LEADERSHIP AND COMMUNICATION SKILLS TO PREEMPT ANGER
An African-American literature scholar and Swarthmore’s president since 2015, Valerie Smith is not one to overtly express anger. “I just can not let circumstances or individuals make me lose it,” she says. “I don’t have the luxury to be angry.” While she believes her calm demeanor has served her well in her career, she acknowledges that some people might interpret her level-headed leadership style as a perceived weakness and a projection on women’s strength.
Everyone can play a role in mitigating gender and racial biases. Smith encourages her faculty to take advantage of teachable moments to foster respectful, fair classroom environments. In her role as an academic institution’s chief executive, she taps the same techniques she picked up as a professor to set an expectation that everyone will have room to express themselves and no one voice will dominate. She also uses meeting culture, where women are more likely than men to be interrupted by both men and women and less likely to take credit for their ideas, as an opportunity to establish a tone of equality and call out inequities.