Serena Williams got mad and the male umpire didn’t like it. Women everywhere can empathize.
Denise Dudley says there’s a double standard about women and men showing emotion at work. She’s read the research about how women are judged for speaking their minds and asserting themselves, and she’s also lived it. Dudley, a workplace consultant and author based in San Luis Obispo, had some first-hand experience losing her cool while having lunch with fellow board members at a university, she says. “One board member we knew to be a blusterer, but he was also a big donor.” The board members were, in other words, used to listening to him talk.
On this day, that wealthy and talkative board member made anti-Semitic comments. No one said a thing. Dudley said she stood up and announced, “I’m leaving,” and walked out of the room in protest. A fellow board member followed her into the bathroom. “The second I looked at her I burst into tears,” she recalls. “I told her, ‘I’m so angry.’” But in the days that followed, her colleagues’ reaction also shocked her. “I got the same response from everybody: ‘It must have been pretty upsetting, but that’s who he is.’ I got labeled as someone who is thin-skinned and too emotional.”
‘We’re considered to be difficult when we get angry, whereas men are perceived as being tough and powerful.’
It not longer surprises her. “Women are judged for being emotional,” says Dudley, author of “Work It! Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted.” “We’re considered to be difficult when we get angry, whereas men are perceived as being tough and powerful. I’m going to be labeled as a ball-buster and men are going to be labeled as take charge. This is exactly what happened to Serena Williams at the U.S. Open on Saturday. I’m not saying she should have done what she did, but it’s an emotional game. At the same time, a double standard was applied. Had she been a male, it wouldn’t have been the same.”
At the U.S. Women’s Open final, Williams, 36, got into a heated discussion with the umpire Carlos Ramos after he penalized her for receiving hand signals from her coach. She denied that her coach was giving her such signals. She later smashed her racket on the court, incurring another penalty and, after calling Ramos a “thief” for docking her a point, he gave her a third code violation, costing her a game and a $17,000 fine. She ultimately lost to Japan’s Naomi Osaka, 20, 6-2, 6-4. (The U.S. Tennis Association and World Tennis Association have both said there’s a higher tolerance of such behavior by men in the game.)
Women in male-dominated workplaces are more likely to say their gender has made it harder to be heard at work.
Indeed, the same is true in the workplace, as Dudley found. Research shows that men who get angry at work are perceived as strong and decisive, while women are more likely to be regarded as hysterical and, as such, may show more restraint than their male colleagues. “Both men and women are held to norms of appropriate emotional expression in the workplace, but emotional expressions by women tend to come under greater scrutiny than those by men,” according to a 2016 paper, “Constrained by Emotion: Women, Leadership, and Expressing Emotion in the Workplace.”
Women incur social and economic penalties for expressing stereotypical “masculine” emotions because it threatens society’s patriarchal barriers against the “dominance of women,” the researchers — Jacqueline Smith, Victoria Brescoll and Erin Thomas — wrote in the paper, published in the “Handbook on Well-Being of Working Women.” At the same time, when women express stereotypical “female” emotions, “they are judged as lacking emotional control, which ultimately undermines women’s competence and professional legitimacy,” the researchers noted.
In fact, women employed in male-dominated workplaces are more likely to say their gender has made it harder to be heard at work and they report gender discrimination at higher rates, a survey released in March by the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., concluded. When women express emotion at work, they’re often regarded as weak, says Colleen Huber director of e-learning design and development at Seattle-based MediaPro, which focuses on cybersecurity and data privacy threats. And how are men perceived? “They’re showing passion.”
‘Women still use language like, I’m sorry, but… and, I hate to say this, but… A man will just say, That’s a problem.’
Kim Churches, chief executive officer at the American Association of University Women in Washington, D.C., said women are under pressure to come across as likeable as well as respected. “I have had many times when I’m the only female at the table and someone has looked to me to take care of the housekeeping like pouring the coffee,” she says. It’s harder for women to show their frustration and anger, she adds. “Women still use language like, “I’m sorry, but…’ and, ‘I hate to say this, but…” A man will just say, “That’s a problem, and here’s why…”
This emotional gender stereotyping can work both ways. A vast majority of men and women (60%) aged 15 to 24 believe that societal and cultural pressures to act masculine prevents men from expressing their emotions in healthy ways, according to a recent report, “Diversity, Division, Discrimination: The State of Young America,” released by MTV and the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. Young women are more than twice as likely as young men to say they feel stereotypes prevent them from pursuing the things they want to do.
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Even using your voice without any discernible emotion at work can benefit men more than women. Two studies published last year in the Academy of Management Journal found that not all voices are equal. Men who spoke up in meetings with ideas and solutions to problems benefited more than women who did the same. “Talking a lot or participating at a high level in a group may not be enough to emerge as a leader,” the researchers wrote, “it also depends how you do it and who you are.” They concluded, “The benefits associated with speaking are more strongly felt for men.”
The studies focused on a four-month training camp at a military academy and an experiment where 196 people listened to audio recordings with men and women speaking about selling insurance over the phone. In two separate recordings, men and women pointed out a problem with the process. In another two recordings, men and women pointed out a solution with the process. In the military training camp and the experiment involving a fictitious insurance company, women did not receive any benefits in status or emerge as a leader from speaking up; the men who offered solutions did.
Men who spoke up in meetings with ideas were more likely to be regarded as leaders than women who did the same.
“Managers who want to promote gender equity on their team — or who just want to make sure they are getting as many good suggestions from their team members as possible — will have to pro-actively work to counteract the tendencies uncovered in our research,” Sean Martin, one of the researchers, wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Women, even when they speak up and ‘lean in,’ still may not get equal credit for doing so. And if that is the case, then it is essential not only for women to speak up but also for those around them to give equal weight to what they say.”
Anne Kreamer, author of “It’s Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace,” recalls being screamed at during a phone call by a titan of industry because the stock of the company she worked for didn’t rise when she sealed a deal. He slammed the phone down after a rage-filled 90 seconds. When he phoned in the middle of their celebration on closing the deal, she mistakenly believed he was calling to congratulate her. “My first response was to shout back, ‘Who do you think you are? How could you reasonably expect this little deal to move the share price?’” But she worked, she says, in a division within a division within a division. So she remained silent.
“Women often cry at work is because they’re angry,” Kreamer says. “Women feel the inability to express anger at work. This is a deeply common phenomenon for almost all women. Anger is seen by some business leaders as an effective management tool. The President of the United States has internalized that on some level.” But she believes women shouldn’t shout back when screamed at by a man who is in a position of power — and not just because it would jeopardize their job. Well-chosen words are always better, she says. “Women should articulate their anger so it doesn’t diminish their standing in the organization or their larger workplace ethos.”
There are exceptions to this rule. Dudley has seen women using anger and tears as a powerful way to get a message across. When she worked as an administrator at a psychiatric hospital in California, an elderly woman climbed over a wall in the middle of the night and fell asleep on the other side. The staff searched the perimeter of the hospital in vain. Thankfully, Dudley says, the woman was eventually found unharmed, but not until the following morning. It was a cautionary tale for the staff and one that could just have easily ended tragically.
One female staff member was furious, Dudley recalls. “This woman was angry. As she was talking, she burst into tears and the whole staff just absorbed it rather than playing with their pencils and looking at their watches. I’ve never forgotten that. The emotion that she showed allowed a direct transfer of what she was trying to say into the minds and hearts and souls of everyone who was a care giver in that room.” Alas, Dudley says that such an impact is rare. “It was the only time I’ve ever seen emotions work positively for a woman in the workplace,” she says.
Is there a lesson from the Serena Williams debacle? Churches believes she was the victim of a sexist double standard where men can get away with a lot more before being taken to task. “She’s a world-class athlete fighting in one of the most important tennis tournaments of the year,” she said. “Whether you work in advanced manufacturing, tech, the legal field or education, women aren’t only judged on merit, but are also judged on whether they smile enough. Women still have to jump through additional hoops. We have to have some level of consistency in the workplace.”
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