Women who seemingly never get angry are truly commendable creatures. How they manage to tolerate some of the truly awful things the world can throw at them is beyond me.
That was especially true of a former female boss I had — no matter what the scenario, she was a seemingly never-ending supply of patience, even to those who scarcely deserved it.
There was one incident where this rang exceptionally true. It just so happened that we were stuck in a meeting all day with some folks from the technical department of the organization. (Back then, I had a decidedly non-technical role).
This meeting included an extended session led by the principal software engineer. He had the sort of self-assured arrogance that men in tech fields so often do, but even so, I didn’t assume much of it.
Even before entering the meeting, a co-worker warned me that I was about to be in for a hell of a time (and not in a good way). I soon found out why.
The meeting started off easily enough, but quickly devolved into what I can only describe as a nightmarish ordeal. The engineer in question almost immediately turned the attention from the tasks at hand at to something he considered far more important — himself. He began to loudly whine about how overburdened he was. Then it started to get uglier.
He began making some overt jabs at my boss’s qualifications and work, drawing into full relief her lack of a technical background and her apparently “easier” job (wrong), all while managing to give the best “poor me!” performance I’ve ever seen. It was exactly the sort of self-victimizing ruse I so often see women accused of portraying, but much more terrifying in person. At one point he was, for all intents and purposes, literally screaming down at her.
In that moment, as he stood there and lashed out at my boss, my blood was boiling. I was furious, and that’s probably a milder way of putting it. How dare he lose it right in front of her, I thought. Throwing temper tantrums like some sort of pathetic, overgrown child while she (an employee far more overworked and underpaid than him) was forced to be the adult in an increasingly escalated situation.
But of course, I knew all too well that my female manager didn’t have the luxury of throwing it right back in his face. The privilege of getting angry, hell, of getting downright furious, was one that was denied to her. Because, although his behavior was deplorable, his privilege of being a man with technical skill was virtually indispensable to the team. Meanwhile, I knew that if she so much as piped up in self-defense, she could be fired and removed without so much as a bat of an eye. After all, a woman with “soft skills” is an easily expendable resource.
So she took his insults silently, even though his attacks were personal and petty and absolutely crossed the line of professionalism.
The incident, if anything, opened my eyes to the glaring hypocrisy between the two genders when it comes to one of the most base emotions humans possess– anger.
Men blow up in anger all the time, both professionally and privately, and no one really cares; and while a man who occasionally lashes out in a righteous fury is seen as someone who is laying down the law, the same does not hold true for a woman. Indeed, a woman doing the same is a dangerous, unpredictable force. She’s crazy, shrill, out of her mind – a Lady Macbeth come alive.
There’s personal experience with this here, too. I’m not exactly an angry person, per se, but I’m not someone you’d want to try and cross, either. I’ve gotten darkly angry before, and friends, people I trust, have told me to be careful. Not because it’s unbecoming or unfeminine, but because unlike a man, my anger tends to detract from my point rather than add to it — no matter how valid my cause for anger might be.
This isn’t me merely postulating, either. In a study that won several prizes, Arizona State University psychologist Jessica Salerno, with University of Chicago-Illinois psychologist Liana Peter-Hagene (2015), investigated what happens when women and men become angry during jury deliberations.
During deliberations, jurors often find themselves needing to sway others. The stakes are high: the jury’s decision will decide the fate of another human being, and if they get it wrong, an innocent man or woman may be sentenced, or a guilty party may go scot-free. Emotions run high, and speeches can be very passionate.
The premise of the experiment was simple — if women and men are perceived differently when they express their anger in impassioned speeches, then their influence on fellow jurors should reflect these impressions. If you’re taken seriously when you get angry, you may persuade others to change their mind; if you’re viewed as a lightweight, you’ll be ignored.
The results were, in a word, unfortunate. Participants were more likely to side with what an angry male had to say, but were less likely to do so after hearing the angry woman’s arguments. Everything in the two conditions was exactly the same—except the holdout’s gender.
These findings have troubling implications about how seriously women are taken compared to men when they behave in the exact same way. As the authors noted:
“Our results lend scientific support to a frequent claim voiced by women… that people would have listened to her impassioned argument, had she been a man” (p. 11).
As my well-wishers are so often quick to remind me, it is entirely unfair, but it’s just the way of the world. I understand that. But I refuse to believe that cutting out my anger entirely is the solution. I am not a robot, capable of swallowing my anger without personal consequence.
Nor do I believe that there’s any sort of duality between fact and emotion. What is true is true, no matter what emotions surround it. And when the truth is challenged, it’s anger that allows us to express dissatisfaction at injustice. It allows us to say, loudly and clearly: something is wrong.
Considering the inequalities, challenges, violence and oppression women the world over face, guess what? Women are fully entitled to express every emotion — anger included. In fact, I’d tell young women not to suppress their anger, but to instead view the world more carefully because of it.
So if you see a woman who is angry, consider this – she may have a reason for it. Don’t suppress her or hold her back — just let her be.