Actress Jennifer Lawrence hit a nerve recently when she published an essay decrying Hollywood’s gender pay gap and how difficult it is for women to stand up for themselves without seeming “angry.” Lawrence’s frustration is underscored by a recent study that found men and women are perceived differently when they actually do get mad.
Men are seen as “forceful” when they blow their top, the study found, while women are seen as too emotional.
And the female assertiveness dilemma was just brilliantly satirized in the Washington Post in a piece where famous historical quotes were translated so women could safely say them in a meeting.
The myth of the 'angry woman'
The myth of the "angry woman" in the workplace is an age old-problem that has real consequences.
When men are rewarded for assertive behavior and women penalized for it, it's a harmful double standard. "It actually damages our reputation —our brand — and the perception is that those qualities are very off-putting in a woman,” says Aimee Cohen, author of “Women Up! Overcome the 7 Deadly Sins That Sabotage Your Career.”
Victoria Pynchon, co-founder of She Negotiates, a Los Angeles-based career consulting firm, says the root of the problem is in cultural expectations. Women have long been the explainers and the soothers, so when they speak firmly or get angry at work, it’s a real disconnect for those around them.
It’s also about cultural power, she says, which means women of color battle additional baggage and stereotypes.
So we're forced to straddle the line, spending energy on the job not only strategizing about our work but also, like actress Lawrence, over-analyzing how we communicate to co-workers, Cohen says.
“For the most part, women suffer from that disease to please. We don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings or be seen in a negative light,” Cohen says.
For many women, she says, that’s the greatest motivation. “They would rather be liked than respected.”
Worry about being respected (not liked)
Worrying if everyone likes you will cost you, experts say.
"Why are women constantly worried about making people feel comfortable?" asks Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC's Morning Joe, founder of Know Your Value, a multi-city event tour for women, and author of “Grow Your Value.” Command respect first, says Brzezinski. "Once you have respect, it is very likely that friendship will follow, but constantly worrying about feelings will not get you anywhere and will detract from your message."
Beyond respect, being afraid to speak up could cost you money, time, prestige, and negotiating power, says Pynchon, who practiced law for 35 years before turning to consulting. “If you never express anger, you’re pretty much going to be a doormat in the workplace,” she says.
7 tips for speaking up at work
So, how should women advocate for themselves at work? How do we speak firmly when we need to negotiate, or — yikes! —let co-workers know we’re upset?
1. Practice how you speak.
Practice speaking in high-pressure situations so that you can recognize how your voice changes when you have to speak in front of a crowd, says Brzezinski. Speak slowly and confidently, in a lower tone, and in a manner that allows you to communicate to your superiors effectively.
2. Pay attention to your posture.
Use your posture to carry yourself in a way that demands respect. Sit and stand up straight, don’t slouch, says Brzezinski.
3. Be yourself.
When you speak firmly, do it in a way that is authentically you. “It’s about setting boundaries. You really do teach people how to treat you and how to think of you,” says Cohen. If you let anger build only to fly off the handle, others will be too shocked to hear your message.
4. Use your EQ (not your IQ).
Successful people aren’t necessarily the smartest, they just have higher emotional intelligence (EQ), Cohen says. “A big part of emotional intelligence is being able to control your emotions and read your audience,” Cohen says. Your EQ helps you filter your message. It also allows you to know how direct you can be with different people.
5. Frame your role in the organization.
If you’re employed in a position where you’re supposed to be assertive, stress that. “When I was a lawyer, people would tell me I was too bossy, too dominant, too angry. I would say, ‘That’s what you hired me for!’ You can assert your right to say something angrily by framing the position from which you’re saying it.” says Pynchon.
6. Use “I” statements.
This is good advice for human relations in general, Pynchon says. If someone violates your boundaries at work, confront them by telling them how it made you feel. "Go to that person and say, ‘John told me you took credit for the work I did. That irritates me.’ Or, ‘That makes me angry.’
You can say you’re angry, she advises, without acting angry.
7. Phone a friend.
If you’re about to lose your temper at work, stop yourself. Take a walk and call a friend — someone you don’t work with. Never complain to co-workers, says Pynchon. “Eventually everything you say in the office will come back to hurt you.”
Keep in mind, gender role restrictions go both ways, says Pynchon, and they are just as bad for men.
“A lot of the towel-snapping and the judging that’s done of men in the workplace makes them assert themselves in hyper-masculine ways that they’re not happy with either.”