sintecho

Is there such a thing as professional anger for women?

I was intrigued by the series of comments about showing emotion as a female lawyer in a professional context. I was especially struck by the posts that talked about how crying was the response that came through when what the women really felt was anger. One woman wrote that when she “lost [her] fear and embarrassment about [her] own anger, [she] was able to take a deep breath, speak slowly and clearly, and maintain [her] composure” rather than responding with tears to certain situations. Another woman commented about an occasion where she had cried in front of a partner: “I wish I had not broken down, but rather responded with the anger I was truly feeling.” So my question is: what is an appropriate way to show anger in a professional setting?

I can believe, based on these women’s comments and my own observations and experiences, that women may be socialized to respond to intense emotions with tears while men respond with anger, which is why anger might be viewed as a more “professional” response than tears (Peg made this point in the comment string I cited above). What I want to know is what that anger should look like. I imagine that if the woman who wrote about crying in front of the partner had screamed at him instead of crying, she would not necessarily have been viewed more favorably (she would be a “loose cannon” instead of overly emotional). In fact, I think that women arguably can’t show much emotion at all—anger or sadness—without being judged as “hysterical females.” If our superiors and colleagues will be quick to stereotype us as unhinged or unstable for any show of strong emotion, how can we deal with the anger we feel in professional contexts?

I ask because I had a situation the other day at work that I really didn’t know how to deal with (then or now). I was working on a project with a male colleague, who is about my same age and is my same employment level. We were reviewing documents and each making recommendations about the items we reviewed. Though we asked each other questions as needed (well, he actually never asked me my opinion, but in theory he could have, and I did ask him his opinion on a few items I reviewed), we were working independently and not running our ultimate decisions by each other before marking them down. Someone asked about one of the matters I had reviewed while I was away from my desk, and so he ended up looking at what I had written. When I came back, I realized that he had changed my recommendation. I tried to talk to him about it, and I stated my reasons for my initial recommendation, but he disagreed for his own reasons (which I disagreed with). In truth, it was a judgment call. It could have gone either way, and neither of us was really wrong. I was, however, extremely offended that he had changed my recommendation since it struck me as professional discourtesy. I would NEVER have changed one of his recommendations.

I was literally overcome by my anger. Fury, actually. And hurt and resentment and rage. I processed what I was feeling in my mind, but I could not figure out a way to handle it. I basically just stopped speaking to him until my feelings were under control, which he attributed to me being in a bad mood and asked if I needed a break from our task. I understood that being passive aggressive was not the best way to deal with the situation, but I was afraid that if I said anything, it would look as though I were making a big deal about nothing. The change he made was minimal, but it was more that I felt judged inadequate by a colleague whose respect I valued and who I respected. I felt sure that he would never have changed the recommendation of one of our male colleagues, and I wanted him to understand that what he had done was rude and offensive. But, I was afraid that if I let my rage loose, I wouldn’t be able to curtail it, and our relationship would be ruined forever. It seemed that the cost of saying something was greater than I was willing to pay, so I said nothing. However, like the women above, I wish that I had been able to show my anger in a way that would not have cost me the professional relationship rather than choosing silence to preserve the relationship. Does anyone have any suggestions?

6 Comments

Chicana

You really just have to "pick your battles" for lack of a better cliche.  I think your colleague definitely crossed the professional line.  He could have easily told person what your recommendation was or advised them to speak with you regarding the matter.  Instead he clearly decided your recommendation was inferior and changed it.  That is not okay.  However, your anger may have made the situation worse so while passive aggressiveness is not any better, it may have been the better than erupting with anger into the "hysterical female" you described in your post.  I posit there is a third choice which is to tell the colleague that you were disturbed by his decision to change your recommendation and next he should ask you before doing so or direct the inquiring person to you.  I am all about being straight forward and clear about how you want people to treat you.  You have to teach people how to treat you… once the anger is gone, you should be able to clearly state your position.  It sounds like you think it is not a big deal which it may not be, but this is what this guy is capable of and you should know that about him and remember it in your future dealings, especially if you choose to let this one slide.  Just my thoughts on the topic.  I think working with people is a careful balancing act between being right and effectiveness.  What are your goals and will they be served by taking a particular action?  I am currently reading Basic Black by Cathie Black, publisher for Hearst Magazines.  I will post a review shortly, but throughout the book she talks a great deal about dealing with co-workers and her best advice is to be straight forward, but also to ask yourself what goal will be achieved by taking a particular action.  Thus, if you work a lot with this colleague I would say something, but if not, then let him continue on his unprofessional way.
I hope this helps you figure out what is best for you.  More information would definately make the action to be taken more clear, but I just wanted to think it through and hopefully this is helpful.
 

CM

I thought about how I would react to this. My initial reaction was that I would call him on it and say that it was inappropriate for him to change my work. But then I thought about what I've learned about negotiation, and specifically how it's dangerous to make assumptions about other people's motives. For instance, maybe he thought it was totally fine to change your recommendation because he was just correcting a mistake. So—I don't know if I would have done this in real life, but with the benefit of a little time to think about it—the conversation might have gone like this:
You: Why did you change my recommendation?
Him: It was wrong.
You: What makes you think it was wrong?
Him: Because of X, Y, and Z.
You: I disagree. I made that recommendation because of A, B, and C.
Him: But you are still wrong because of X, Y, and Z.
You: I think it's a matter of judgment. I need to be able to stand behind my own work. If you think I'm wrong, I need you to discuss it with me so that I can make changes if necessary.
 

Anna

Haven't faced a situation like sintecho describes, but what CM advises makes a lot of sense. I'm going to try and remember that "script" for future reference. Thanks!

iowa

Better and Better. 
 
This site just gets better and better with information shared.  I wilsh you well-deserved success in 2008!

veronica

I've had a partner be offensive about someone else to me (he was joking but it was an inappropriate subject and one with considerable emotional pain involved). I was dumbfounded, I thought he'd have more sense if nothing else.
After a few seconds of silence (in which I considered an emotional response) I simply said "I will come back and talk to you about it when you're in a mood to be serious".
It really wasn't a well thought out response but it worked. I think politely but coldly deferring discussion until you have thought about what to say is a good idea. It avoids ANY unconsidered reaction, emotional or not, professional or not. It gives you time to decide what to do and weigh the pros and cons. It gives you time to get your emotions under control. And, often, the pushback itself will work. He was full of apologies immediately and when he came to my office later in the day. At that time I simply said that clearly he knew it was inappropriate and that was all I would say. We then moved on to the real issue of how to rearrange the work to fit in with the circumstances (involving the mortal illness of a female colleague's family member).

CC_NC

Veronica ~ I love your response to the partner's inapproriate comment.  As we all know, silence speaks volumes.

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