By sintecho • January 11, 2008•Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination
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?