Women learn from a young age that they will need to be shape-shifters. According to different expectations, norms and values they will have to identify and learn over the course of a lifetime, young girls understand they will need to be contortionists: molding themselves into the proper cookie-cutter shapes lest they face severe repercussions. Beyond the demands placed on girls to shape their physical selves, it is their emotions that are the most policed: the basic expression of their selves.
While girls are taught many things about emotions, the feeling and expression of anger is not one of them. Yet we propel girls into a world where, as a women, there is so much to be angry about: from unequal pay to men raping women and girls at catastrophic rates, from our reproductive rights still being debated in courts of law to the unequal access of women to positions of power, decision-making and control of powerful resources: media, finance, executive power. The daily gendered injustices, in many ways crosscut by race, add to the levels of sustained anxiety and anger that women have. From interpersonal relationships, to the professional and political playing fields, women’s anger is seen as ugly and unacceptable. Societal norms and expectations intersect these fields and inform how we respond to expressions of anger – and these responses are especially gendered.
Men, on the other hand, remain unaware.* Indeed, men exist in a society (here, I speak mainly of Western worlds) where their anger is seen as powerful, and where they feel and benefit from that power. It is in this same world in which the same expressions of anger in women are punished. This is recipe for men to feign ignorance and express shock when women step outside of bounds and display anger in non-conforming ways. Men’s shock and repulsion contributes to women being taught to retain, contain and solve their ‘anger issues’ on their own. While this is evident in all interactions that I have noted, it is within the professional sphere where they have been most researched.
Within professional spheres where anger is, by definition, part of the equation, men benefit and women suffer. In the courtroom, when men and women lawyers expressed assertiveness to defend their clients, it benefits the clients of the male lawyers and punishes the clients of the female lawyers. When political men express anger to support their points of view, it makes voters more likely believe their reasoning, the same does not hold true for women politicians (Think of both Trump and Sanders). In the workplace, men’s anger is seen as justified and powerful with co-workers responding positively, while the same expressions in women are seen as unjustified, with co-workers punishing ‘angry’ women and branding them unlikable (more on likeability further down). This turns into a vicious cycle: men are rewarded with more power by demonstrating anger that is associated with them seeming powerful, while women who seek to obtain power and do so by exhibiting the same assertive behaviours are punished for it, further cementing power imbalances throughout professional landscapes.