Women Lawyers: Does Expressing Anger Hold you Back?

By Betsy Munnell
Showing anger.

Showing anger.

Last week on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook I shared this excellent article by Kathryn Welds —and considered the relevance to female lawyers of the fascinating research she describes: Jessica Salerno of Arizona State University and Liana Peter-Hagene of University of Illinois conducted computer-mediated mock jury proceedings, and found that men who showed anger were more likely to influence their peers while women who expressed anger were perceived as less influential. As Kathryn Welds correctly observes: “This differential judgment of anger by men and women suggests that women who do not regulate their emotional expressions are more harshly evaluated because their behaviors deviate from expected societal, gender, and cultural norms.”

Disturbing news, but certainly not a color-me-surprised moment for any of us in the legal profession. Women who express anger –in fact, any strong emotion– in professional settings have always done so at their peril. Here’s a classic BigLaw example:

Meet Don–A fifth year with some anger management issues. “But he’s scrappy and plays a great game of golf.”

Male lawyers who are combative, testy or aggressive are often described as tough or brash or, perhaps, as “street fighters”. They are usually considered worthy opponents and decent (if not masterful) advocates, albeit “sharp-elbowed”. Irritating to their colleagues, these guys will nonetheless get the good work if they are smart, effective and self-confident.

And now I give you Rachel– Top of her class. Law review. “But oh so abrasive. So shrill.”

By contrast, a women attorney who is sharp tempered or edgy risks being seen as high-strung, emotional or, that reliable leitmotif, bitchy. If she switches gears to be more accommodating she could fall into the so-called “likability vs. competence” trap, emerging “just-not-tough-enough” for the big city. (The good news: If the client is happy, all will be forgiven.) And, just because it has to be said….. Haven’t we all heard colleagues describe an argument between two women as a “cat fight”, where the same exchange between a couple of guys would not raise an eyebrow, much less prompt a smirk?

The best negotiators manage their anger strategically, deploying it to the best effect and carefully monitoring the reactions of those around them. Unfortunately, as research and our own experiences tell us, women can lose ground fast when they show strong emotion.

So how do we manage this double standard in the workplace? There are absolutely no easy answers to that question. The advice I offer the women I coach varies broadly, depending on personal style, interpersonal strengths, workplace context, and career strategy. The first step, however, is to understand how you come across in the range of professional settings most critical to your success as a lawyer and your advancement at work. Then determine whether modulating your anger or other strong emotions would make a difference of sufficient appeal to justify the effort or the sacrifice in authenticity.

Some women find that simply being aware of the stereotype is enough to help them moderate their emotions in professional settings. Those who conclude that they could afford some polishing have at their disposal a host of helpful books, blogs, communications coaches and cognitive therapists. (In fact, Welds has curated a large amount of research on this and related subjects—her website is an excellent place to start.)

The simplest solution, of course, is to moderate your temper. The best negotiators I knew during my career – male and female – always steered clear of testy exchanges. I did my best to emulate them, developing a negotiating approach tied to my client’s business objectives and practical challenges and to general notions of fair play.

When in doubt, occupy the moral high ground….it’s way more fun than getting mad.