We already know that women’s emotions and reactions in the office are often judged differently than men.
But new research from VitalSmarts, a Provo, Utah, organizational performance consultancy, finds that women who are forceful or angry in their communication may face “emotional inequality” and suffer greater social backlash than their male counterparts–including in their perceived worth.
The two-part study looked at the impact of forceful, high-stakes conversations and what could be done to overcome the bias.
The first study’s purpose was to demonstrate the effects of gender bias when someone is being forceful. One of two actors—a man or a woman–was seated at a table in a meeting room with a camera focused tightly on the actor. The study tested three scripts with four levels of forcefulness: neutral, mild, moderate, and strong:
- A neutral script that included a simple status update with no disagreement or high stakes.
- A moderate “high-stakes” script where the actor was working with peers and imposing moderate consequences, such as stating she or he would not commit resources until more conclusive evidence was gathered about a project.
- An extreme high-stakes script where the actor was working with subordinates and imposing extreme consequences, such as, “I’m going to ask that everyone on this team reapply for their jobs and submit to competency testing.”
Observers were also told the reporting relationship between the observer and the subjects—the actor would become the observer’s boss, peer, or subordinate. When the actors delivered the extreme high-stakes script in an angry or forceful manner, observers rated both actors much lower in perceived status, competency, and worth. The more forceful the statement, the bigger the drop.
“When observers were told that this person was going to become their boss next week, then the anger that they saw in the video swamped any male-female effect. The only thing that mattered was, ‘Oh my gosh. This ogre that I’m watching on video next week is going to be my boss,” says David Maxfield, vice president of research.
But when the actor was going to be a subordinate or peer, gender bias seemed to kick in, Maxfield says. When speaking angrily or forcefully, the woman’s perceived competence dropped by 35% and her perceived worth by $15,088, which was a significantly bigger drop than the men who behaved the same way, he says.
To assess whether framing statements, which would set the tone for the statement to come, could mitigate the backlash, the second part of the study looked at whether saying something upfront that indicated what was to come, the reason for the statement, or something along the lines of, “I know it’s risky for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly,” the social backlash was reduced by as much as 27%.
But, are women really supposed to couch their language in apologetic prefaces to avoid being seen as incompetent and valued less? And Maxfield admits that at a recent gathering of human resources professionals, most said that the “risky for a woman to say this” framing statement wasn’t something they’d recommend. But he also says that being aware of the emotional inequality phenomenon and how to reduce its potential impact is important until organizations root out the types of implicit bias that lead to such attitudes.
“Fighting long-term gender roles and that society evolves but it evolves very slowly. Hopefully, the forefront of the evolution would be opinion leader organizations take the lead, eventually the legal structure catches up,” he says.