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Serena Williams, Amal Clooney, and others on policing women’s anger

An actress, a lawyer, an academic, and even a former NFL coach weigh in on the double standard women face when expressing their emotions and how they can navigate it.

Serena Williams, Amal Clooney, and others on policing women’s anger
Professional tennis player Serena Williams speaks on stage during Pennsylvania Conference for Women 2018 at Pennsylvania Convention Center on October 12, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. [Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/WireImage/Getty Images]

Serena Williams says she couldn’t have written a better past year for herself. Addressing a crowd of 10,000 at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women in Philadelphia last Friday, the 23-time Grand Slam champion and working mom radiated optimism. She sported a top from her new fashion line with “BE SEEN” printed across the chest and shared advice like “keep it positive” and “look at the bigger picture.” Among the accomplishments that came up: celebrating her daughter’s first birthday, competing in Wimbledon and the U.S. Open finals, becoming co-chair of the 2019 Met Gala, working with Nike and Survey Monkey, and adding maternal health advocacy to her philanthropic initiatives.

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As for the drama that erupted during her face-off with umpire Carlos Ramos at the U.S. Open women’s finals last month, Williams broached the subject with a clear message: “I’ve always stood up for myself, and I will always stand up for myself,” she told attendees of the annual conference, loosely referencing the debate over Ramos’s penalization of her anger on the court. While she was quick to move on, she was not about to apologize.

Fellow speakers, from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, also encouraged women to continue unapologetically speaking up and out against injustice. Yet doing so can be a challenge in the workplace, where women are disproportionately penalized for expressing emotions, especially when they are perceived as angry. Here, four other conference speakers share how they navigate the double standard and weigh in on how to create work environments where women don’t need to worry about how their anger is policed any more than men.

Call out microinequities daily

While research shows that civility in the workplace leads to better performance, most psychologists view anger as a perfectly normal and healthy feeling, says Selena Rezvani, vice president at the women’s leadership consultancy Be Leaderly. “It’s just that as women, we’ve long been discouraged from showing it,” she adds. As current events illuminate gender disparities in how anger is policed, Rezvani recommends that employers invest in fostering psychologically safe workplaces, i.e. environments where all employees recognize they are part of a system where they have freedom to express anger without being unfairly judged for it, and are expected to maintain civility and productivity.

She advises allies to be aware of everyday disruptions they can make against microinequities disproportionately chipping away at women’s reputations,e.g. instances in which assertiveness from men is rewarded, while the same behavior from women is interpreted as aggressive and/or angry. As an employee on the receiving end of certain biases, help colleagues recognize biased tendencies.

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For example, preface a statement or action that may be unfairly perceived as angry with language like, “This is not stereotypically feminine, but I’m about to [insert stereotypically masculine behavior…].” On top of recognizing how the double standard manifests itself, Rezvani believes that a major part of achieving equity is helping everyone understand that being unfairly perceived as angry feels bad.

Don’t: Get defensive. Do: Listen to those you’re advocating for

Actress, comedian, and disability advocate Maysoon Zayid is exhausted just thinking about how often women and minorities are told they should tone down their emotionality to be taken seriously. As a senior at Arizona State University, she remembers getting passed over for a role in a school play that she felt she deserved and was quite literally born to play (like her, the character had cerebral palsy). She didn’t hesitate to express her anger to the decision makers at the time, and today she continues to speak out against sexism, racism, and ableism.

Women and minorities, she says, are frequently taught they need to shrink themselves in professional settings to succeed. That motivates her to continue spreading the opposite message. As she writes an autobiographical comedy series in development at ABC, she’s advocating for diversity and representation in Hollywood, where TV characters with disabilities are played by able-bodied actors 95% of the time. Her advice to allies not from a particular group? Listen. “When I tell you that a term is offensive to disabled people, don’t tell me, ‘But I use it all the time,’ Zayid says. “Believe the people you are advocating for.'”

Use leadership and communication skills to preempt anger

An African-American literature scholar and Swarthmore’s president since 2015, Valerie Smith is not one to overtly express anger. “I just can not let circumstances or individuals make me lose it,” she says. “I don’t have the luxury to be angry.” While she believes her calm demeanor has served her well in her career, she acknowledges that some people might interpret her level-headed leadership style as a perceived weakness and a projection on women’s strength.

As for addressing double standards like these, Smith believes an organization’s leaders should be responsible for equipping women and those who’ve been marginalized with tools to channel anger effectively. “I never want to tell anyone who is outraged … that they need to quiet themselves down,” she says. “But by the same token, it’s important to recognize that there are a variety of ways to express one’s thoughts and opinions.” She thinks it’s important for men and women alike to be attuned to the way people around them interpret anger.

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Meanwhile, everyone can play a role in mitigating gender and racial biases. Smith encourages her faculty to take advantage of teachable moments to foster respectful, fair classroom environments. In her role as an academic institution’s chief executive, she taps the same techniques she picked up as a professor to set an expectation that everyone will have room to express themselves and no one voice will dominate. She also uses meeting culture, where women are more likely than men to be interrupted by both men and women and less likely to take credit for their ideas, as an opportunity to establish a tone of equality and call out inequities.

Stay true to your superpowers

When Jen Welter joined the Arizona Cardinals as a linebackers coach in 2015, she made history as the world’s first female NFL coach. Instead of dwelling on the landmine of gender stereotypes she was walking into or trying to replicate coaching styles that worked for her colleagues, she leaned into her expertise: psychology. This meant knowing who she had to reach and establishing effective ways to reach them. “I may be good at football, but I’m great at people,” says Welter, who realized early on that coming off as angry wasn’t going to get her far with her players.

Fairness aside, she focused on figuring out what did work. Instead of raising her voice to get her players to hear her, she found that getting them to lean down so she could speak to them at eye level worked best. “It was actually a running commentary that Coach Jen doesn’t yell,” she says. When considering how to get through to and earn the respect of coworkers, think of how your unique strengths. How might you use them to establish a commanding and positive presence? “If everybody else is yelling, sometimes you’re most effective with a whisper,” Welter says.


Katie S. Sanders is a freelance journalist whose reporting pursuits have brought her to Norwegian prisons, JDate, and the White House South Lawn. Follow her on Twitter at @katiessanders.

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