Why Serena Williams’ Anger Matters

Anger II

All good stories have a truth that makes them resonate beyond the moment. Two weekends ago, Serena Williams lost the semi-final match at the U.S. Open. While that alone might have been news, what clogged social media was the fact that Chair Umpire Carlos Ramos warned her after her coach allegedly gestured to her from the side lines. She responded angrily and was subsequently docked a point after smashing her racket. The exchange continued when she called Ramos a thief and a liar, and was further punished. Later, Williams suggested that similar behavior by male tennis players is overlooked. Lost in the narrative was Williams calming of a sometimes angry crowd, and gracious support for her opponent, Naomi Osaka.

Whether you follow the arcane and sometimes hierarchical rules of professional tennis is not the point. What we should focus on here, and what resonated for many women is the fact that public expression of anger is strongly governed by gender rules. To put it more bluntly, it’s easier for men to get angry at work than for women, and make no mistake, Serena Williams was at work. Study after study shows us that when men get angry they are perceived as more believable, more authentic, and sometimes more powerful. In one study conducted by Harvard’s Women and Public Policy Program, male job applicants who expressed anger were more likely to be hired than women. Women, on the other hand, are termed emotional, overheated, and abrasive. Their expression of anger, which runs counter to gender expectations, decreases a woman’s status, power, and competence.

What’s most interesting about men, women and anger is that men’s anger is perceived as a response, as in “You made me so mad,” as opposed to women’s anger which is understood as internal, as in, “You’ve really got a short fuse.” If you are a woman or identify as one, and work in the museum world, have you ever been chastised for being too emotional? Have you been told to smile? To calm down? To not be so upset? Or perhaps someone suggested you take a moment while you get yourself together?

It took generations for this gender divide over anger to grow, and it’s not going to go away this year. That means if you’re a woman or identify as one, you need ways to navigate the moments when you are angry. Some tips:

  1. Know what your triggers are. Maybe one of your direct reports drives you crazy, can’t answer questions, is dreamy, remote, and disconnected. Not a bad person, but on a bad day, she sends you right over the edge. Understanding that ahead of time, means you can reschedule a meeting with her if the entire rest of your day has gone south.
  2. Don’t go in hot. Also known as take a breather. Give yourself some space. Whether it’s a passive-aggressive email, a hurtful comment, ongoing eye-rolling, or being shut-out of a conversation again, give yourself some space. Take a walk. Get a coffee. Breathe. You don’t have to let go of your anger, you have to understand it.
  3. Think ahead about what you want to say vs. what you need to say. Don’t rant about the fact that the gala is in 36 hours and how suddenly you’ve been asked to revise a foundation request that was badly done (by someone else) in the first place. Try to focus on your organization and what’s best for it–how to get both things completed in a short time–rather than your hurt and betrayal at being asked to shore up a colleague’s failures yet again. By not focusing on your anger, you’re more likely to get help, and to create a climate where colleagues may be alert to the situation happening again.
  4. Support your colleagues: One of the other things studies show us is that while men’s anger and women’s anger are treated differently in the workplace, we also learn that many times both men AND women scorn women who are angry. Again, especially if you are a museum leader, look for the reason the woman is angry rather than the fact that she’s expressed it. Find out what is going on.
  5. Grow some empathy. Imagine that you’re a woman who’s been hired at a lower rate than her male colleague and knows it. Imagine that you’re a woman who’s been left out of conversations and information by male colleagues who subsequently use your knowledge gap to punish you. Imagine you’re a woman whose ideas are constantly reformulated at the staff table by a male colleague as his own. Imagine you hear inappropriate jokes at lunch objectifying women. Imagine all of that. Now imagine you’re a woman of color at work in a museum. Do we need to ask why you (or Serena Williams) might be angry?

Remember what writer Soraya Chemaly said this week in the Guardian,

“It is vital that we don’t have one-size-fits-all feminism,” she says. “It will fail and exacerbate problems. People were surprised by the percentage of college-educated white women who voted for Trump. But a white woman grappling with gender inequality might be angry, and she can leverage racial privilege to compensate for her losses. Women have always been levers of white supremacy in US culture. That does not mean that they do not themselves suffer from oppression. White women understanding how their fragility is used to enforce racism is an important lesson, which is a hard one to talk about.”

How do you manage anger in the museum workplace?

Joan Baldwin

 

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3 Comments on “Why Serena Williams’ Anger Matters”

  1. G. Haupt says:

    Where are the tips for breaking down the gender divide on anger? I understand that sometimes you have to play the game within the system in order to even be there to make the changes, but what about calling attention to the double-standard? Ideally people of all genders would do well to check the lesser angels of their nature in a professional environment but I don’t see any call in this post beyond telling those who identify as women to walk on eggshells and only they need change their behavior. Am I interpreting that list the wrong way?

    • No, you’re right this is not a particularly aggressive list, but will calling attention to the double-standard when you or your colleague is furious bring about change? For me, the two most important points are numbers four and five. If we don’t support one another in moments of emotion, if we don’t stop and find the reason for the anger, which may be a whole series of events, not the thing that ultimately causes the meltdown, and most importantly, if we don’t empathize, how will change happen?

      • G. Haupt says:

        I wholeheartedly agree with the points about empathizing with and understand the underlying and complex causes of emotion (both in the workplace and out– as the parent of a child under five, I practice this everyday); but I still find the overall message here problematic– likely because of the line immediately preceding the list:

        “It took generations for this gender divide over anger to grow, and it’s not going to go away this year. That means if you’re a woman or identify as one, you need ways to navigate the moments when you are angry.”

        That it is directed exclusively at women and those who identify as women when it could be addressing every museum leader/professional. It is the same problematic approach often taken to address gender-equity in the sciences and STEM: “Girls/Women need to change to succeed in science and STEM” rather than “Science and STEM needs to change for girls/women to succeed.”


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