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Hazard for Hillary? Study finds that people strongly disapprove of women's anger in professional settings -- but admire men's

August 1, 2007

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

The chairman of the Republican National Committee caused something of a furor last year when he asserted on national television that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton was too angry to be elected president.

However misguided the chairman's allegation may have been, he was not being merely personal: according to a new study, people strongly disapprove of women's expressing anger in a professional context.

At the same time, they tend to admire men for doing so.

The new research, to be presented at the forthcoming meeting of the Academy of Management (Philadelphia, August 5-8), finds these views to prevail among men and women alike, liberals and conservatives alike, sexists and non-sexists alike. In the words of the study's author, Victoria Brescoll of Yale University, the findings suggest bias against angry women to be "a deep-seated and even implicit reaction that people are subject to regardless of their conscious beliefs that sexism or group dominance is wrong."

"It's an attitude that is not conscious," adds Brescoll, a post-doctoral scholar at Yale. "People are hardly aware of it."

What does mitigate this bias, she found, is the offering of a credible reason for a woman's anger. Brescoll's research reveals that "when an external attribution was provided for ... anger, female and male professionals were accorded similar status." But males, she found, are accorded the same status whether they offer a reason for their anger or not.

The new research builds upon a series of experiments carried out almost a decade ago by Larissa Tiedens of Stanford University, who found that people conferred more status on leaders and workers who expressed anger than on those who expressed sadness. In one experiment, for example, carried out at the time of Bill Clinton's impeachment proceedings, participants viewed one or another of two brief video clips of the President testifying before a grand jury about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In one clip he expressed anger about the investigation, and in the other he expressed sadness and guilt about his conduct. Participants who saw the anger clip were significantly more likely than those who saw the sadness clip to believe that Clinton should remain in office. This finding, which was largely unrelated to participants' political affiliation or gender, ran directly counter to the widespread view at the time that Clinton would be best served by being apologetic about what he had done.

The Stanford studies having largely involved male protagonists, Dr. Brescoll set out to determine whether the same benefits would accrue specifically to anger-expressing women. She found very much the opposite to be the case.

In one experiment, 39 men and 30 women recruited from a public fair were randomly assigned to view a video clip of about a minute and a half in which a male or female candidate for a job talked about his or her current position. The video scripts were identical except for a segment of a few seconds in which the interviewee described feeling either angry or sad about the loss of an account that occurred because a colleague who was supposed to bring key materials for a presentation got lost en route and arrived very late. To the interviewer's question, "So how did you feel when you left the meeting?" the interviewee answered in one of two ways: 1) "I was really annoyed. Well, I guess I was just really angry;" or 2) "I was really sad. Well, I guess I was just really sad."

Asked how much status, power, and independence the man or woman candidate should have in the job to be filled, participants conferred the most on the man who said he was angry, the second most on the woman who said she was sad, slightly less on the man who said he was sad, and least of all by a sizable margin on the woman who said she was angry. The average salary participants designated for the angry male candidate was almost $38,000, compared to about $23,500 for the angry female and in the general neighborhood of $30,000 for the other two candidates.

In a second experiment, Dr. Brescoll tested whether those results might reflect the fact that people associated women with low status in the workplace; perhaps they found it presumptuous for any low-status person, whether male or female, to display anger.

Once again, participants (180 in all) were randomly assigned to view a video clip from a job interview of a man or woman. The script was similar to that of the first study, but this time half the candidates, male and female alike, described their current occupation as trainee, and half were executives who were candidates for CEO. In addition, half the candidates, as in the previous study, described their reaction to the lost-account episode as anger, but this time the other half were not asked for their reaction and expressed no emotion at all.

"Remarkably," Brescoll writes, "participants rated the angry female CEO as significantly less competent than all of the other targets, including even the angry female trainee." They viewed "angry female targets as significantly more 'out of control' than the angry male targets and unemotional male and female targets."

Participants paid the female candidates not on the basis of their occupational status but on whether they expressed anger or no emotion. The unemotional female candidates were paid an average of $55,384 compared to $32,902 for the angry ones, while male executives were paid more than trainees regardless of their emotional expression, an average of $73,643 versus $36,810.

In a third experiment, Dr. Brescoll tested whether offering an excuse for anger would mitigate people's disapproval of its expression by women. As she puts it, "[P]eople may confer low status on an angry woman because they see her behavior as arising from something which is deep and inherent -- namely, that she is an 'angry' or 'out of control' person ...[A]n intervention designed to direct such attributions away from internal factors and toward external factors might be effective at mitigating the bias."

This time 133 participants watched one of six video clips of a job interview similar to that of the first experiment, half involving a male candidate and half a female candidate. In two of the scripts, the male or female candidate expressed anger about the colleague's lateness that resulted in loss of the account; in two he or she expressed no emotion; and in two he or she offered an excuse for the anger -- namely that the coworker lied beforehand in indicating he had directions to the client's office.

The angry female who provided an excuse for her anger was awarded a salary that was on average significantly below that of both male candidates but that was also a lot higher than that of the angry female candidate who provided no excuse -- $34,368 compared to $21,130. In addition, participants conferred about the same status on the woman candidate with an excuse that they conferred on both angry male candidates.

Dr. Brescoll distinguishes her research from studies that examine "discrimination against women who violate prescriptions for self-promotion. Women who promote their abilities are perceived as less likable and less hirable -- but they are still seen as competent... [W]omen who self-promote are explicitly asserting their competence, whereas angry women are not -- they are [seen as] simply emoting."

[A study of unionized manufacturing workers to be presented at the Academy of Management meeting, by Marie-Helene Budworth of York University and Sara Mann of the University of Guelph, suggests that that women who are modest about their accomplishments on the job earn less than those who are not, whereas for men the pattern is the reverse.]

Dr. Brescoll's paper, which was judged the best dissertation-based submission to the Academy of Management's division on Gender and Diversity in Organizations, concludes: "[W]omen, like men, have the same need to achieve status and power. At the same time, to achieve and maintain high social status, professional women may also have to behave unemotionally in order to be seen as rational. Thus, it is important to identify strategies that professional women can use to express anger without incurring a social penalty. The present studies make a gesture in this regard with the finding that external, situational explanations for anger ameliorate negative responses to angry women."

Entitled "When Can Angry Women Get Ahead? Status Conferral, Gender, and Workplace Emotion Expression," the paper will be among several thousand studies presented at the Academy of Management meeting. Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has about 18,000 members in 100 countries, including some 10,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw about 8,000 scholars and practitioners to Philadelphia from August 5th to 8th for nearly 1,700 sessions on a host of subjects relating to corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related topics.

Media Coverage: More on the bully broad syndrome. (Friday, August 03, 2007).
Philadelphia Inquirer. Conference treats all angles of workplace. (Monday, August 06, 2007).
Reuters. Angry men get ahead; angry women penalized: study. (Friday, August 03, 2007).
The Globe & Mail. Nice guys do get ahead, but nice gals finish last. (Friday, August 03, 2007).

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