Double Standards at Work for Anger & Assertiveness?

Have you encountered any double standards at work? Ask most women, and you’ll likely get a nod and someone’s account of how she experienced a double standard – disproportionate treatment based on gender.

One high profile example of such treatment happened to tennis phenom Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open. Williams was penalized a game for calling the chair umpire Carlos Ramos a thief during an extended argument. (This language was very tame compared to the profanities hurled at officials by John McEnroe, Roger Federer, and Jimmy Connors.)

The US Open incident shed light on the problem of double standards in sports. But women encounter double standards at work as well.

Research into Double Standards at Work

What’s the most pernicious double standard at work? It’s when women receive disproportionate levels of punishment when they behave similarly to a man.

A study by corporate consultancy VitalSmarts found that when women speak forcefully in the workplace, their “deserved compensation” drops by $15,088. That was more than twice what it cost men who speak angrily in the workplace. Not only does anger in the workplace cost women financially, but it also affects how people perceive their competency. When coworkers observe a woman being equally angry as a man, that woman’s perceived competency fell 35% – significantly more than their male counterpart’s, the study found.

The unfairness may stem from gendered perceptions about anger. Victoria Brescoll and Eric Luis Uhlmann found in their study, “Can an Angry Woman Get Ahead?” that women’s anger is attributed to their internal characteristics. In contrast, men’s anger is assumed to be driven by stress.

“Society shuns angry women, convincing them that their rage is impolite, unattractive, or even unhealthy,’” says Rebecca Traister, author of Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Traister cites double standards in how men and women are treated when it comes to rage. And she observes that women of color are even more likely to be judged adversely for expressing rage.

How to Protect Yourself 

If you believe that when you express yourself, you are judged too harshly, framing is a communication technique you might try.

Framing reduces the damage of bias in the office by 27%. That’s according to Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, authors of Women in Business: One Simple Skill to Curb Unconscious Gender Bias.

So, what is framing? Put simply, it’s a way to address what you’re going to say before you say it. Grenny and Maxfield lay it out this way:

  • Behavior Frame: Describe what you are about to say before saying it: “I’m going to express my opinion very directly. I’ll be as specific as possible.”
  • Value Frame: Describe your motivation in value-laden terms before making the statement of disapproval: “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.”
  • Inoculation Frame: Suggest it could be risky for a woman to speak up the way you’re about to: “I know it might be taking a risk for me to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.”


What Can We Do to Eliminate Double Standards at Work?

The first step forward is to pay close attention to practices in our organizations today and look for examples of gender bias.

As for long-term change, we need to have uncomfortable conversations about double standards.  Take care so that you don’t minimize the experiences that women may describe. Start conversations that are honest and don’t leave employees afraid of backlash. Use these conversations to create goals that you can meet as a company or a department.


A Resource to Assess this Issue

Need a tool to help you dig deeper into the issue? Our free Gender Diversity Assessment Workbook will help you assess the current state of your company’s gender diversity in leadership. Get your copy now!


The Future of Women in Leadership Programs Like Ours

At IMPACT Group, we have provided coaching and resources to many organizations working to eliminate such double standards.

Our Women in Leadership program creates meaningful change by involving – not just women – but their male and female managers as well. We hope that someday soon, organizations won’t need these types of programs.  But in the meantime, we’re happy to facilitate change.