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The Unspoken Double Standard in the Office

The Unspoken Double Standard in the Office

The Cost of a Woman’s Anger.

If Serena Williams’ match at the US Open showed us anything, it’s that men can get away with behaviors on the court that are considered unacceptable for women to display. We need to take a step back and examine this double standard because not only is it true for the court, it’s also true in the workplace. The behavior directed towards Serena Williams cannot be disentangled from her gender, no more than it can be disentangled from our experiences as women in the office. Together, we need to assess where we stand and what we can implement to minimize the damage caused by gender biases. This is what will lead us to long-term change.

When women display anger in the office it costs them almost as much as Williams was fined during the U.S. Open final. A study 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 costs them their competency. When coworkers observe a woman being equally angry as a man, their perceived competency fell 35% – significantly more than their male counterpart’s.

The unfairness even extends to perceived reasons why women get punished so much more. 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, while men’s anger is assumed to be driven by stress. This follows suit with the varying criticism being hurled at Williams right now. The public is attributing her behavior to who she is as a person. Meanwhile, no one is questioning the personality of Carlos Ramos, the umpire.

What does this tell us?

That women receive disproportionate levels of punishment when they behave similarly to a man.

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What can we do about this double standard?

Well for one, we can be open about discussing the bias that affects us in all areas of our life – whether that be on the court or in the office. We can take an honest look at the gender balance in our organization. And instead of minimizing the effects of this bias (let’s be honest – all of us cringed at that $17,000 fine), we need to find ways to manage them. Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, authors of Women in Business: One Simple Skill to Curb Unconscious Gender Bias, have found that framing reduces the damage of bias in the office by 27%. 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’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.”

As for long-term change, we need to have the uncomfortable conversations that don’t minimize the experiences we all have had as women. Start conversations that are honest and don’t leave employees afraid of backlash. Use them to create goals that you can meet as a company or a department.

As far as goals go, IMPACT Group has an ambitious one. We hope our Women in Leadership program is no longer needed in 15 years. It’s a long road, but we can handle it with the same grace Serena did on Saturday – by holding each other up.

Dig Deeper
How will you minimize unspoken double standards and empower high-potential women at your organization? Our free Analyze Gender Diversity Workbook will help you assess the current state of your company’s gender diversity. Get your copy here!


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Contribution by Aja Reinwald.

Aja is a Graphic Design and Web Design Specialist. Between managing creative works and creating web pages, Aja’s other passion is working to promote intersectional equality through her work with IMPACT Group. In her free time, she enjoys swimming and watching TED Talks. Connect with Aja on LinkedIn.

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