The Cohort: ‘Don’t call me "dear," f**kface,’ and other ways to approach anger at work
The Cohort is Poynter's bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.
Alicia Shepard once had an outburst of anger that she’ll never forget. Shepard, the ombudsman for NPR at the time, was attending a board of directors meeting for a group of news ombudsmen. She was one of two women in the room and was years younger than everyone else.
“The executive director, another older white male, was explaining something,” Shepard recalled. “I raised my hand to ask a question, indicating I wasn’t sure what he was talking about.”
“It’s on the website, dear,” he said.
Without a beat, Shepard responded, “Don’t call me dear, fuckface.”
The retort went over well. Everyone in the room laughed. And at a reception that evening, the executive director apologized to Shepard.
“I don’t even know where I got the word ‘fuckface,’” she said. “It was [the result of] years of being called sweetie and dear, et cetera, that came bubbling to the surface and caused an outburst.”
We’re carrying around a lot of anger these days. Women in journalism have plenty of reasons to be angry. Women of color have countless more reasons to feel rage. And there are the infuriating slights all women experience — the uncomfortable comments, the double standards, the constant underestimation — that pile up over time.
What do we do with all of this anger? Where do we put it? And how do we confront it in the workplace?
Shepard’s outburst worked well for her, but knowing when and how to express anger at work is tricky. Showing anger in the office can be especially complicated for women. When men are angry, it’s often expected. For women, it can damage their reputations, work relationships, or even pay.
The idea for this week’s newsletter came from Kainaz Amaria, who emailed me some especially anger-inducing articles. “I'm not sure how to channel this rage,” she wrote. My immediate reaction was to provide answers — some tried-and-true advice — but the more I thought about it and talked to others, the more I realized how complicated anger + women + work really is. There are no hard and fast rules, and what works for one person may fail with another.
Stephanie Pedersen, executive director at The Sun News, advises being strategic about when and how to use your anger. “I’ve had bosses that were easily angered. Once you or your staff picks up on that, the anger isn’t as strong of an emotion that it possibly could be,” she said.
“I use my anger to show importance,” Pedersen explained. She’s warned her staff about specific things that make her angry — not meeting deadlines on time, for example — and isn’t afraid to express her feelings when those rules aren’t followed.
Pedersen also tries to identify moments when anger wouldn’t benefit the situation, such as a meeting she recently postponed to avoid an outburst. “I wouldn’t have been able to properly explain my disappointment without anger overshadowing the discussion,” she said. Instead of expressing her anger in the moment, she later explained why she decided to push the meeting back. “I could tell he appreciated [my decision], but understood that what I was saying was still extremely important.”
Julia Carpenter approaches anger at work the same way she approaches crying at work: let it all out. “Hide in the bathroom for a bit and wipe your eyes, go on a walk outside (or if you’re really angry, a short sprint outside), vent to your friends of hurried gchats or texts,” said Carpenter, a writer at CNN Money who covers the intersection of money and gender. “Then when you come back, if a little bit leaks out — say you’re still teary-eyed, or you find yourself clenching your fists under the table — that’s OK. Let your colleagues see that something has affected you!”
When we’re emotionally invested in work, anger, like any other feeling, is something we’ll experience from time to time. “We don’t just sign up for jobs to be robots all day long,” Carpenter said. “You’re allowed to show your coworkers that you’re human, and that shit affects you sometimes, just like it does any other human.”
Carpenter also advises women to stop and identify whether there’s another underlying reason for your anger. “I try to see all these things — when I get mad, when I get sad, when I get any kinds of emotional — as indicators that something is off,” she said. “If I'm finding myself in a situation that's got me emotionally all over the place, I probably need to take a step back and ask, ‘OK, is this a god-I'm-so-exhausted thing? A personal-thing-bleeding-over-into-a-work-thing thing? Or an I-took-on-too-much thing? An I-didn't-eat-lunch thing? What's going on here?’ And then I take a break, even if it's just 10 minutes away from my screen.”
Anger can be especially complicated for women of color. The comedian Phoebe Robinson addressed the “angry black woman” stereotype in her book “You Can’t Touch My Hair.” Among other tactics, Robinson often uses humor to defuse angry situations. “If I expressed my hurt in a clever, joking manner, no one can take offense, right? No one can call you an angry black woman if we’re all laughing, right?”
But constantly making jokes and knowing when to pick your battles can be exhausting. The good news is that over time, you build enough confidence, respect and experience with anger that you do what’s best for you.
Robinson, 32, has made peace with being labeled an angry black woman. “You know what? They can go ahead and think that. Really. I’m fine with it. You hear that? There’s no Greek chorus in my head going, But what will the white people think? anymore. I am no longer concerned with that,” she wrote. “What matters is that I know who I am. I’m a black person who also happens to be a woman, and who happens to be a skosh angry from time to time about some pretty crappy things, and who happens to make some jokes when talking about those things I’m a skosh angry about. Ya know, a gahtdamn human being.”
Anger + women + work may always be a minefield to navigate, which is anger-inducing in and of itself. In the meantime, we can keep sharing stories about those rage-filled moments that went well, like Shepard’s “fuckface” moment.
Shepard will always fondly remember that successful outburst. “I was forceful, and I think I earned their respect,” she said. “I want it in my obituary — the one time when we say something at the right moment, and don't think later: Oh I wish I had said this.”
Things worth reading (and watching and listening)
I’m an introvert. I’m also an ambitious woman who puts herself out there fairly often. This interview with Morra Aarons-Mele was so helpful and validating for me! I can’t stop thinking about this beautiful tribute to journalist Kim Wall. Plus, “The objective of masculine violence is to silence women, but to honor Wall’s life, we must not be silent. We must make ourselves heard.” Stress leads to bad decisions (which can cause more stress). If you’re not feeling angry yet, this story about Ellen Pao’s failed gender-discrimination lawsuit might do it. And there are two back-to-back episodes of Death, Sex & Money featuring women journalists who became young widows. We’re a resilient bunch, y’all.
When I put a callout on Twitter for thoughts about anger at work, Ashley Louise was quick to chime in. Louise, 29, is the head of business development & operations at Ladies Get Paid, a career development organization that helps women advocate for themselves at work.
Launched in 2016, Ladies Get Paid is now 8,000 members strong, with in-person events happening across the U.S. My interview with Louise has been edited for length and clarity.
What drew you to Ladies Get Paid? What’s your favorite thing about the work you do?
Women, money and the workplace have always been a huge area of interest for me, but I never came across an organization like Ladies Get Paid that was explicitly dedicated to the wage gap and solving the specific challenges women face at work. I eventually bothered the founder, Claire Wasserman, enough that now we work together.
My favorite thing about the work we do at Ladies Get Paid is watching how simply bringing women together to talk about work and money meaningfully changes their careers and their lives. We have an amazing Slack community where our members are active at all hours of the day helping each other strategize on how to negotiate better, how to ask for a promotion, or how to deal with a (usually male) colleague not treating them with respect. Women are socialized not to talk about these issues — especially money — so it's extraordinarily powerful to to see a community of women come together to do just that.
This week’s newsletter is about how to express anger in the workplace, which can be tricky for women. Can anger ever be a valuable tool for women in the office? If so, how?
I think anger is an important motivating factor that ties the Ladies Get Paid community together. Most women have reached the point in their careers where they've had an experience that made them so frustrated, it spurred them to take action. This includes things like finding out a man more junior than you makes more money than you do, or seeing a less experienced male colleague be chosen for a promotion instead of you. Many women get to a point where they feel like enough is enough, and that anger helps to reduce or eliminate the fear around bringing attention to these issues. Don't be ashamed of your anger, use it to motivate you to make real change.
Do you have any examples of when you used anger to your benefit at work?
Things like negotiating for a higher salary or putting pressure on folks to hire a more diverse workforce come to mind here. Asking for more money, or putting pressure on or criticizing your employer can be scary, and anger has always been what's made me say to myself “fuck it, it's time to speak up.” I've always been the best advocate for myself or for other women when I'm angry.
There seems to be a double standard — like with many other issues in the workplace — between what’s acceptable for men and women when it comes to expressing anger. How do we call that out?
The double-bind women feel at work, especially with negotiating, is something we talk about often at Ladies Get Paid. Fearing we’ll be seen as aggressive or angry means so many women are leaving money on the table, one of the main factors perpetuating the wage gap. If you’re feeling angry, that means you care. So use that energy to your benefit and channel it into a persuasive case on why you deserve more. We like to say, “negotiate like a mediocre white man.”
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The Cohort is part of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Thanks to Kristen Hare, who’s really good about that ‘step away for 10 minutes’ thing, for her edits and insight.