Can An Angry Woman Get Ahead?

by Francesca Polletta

angry womanResearchers have shown that women are usually penalized for displaying anger on the job. Women are expected to be friendly, sympathetic, and deferential in dealing with customers, employers, and co-workers. They are expected to withstand other people’s anger, not dish it out themselves.

But the research I conducted with Zaibu Tufail suggested that there may be an exception to that rule. A stereotype of women as emotionally changeable may allow them to display anger if they precede and follow it with displays of positive emotions like sympathy or friendliness. Women can use anger instrumentally and effectively that way. The rub is that the skill is likely to be seen as natural to women, and indeed, as not much of a skill at all.

In the debt settlement firms we studied, we found a puzzling division of labor. You may have seen debt settlement services advertised on late-night television or pop-ups on your computer screen: for a fee, the company will try to negotiate with your creditors to lower your debt. It’s a risky proposition, since as part of the process, the debt settlement firm will encourage you to stop payment altogether, which may render you vulnerable to financial and legal penalties. Apparently, many people see it as a risk worth taking, since in 2010, there were over 2,000 debt settlement firms in the U.S.

There are two main jobs in debt settlement agencies. Agents counsel clients on which of their debts to try to settle and how to provide creditors with evidence of hardship. Negotiators bargain with creditors, who have to be convinced that refusing to settle is both abusive to people with hardship and likely to backfire (since the client won’t pay anything otherwise). Negotiating, with its emphasis on shrewd calculation and hardball tactics, seems like the kind of job for which men are usually hired. Agents, meanwhile, do the customer facework and handholding that seem typical of women’s jobs.

But according to the 26 agents, employers, and negotiators we interviewed, in the debt settlement industry, agents are mainly men. And negotiators are always women. Why? When we asked, we got a surprising answer: because women are capable of displaying the toughness that negotiating with creditors requires. As one firm owner said, “They are ferocious—they work hard, and they go hard at those creditors.” An agent described the woman negotiator at his firm “cursing and playing hardball. You have to be able to do that to be good at that job.” Men described women negotiators coolly threatening and hotly admonishing creditors.

So have all those researchers gotten it wrong about women’s anger? Can angry women succeed after all? Or is debt settlement just a unique field?

When we looked more closely at just what it was that employers and men coworkers valued in women negotiators, it became clear that it wasn’t their expression of anger alone, but rather their ability to switch from another emotion to anger and back again that was important. One agent described negotiators “going from sweet to angry at the drop of a hat. [She] might be yelling one minute, and then flirting with the guy the next minute.” Others said the same thing. It was a kind of emotional flexibility that men coworkers admired.

Still, the comments were admiring. Men seemed to view women as strategic and skillful. Again, though, the picture is more complicated. Even as employers and agents praised women’s skillful use of emotions, they also devalued those skills. Women were good at shifting among emotions because that’s the way they are naturally: emotionally changeable, fickle, manipulative. It was easy for them. Men often contrasted women’s tendency to switch emotions with men’s emotional directness and authenticity. An agent who described women negotiators’ use of emotions as “smart,” went on to say that with men, “it’s not hard to tell what we’re feeling.” His praise of women negotiators was ambiguous: women were “smart” insofar as they were able to feign emotions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, women negotiators did not feel that having to perform a gamut of emotions in response to often-hectoring creditors was either easy or natural. They found the work emotionally exhausting. And they weren’t paid for the emotional work they did; negotiators earned no more than agents. So women negotiators, in effect, were hamstrung by the emotional skills for which they were praised.

We don’t know if the kind of emotional flexibility we have described is required in other jobs—and if so, if it is similarly gendered. But the larger point is that stereotypes about how groups experience emotions matter for what kinds of jobs and pay people get. Other beliefs about women and emotions—that women experience emotions more intensely, for example, or that they’re likely to be paralyzed rather than mobilized by their emotions–-may also have consequences for what women are seen as good at and, just as importantly, bad at.

Francesca Polletta, is a Professor of Sociology at University of California, Irvine. Zaibu Tufail and Francesca Polletta’s article “The Gendering Emotional Flexibility: Why Angry Women are Both Admired and Devalued in Debt Settlement Firms” is published in the July 2015 issue of Gender & Society.

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