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How Female Attorneys' Anger May Disrupt Their Advancement

New research examines perceptions of female attorneys who persuade with anger.

It’s well established that America has struggled with anger (Stearns and Stearns, 1986). Over the years we’ve gone through periods of supporting its suppression as well as celebrating its expression. Just a few election cycles ago appearing “too angry” in tone or demeanor guaranteed diminished electorate endorsement. By contrast, we currently seem to exalt the display of anger as a true measure of strength and courage. And throughout these cycles, we have consistently maintained very different standards for men and women regarding what is appropriate in the expression of anger.

While men are viewed as being passionate and even praised for their anger, women who reveal anger are all too often viewed as being too “emotional” “shrill” or “brash” When they display anger they are often seen as being hysterical or overly influenced by their hormones. A recent study highlights how these differing attitudes may be very costly for women who seek to practice law (Salerno, Phalen, Reyes, et. al., 2018). Specifically, it draws attention to how their anger may contribute to the glass ceiling they face in our courts.

In general, the law is intended to form decisions based on reasoning, facts, order, and not on emotions (Kiser, 2014). This is further supported by a study finding that even “…the Supreme Court justices are less likely to side with briefs that use flashy adjectives and emotionally charged language…Justices are trained in the traditional ‘rule of law’ approach that values objective, logical arguments.”(Henion, 2016).

If we wish to be heard, whether in a personal relationship, in the workplace or in a court, how we communicate should show some emotion–but it should not be overshadowed by emotion. Communication that is too much embedded in anger arouses a sense of threat in the listener, threat that competes with and interferes with hearing the message.

However, there is quite a difference between being angry and showing anger. And while this is true in both personal relationships and in work settings in general, it can be of major importance where court trials are concerned.

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Attorneys face this challenge when striving to persuade a jury to agreement with their perspective. Just as a baseball pitcher strives to hit the strike zone, attorneys are encouraged to express themselves within a certain “strike zone” of emotion if they are to influence the jury in favor of their argument. Too much or too little expression of emotion can lose credibility with jurors. And, this may be especially relevant when it comes to the expression of anger.

But the strike zone may be vastly more constricted for female attorneys than for their male counterparts. As a recent study emphasizes, “Emotional expression is a key part of trial advocacy” (Salerno, Phalen, Reyes, et. al., 2018). Attorneys are advised to demonstrate conviction through anger expression as a way to gain credibility with juries.

For this study, 120 undergraduates were randomly assigned to view a male or female attorney presenting the identical closing argument in a neutral or angry tone. They watched a video in which actors who played the prosecutor spoke from a segment of an actual closing argument from a murder case.

The participants were then asked to share their opinions of the attorney and the likelihood of hiring the attorney. The male attorney was seen as being more favorable, with an emphasis on the positive aspects of his anger-such as conviction and power. Contrarily, they viewed the angry female attorney less favorably–as appearing shrill and obnoxious. They cited these perceptions as reasons not to hire the female attorney. The findings were the same when the researchers then replicated their study to include 294 members of the community and then a sample of 273 attorneys.

The findings from these studies reflect a microcosm of how we view anger expressed by gender in a wide variety of our lives. This same dynamic was reflected by how the electorate reacted to the first candidacy by a woman seeking the presidency as well as others seeking lesser roles in recent elections. Females are challenged to adjust to the narrower “strike zone”, showing passion and maybe even some anger but they are not afforded the leeway that we afford men. And, as reflected by this study, female attorneys may need to be more cautious when using anger as a persuasive element of their closing argument.

We may understandably be distressed by the findings of this study. Just as significant, however, is the fact that justice in the courts may be undermined by the contrasting attitudes held for female versus male attorneys. The negative bias jurors may have toward women expressing anger may too easily lead to a conviction when the plaintiff is innocent and a release when the plaintiff is truly guilty.

Treating each other equally, whether in the political arena, in the workplace, in our daily intercourse, or in our courts, calls for equality in how we respect the emotions of others. And while the inability to maintain this perspective has been with us for many years, it is a worldview that has to be cultivated if true equality is to be achieved.

Our emotions are a defining aspect of our humanity. Ignoring, suppressing or denying them moves us toward dehumanizing others and ourselves. It is a path that undermines our connection and respect further supports viewing others as “the other”.

That women have a glass ceiling in the court is no surprise. It reflects the general tendency in our society as a whole. It mirrors some of our discomfort with emotion in general and specifically with regard to women’s anger. Yet, only as we continue to work for equality for everyone will women be helped to move through the glass ceiling– whether in corporations, politics, in entertainment and in the courts.

Grounded in this task is cultivating our capacity for accepting “healthy anger”, of others and ourselves, and whether expressed by men or women. As we strive to achieve this goal, we will all reap the benefits of more fully embracing our humanity. And by doing so we’ll also ensure greater justice for female attorneys and the clients whom they serve.


Stearns, C. and Stearns, P. (1986). Anger: The Struggle for Emotional Control in America’s History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kiser, R. (2014) The Emotionally Attentive Lawyer: Balancing the Rule of Law With the Realities of Human Behavior. Presented for the Conference on Psychology and Lawyering: Coalescing the field, University of Nevada, Las Vegas…

Henion, A. (2016) U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t find emotion persuasive.

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