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She's Crazy

How gender stereotypes and norms affect our experiences of anger.

Psychological research comparing women and men on measures of anger find that they are more alike than different. Men and women are equally likely to experience anger and the intensity of their anger is remarkably similar. Regardless of gender, we get angry when frustrated, criticized, betrayed, rejected, or disrespected. When someone behaves immorally or unethically it can also lead to our anger and outrage.

Individual differences in anger and its expression are far greater than differences between men as a group and women as a group. In other words, some individuals experience anger more frequently, more intensely, and with more aggression, than others.

But anger is “gendered.” It’s perceived through gendered (and racial) lenses. While most emotion is identified as feminine, anger is considered more of a masculine emotion. Anger and its expression are contrary to traditional beliefs about women’s essential “nature” as compassionate, passive, and other-centered. Meanwhile, anger and its expression as aggression and violence, is viewed as naturally male, and masculine. “Boys will be boys,” so many people say.

To some extent, such gender stereotypes (beliefs about how the genders are different) become social norms that prescribe behavior. Aggressive expressions of anger, for instance, are sometimes ways for boys and men to demonstrate their masculinity. These gendered expectations are communicated via media, peers, parents, toys, scriptures, etc.

Our conformity to gender norms is affected by the extent to which we accept them, and the extent to which we expect social penalties for violating them and desire acceptance. Not only do gender stereotypes and norms affect how we “judge” and respond to a person’s anger based on their gender, it can also affect our own expressions of anger and how we feel about them.

I found it interesting when, on December 19th, 2019, a debate moderator asked the Democratic presidential contenders to either name a gift or apology they might give to another debate participant. Only the women candidates responded with an apology, and both apologized for their occasional anger. Said Senator Elizabeth Warren, “I will ask for forgiveness. I know that sometimes I get really worked up. And sometimes I get a little hot. I don’t really mean to.” Senator Amy Klobuchar said, “Well, I’d ask for forgiveness, any time any of you get mad at me. I can be blunt, but I am doing this because I think it is so important to pick the right candidates here.”

Their apologies likely reflect an awareness that anger and assertiveness are generally more acceptable for men than they are for women, and that they must be careful not to appear “too emotional” as this is sometimes used to justify the exclusion of women from political leadership roles. Indeed, research confirms that women expect, and experience, more negative social consequences for expressing their anger.

I can relate. I identify as a woman, and due to my internalized cultural gendered beliefs and expectations about anger, I can feel shame and guilt when I become angry since it’s at odds with being “nice” and compassionate. I fear being labeled as “crazy,” “overemotional,” or as a “bitch.” I regularly have to remind myself, or seek that reminder from others, that I have a right to be angry and a right to stand up for myself.

Expressing anger can help you influence others and can help you make change or get your way. But this seems to be truer if you’re a man, especially a white man. For example, one experiment (Salerno & Peter-Hagene, 2015) found that identically expressed anger and arguments increased a man’s influence on a group but decreased a woman’s influence. Other studies find that men are perceived as more competent when they express anger, but the reverse is true for women (Brescoll & Uhlmann, 2008; Tiedens, 2001). Salerno and colleagues (2019) found identical expressions of anger detracted from the credibility and influence of women and African Americans relative to White males. The authors suggest that angry women and angry African Americans are perceived as “emotional” and this is used to discredit them, and consequently their social influence is reduced.

Recently, singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette said something that resonated with me. When asked about her “angry” songs, she said that anger “gets a bad rap” because of its association with violence. It’s beauty, she noted, is in its power to give you the “fight” to set boundaries. I appreciate her suggestion that there are times when we should embrace our anger and harness it for empowerment, and that there's a difference between anger expressed as aggression and violence, and anger that's not.

Whether or not you have a right to be angry, expressing your anger with hurtful words and retaliatory deeds typically escalates conflict and prevents cooperative problem solving. It can harm you personally and professionally, and is a problem in our society. Finally, regardless of gender, you may want to consult with a mental health professional if you're prone to rage-filled bursts of anger that lead you to act out with verbal or physical aggression. A counselor may also help you process your anger and learn more effective ways of managing and expressing it.


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