Home » psychology » Article review: Can an angry woman get ahead? Brescoll & Uhlmann (2008)

Article review: Can an angry woman get ahead? Brescoll & Uhlmann (2008)

As mentioned in my previous post, we are still have a few things to talk about regarding stereotypes and discrimination. Today’s article review is looking at a pretty famous study that wants to see what happens when we fail to meet our gender’s stereotype.

Let’s talk about this idea for a moment. When we think of a stereotype, we generally think of a negative generalization about a person, place, or thing that is gleaned from superficial information (i.e. skin color, gender, age, choice of clothing, etc). This article reviewed some of the dangers of acting outside of your perceived stereotype. Let’s be clear on what this means – if people think I fulfill the “nerd” stereotype, then I act in ways outside of this schema, it causes them cognitive dissonance. Either it means, I am an exception to the rule, or that they made a mistake in judging me. Most people will not allow themselves to take the blame, so they place the fault on me. In most cases, this causes the person who is judging you to view you as less favorably as before. Why? Because you caused them extra mental stress for failing to fall neatly in line with their already present mental constructs. Now let’s take a look at what this could mean for gender stereotypes.

Brescoll and Uhlmann (2008) developed an amazing study to look at the expression of emotion and how it can alter how potential employers might judge you. The authors point out that they suspect that a man who shows aggression in the work place could be seen as more assertive than anything else. While an aggressive female in the workplace may actually be seen as, “out of control” compared to the male with equivalent behavior. This is an interesting phenomena, but is there any substance to it? The results may be surprising!

The authors used a sample of 29 males and 30 females view video tapes of interviews. The people being interviewed were all rated to be equally attractive, and all talked about the same events through a simple script. In this first version of the study, the emotions were only anger or sadness relating to a stressful event. To be clear, each interview really only differed in the emotional story. Each person watched all four of these interviews. One interview had a man with a sad story, another with a man who had an angry story, another with a woman with a sad story, and finally a female with an angry story. The presentation of these videos was randomized between participants of course.

So what did the participants do? They rated how knowledgeable the applicant was about their field (status), they estimated the salary the person should earn, they rated the person’s competence, and finally they rated whether something had an internal, or external attribution (that is was an outside factors fault (external) or the persons fault (internal)).

Brescoll and Uhlmann (2008) show us that males who share an angry story appear to have the highest status, competence, salary, and people do not blame the event on them (high level of external attribution). However, when a female is angry, she is paid the least, has the lowest status, lowest competence, and people think she has personal faults (low external attribution). When we look at sadness, we see that a female who is sad actually has more status, competence, and a higher external attribution level… yet they are not paid as much as their male counterparts. The salary difference is much slimmer between the sadness group, though.

So what might we begin to generalize from these results? We might assume that angry men do not cause very much dissonance, thus we do not need to complete extra mental work to make them fit in our current mental constructs. As for an angry female, though, it might not fit in our current understanding. Thus we assume that the angry female must have many personal faults. Once again, we would rather someone else be at fault, than to be at fault in our own judgements! This is a dangerous way of thinking. Well let’s see what Brescoll and Uhlmann (2008) did next.

The authors expanded their study to help control a few more factors, and attempt to explain a few more relationships. This time around they removed the “sad” emotion group and added a “no-emotion” group. This serves as a good control to see how the expression of anger changes the judges perception. First they changed the external attribution score to something much more simplistic “control.”  They simply asked the judges how out of control the person seemed (higher scores meaning more out of control). Further, they added a new element to the study –  high or low ranking job. High ranking job may be upper management, while a lower ranking one may be entry level. Why did they add this? Well imagine a manager in a competitive environment who seems angry. At the upper level management, in a position of high stress, showing a little bit of anger may just happen from time to time. This doesn’t mean they are acting out, but perhaps they appear visibly frustrated from bad news, etc. This reaction would not really come as a surprise. However, if we have an angry secretary, this may be outside of the norm dictated by our socially guided expectation – thus causing a more adverse reaction. Remember, when we are dealing with stereotypes, we are not talking about reality, we are talking about “the expectations and beliefs of a given society!”

This time around we are looking at a lot more information, and the results were pretty startling. First, we see that the most expert people were the high ranking males that appeared to be angry (highest status conferral score). When we look at the angry female group, we see that they are perceived to have the lowest competence of all the groups, and they were also considered to be more out of control than their male counterparts.

Now we need to note that salary listings for the high ranking jobs will always be higher than the low ranking jobs, so we should not directly compare across those groups. We do see, however, that no-emotion, high ranking males get paid a whole lot more than the angry males, even if the no emotion males have slightly less status conferral. Further, the no emotion females get paid more than the angry females. What’s even more interesting is that the most competent individuals out of all groups were the high ranking, no emotion females.

This graph has a ton of interesting information on it, and I feel like we could discuss it for hours. Take your time looking at it, and click the image for a much larger version! Also let me say this once again – the people watched videos of actors participating in interviews. These actors were reading from scripts, they were considered to be functionally equivalent in terms of attraction and professionalism. We should not see such insane difference between these groups, unless our stereotypes are actively working against us.

The take home message here is that no matter how hard we try, our actions lead us to view those who fall outside of our stereotypes as problematic. This is not true for everyone, of course, but this study did illuminate this problem. An angry woman is viewed drastically differently than an angry man. Why is it allowable for a male to express their anger, and a woman cannot? There is no answer I can find that is truly justifiable. This study clearly highlights the major impact gender biases has on our judgments.

This leads me to my next topic – the glass slipper effect! The next study will look at how a gender stereotype gets formed, what happens when we adopt it, what happens when we avoid it, and what we can do to stop it.

Once again, today’s article is available to view online should you care to read the source material – http://socialjudgments.com/docs/Brescoll%20and%20Uhlmann%202008.pdf


Brescoll, V., & Uhlmann, E. (2008). Can an angry woman get ahead? status conferral, gender, and expression of emotion in the workplace. Psychological Science19, 268-275.



  1. Yannick says:

    Interesting. It’s odd, though, that it seems many women that make it to the top of their respective fields tend to have more masculine traits (based mainly on anecdotal evidence) considering how Western – mainly American – society rewards those traits. A brief discussion of this occurred with a few friends a couple of weeks ago – when you look at Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher… perhaps that’s more of a discussion of political rewards than financial, but it seems counter to what the article you reviewed stated. Not that I disagree – I just wonder if a broader look at the rewards systems would yield different results as far as gender expectations in various roles.

  2. I’m not sure if masculinity leads to a different career behavior, but being more feminine does change your projected career according to my review of the “Glass Slipper Effect.” So the most successful women, in terms of prestige/power/income, are typically less feminine in their attitudes and behavior. According to the “Glass Slipper Effect,” having traditional views of gender will lead many young women to working towards careers that offer less prestige, power, and income.

    This article, on the other hand, was looking at the extremes of emotional expression with gender. When each gender showed no emotion, we saw the greatest the best results for that gender. Neutral high ranking men were paid the most, however neutral high ranking women appeared to be the most competent out of all groups. I think a good question would be… “how can a woman appear to be the most competent person for the job, yet get paid almost 30k less?” in this study at least.

  3. […] most men still earn higher incomes than women for the same job (outlined in “Can an angry woman get ahead?“). Additionally, men’s trajectories lead to them to careers with higher salary, […]

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