By Kylie Orr
All my adult life, I’ve been told to calm down. Quieten. Stop letting the emotions take over.
When I was fresh out of university and saving for an overseas trip, I had the unfortunate experience of working in a call centre. It was a high-stress job, horrendously underpaid and poorly supported by an indifferent, male-dominated management team.
I highlighted some administrative inconsistencies in a meeting with the CEO. The errors had left the all-female call centre staff harried, spiking calls from 50 to 100 each per day. Unbeknownst to me, those mistakes belonged to my boss. Let’s call him Stephen. I’d accidentally magnified Stephen’s failings in front of the big kahuna. Rookie mistake. His response? Daily harassment. Insults. Ignoring me when I spoke to him. He was childish and unprofessional, and now 20 years later, I’d hope he’d be warned or stepped down for bullying behaviour.
At the time, I followed company procedure and approached HR. When I documented all the incidents that had happened with Stephen since that fateful meeting, the HR manager disregarded them, telling me it was “just Stephen’s nature”. I responded angrily with, “It’s my nature to swear. If I call a customer an f’ing a-hole, can I use that same excuse?”
I was told to calm down. Be quiet. Stop being overly emotional.
I eventually moved into HR, perhaps driven by a desire to make workplaces better, to represent the decent people. Maybe a part of me also wanted to break down this corporate assertion that emotional women are the weakest link.
It was idealistic. I met constant resistance and soon realised enforcing cultural change was, at times, like blowing a pea up Mount Everest through a straw. I embraced being the mover and shaker, but confrontation is never a popular role, particularly when coming from a female agitator. Driven by injustice and emotion, I soon found out the patronising difference between genders when putting forward my arguments.
For men, displaying anger is acceptable and justified.
For women, displaying anger makes us irrational.
For men, fighting for a cause shows passion and commitment.
For women, it’s a sign of being bitter and resentful.
For men, crying is a breakthrough, a sign of sensitivity and compassion.
For women, crying means you have PMT.
I pushed through the stigma and the stereotypes. I rocked boats and through bloody hard work I gained respect, but in so doing, created a reputation for myself. Don’t mess with her, she’s crazy.
I wonder how often men get called crazy for persisting and pursuing something they believe in? Determination is a strength, we are told. Unless you’re a woman. Then it’s the curse of the unhinged.
I’ve challenged management in the corporate world for antiquated behaviours and more recently, taken local sporting clubs to task on condoning a misogynist, violent culture.
A letter I penned to a sporting league general manager received the feedback that it was well-written, but I needed to “take the emotion out”. Yep.
Because facts are good, but emotion is bad. Emotion shows weakness. It suggests you are a loose cannon. It reveals you care too much.
It exposes you as a woman. The subtext of that message was: We will take you seriously if you can construct your arguments like a man.
In her 2016 paper entitled Leading with their hearts? How gender stereotypes of emotion lead to biased evaluations of female leaders, Victoria L. Brescoll from the Yale School of Management says women often get labelled as more emotional than men “because they are seen as less able to control the outward display of their emotions compared to men”. The flow-on effect of this perception and associated judgement is that “gender stereotypes of emotion present a fundamental barrier to women’s ability to obtain and succeed in leadership roles”.
Brescoll says the concept that a person should control how and to what extent their emotions influence their decisions is “is rooted in the long-standing belief that emotion detracts from rational thought”.
If you ask a woman to calm down, to shush, to show less emotion and concentrate on the facts, you are asking her to remove her essence. Life is emotion. Without emotion, we cannot impact reform. Hannah Gadsby, Malala Yousafzai, Rosie Batty, Magda Szubanski, Emma Gonzalez, Carly Findlay – only a few names in a very long list of agents of change. These are women motivated by fierce and powerful emotion making phenomenal changes through campaigns driven by pure, unrivalled passion.
I’m all for concentrating on the cause and the core of the issue. I’m devoted to finding solutions based on fact, but first, we must stop and listen to the emotion that comes with it. These emotions – the anger, the fear, the frustration, the passion, the hurt, the sadness, the disgust, the joy, the love – say so much more than facts ever will about why we are zealous about change.