Figure of Speech

How body language factors into the glass ceiling

Back Article Mar 1, 2014 By Carol Kinsey Goman

He’s the boss, she’s bossy. He’s assertive, she’s domineering. He strategizes, she schemes. He’s powerful and likeable, she’s powerful or likeable.

As males rise in rank and status at work, they retain (and often increase) their perceived likeability, so they can be both powerful and likeable. The same cannot be said for women. Women must project authority in order to advance in the business world, but the more powerful they appear, the less they are liked.

Enter the double-bind paradox.

Catalyst, an organization that studies women in leadership, calls this the “dammed if you do, doomed if don’t” dilemma. Their research shows that women in power can be seen as capable or likeable — but rarely both.

Blame it on the stereotypes we hold of women as nurturing, sensitive and collaborative. When their behavior is congruent with these traits, women are liked, although not seen as especially powerful. When their behavior runs counter to the stereotype, they are perceived more negatively.

A frequently cited Stanford Graduate School of Business study, the Heidi/Howard case, shows that when the same highly assertive and successful leader is described to grad students (of both genders), that person is seen as far more appealing when given a male name instead of a female one.

Does that mean female leaders are indeed dammed or doomed, as Catalyst suggests? Maybe not.

Another Stanford study found that businesswomen who are assertive and confident, but who can turn these traits on and off in various social circumstances, get more promotions than men or other women. This research suggests the most successful women have developed a strategic ability to read a situation and alter their behavior accordingly.

The implication for women who want to advance in their organizations is to master the ability to display competence and power signals when the situation requires it, and then switch to be seen as empathetic and inclusive when it is more effective to do so.

This is where body language comes in.

When working with a leader, followers continuously and unconsciously assess her nonverbal signals for warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status). Understanding how your body language cues are likely to be perceived can be the first step in moving successfully from one impression to the next.

Take head positions, for example. Head tilting is a signal that someone is listening and involved — and a particularly feminine gesture. As such, head tilts can be very empathetic and warm, but they are also subconsciously processed as a submission signal. (Dogs tilt their heads to expose their necks, showing deference to the dominant animal.) Use head tilts when you want to demonstrate concern for and interest in members of your team or when you want to encourage people to expand on what they are saying. But when you need to project power and confidence — when asking for a job promotion or giving a presentation to senior management — keep your head straight up in a more neutral, authoritative position.

Then, there is the matter of posture. Status and authority are nonverbally demonstrated through claiming height and space. Watch the high-status males in your organization. They almost always expand into available space and take up room. So, when you want to project status, remember to stand tall, pull your shoulders back, widen your stance and hold your head high. On the other hand, when you want to display empathy or increase collaboration, you’ll want to minimize your power signals, replacing them with warmer ones — forward leans, head nods, aligned shoulders and torso, and legs pointed toward whomever is speaking.

Gestures, too, send their own messages, and by paying attention, you can make sure they are sending the right signal. Since early history, people have shown open palms to display the fact that they were unarmed and therefore friendly. Open arms with palms showing indicate candor and inclusiveness and are effective when you want to proclaim your sincerity or build trust in a group. Projecting confidence and certainty is achieved when you “steeple” your hands with finger tips touching and palms separated or rotate your hands palms-down. Both gestures indicate that you are absolutely sure of your position.

It’s a similar issue with physical animation. When you want to pull people into a discussion, stay animated in your facial expressions and use your hands as illustrators to make what you are describing more vivid. But when you want to maximize your authority, maintain a poker face, minimize your gestures by keeping them smaller and displaying most of them at waist height.

As important as it is to be able to switch from power cues to warmth cues, there is one key business opportunity that requires a blend of both signals in a single, nonverbal act. You’ve likely heard about the importance of a good handshake, and various research studies back up the conventional wisdom. It’s been found that men have firmer handshakes than women do, on average, but women who have firm handshakes tend to be evaluated as positively as men are. This is significant because a firm grip is one of the few signs of power and authority that doesn’t fall victim to the double-bind paradox.

There’s one more issue to consider: Various studies show that leadership continues to be viewed as culturally masculine. Power signals make male executives look like leaders, or at least they did in a hierarchical, command-and-control setting. The 21st century is seeing new global business realities that add up to one word: collaboration.

When it comes to leading collaborative teams and building high-trust work environments, those “masculine” behaviors can undermine a leader’s effectiveness. Increasingly, leaders are required to demonstrate a greater 
degree of emotional intelligence —
and to show they understand, support and care about the people in their charge. It is this collaborative aspect of leadership that may finally eliminate the double-bind paradox by highlighting the value of a more “feminine” 


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