Though there are always exceptions, in general, men err on the side of taking up too much space and women don't claim enough. Yet there are harsh societal penalties for "aggressive women." Learn how research shows a potential path forward.
- So why focus on body language for women? Aren't the principles the same for everyone? In some ways, yes. It's fairly universal that if you're huddled up and making yourself look tiny, whether you're a man or a woman, that's a sign of fear or weakness or subservience. It's certainly not what people look for in a leader. Meanwhile, if you're looking people in the eye, and your voice is strong and projecting, it's the opposite message. That's a confident person that inspires other people's trust.
We live in the real world, not a universe of platonic ideals. And in the real world, things play out differently for men and women. There's a famous experiment that was done by a Columbia business school professor named Frank Flynn known as the Heidi and Howard case study. He handed out a case study about a successful venture capitalist to the class. But for 1/2 of them, the case study was about a man named Howard, and for the other 1/2 it was about a woman named Heidi. Is it shocking that the students who got the Howard case study thought he was a smart and likable leader? And the ones who got the Heidi case study thought she was too aggressive? Now there are always exceptions.
In general, men err on the side of taking up too much space, think about man spreading on the subway. And women don't claim enough. A classic example is the woman who even when you ask her to speak up can barely raise her voice above a whisper. With people being acculturated in that manner it's no wonder that unless there's significant awareness and intervention, men are going to dominate. So what can women do? Well, an obvious answer is to try to claim just as much space as men and become more aggressive or dominant.
But there are two problems here. First, for many women that just doesn't feel comfortable or natural. It feels like playing an artificial role, and not one that's very appealing. And second, even when women are aggressive, they're penalized for it. Both men and other women rate them as much less likable, as in the Heidi case study. In psychology circles that's known as the likeability conundrum. So is there anything to be done? As it happens, yes.
Professor Deborah Gruenfeld of Stanford says body language may be key to mitigating the likeability conundrum. That's because she says, women give away power all the time. We do it when we smile, or look away when we're saying something important, or use submissive physical gestures, like hunching down and making ourselves smaller. People listen to leaders who use dominate body language, feet plated, shoulders back, steady gaze. And it's so subtle, we barely realize it.
But if female professionals can fully harness this, we can show our authority through our body language, which means we don't have to be heavy-handed in asserting our dominance verbally. It enables us to navigate this tricky path.