For Women Leaders, Body Language Matters

by Marianne Cooper on 11/15/10 at 11:48 am

Deborah Gruenfeld

Deborah Gruenfeld, Moghadam Family Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior

Deborah Gruenfeld of the Stanford Graduate School of Business had some sobering news to share with a group of high-level women executives and entrepreneurs. “When it comes to leadership,” Gruenfeld told the group, “there are very few differences in what men and women actually do and how they behave.  But there are major differences in perception.  Men and women doing the same things are perceived and evaluated differently.”  The group took in the news during the opening session of the Silicon Valley Thought Leadership Greenhouse, an eight-week program sponsored by Stanford’s Clayman Institute and The OpEd Project that is designed to foster the public voices of innovators and leaders.

Greenhouse_Vertical160x190As an example of the way men and women are viewed differently, Gruenfeld noted a recent study in which business school students were given two versions of a case study about a venture capitalist.  The case studies were identical in every way, except in one version the venture capitalist was a woman, and in the other, a man.  The students were then asked to evaluate the VC.  Students found the male and female versions  to be equally competent and effective. However, when the students thought the venture capitalist was a woman they found her to be less genuine, humble, and kind and more power-hungry, self-promoting, and disingenuous.  And the more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected her.

Upon hearing the results of the study, heads in the room nodded in agreement.  What this kind of research illustrates, Gruenfeld said, is that people possess entrenched cultural ideas that associate men with leadership qualities like decisiveness, authoritativeness, and strength and women with nurturing qualities like warmth, friendliness, and kindness.  Consequently, when women behave in dominant ways, they are seen as unlikeable because they violate norms of female niceness.  Alternatively, women displaying feminine traits are judged as less competent and capable.  Women, then, face a kind of trade off: competency vs. likeability.  Men do not face this kind of trade off.

So what are women to do?  Gruenfeld told the women that they may be able to navigate this trade-off through non-verbal behavior.

Direct, unsmiling gaze associated with monarchy exemplifies body language associated with power (Statue of Queen Victoria, Birmingham, England/iStock)

Direct, unsmiling gaze exemplifies body language associated with power (Statue of Queen Victoria, Birmingham, England/iStockphoto)

Gruenfeld noted that research consistently shows differences in the non-verbal behaviors between those at the top and bottom of social hierarchies.  Those with higher status take up more space through expansive postures like sitting with legs and arms spread apart, smile less and stare directly into another person’s eyes.  Those with lower status take up less space through constrictive postures like crossing one’s legs, smile more, and glance away.

“Women give away power all the time,” Gruenfeld said, “by smiling or looking away when they are saying something authoritative.”  However, research shows that people unconsciously defer to those who use dominant physical postures.  Thus, Gruenfeld suggested that using dominant postures may be a subtle way for women to overcome the trade off they face by enabling them to both assert power and remain likeable.  Furthermore, using dominant postures may enable women to act more decisively since Gruenfeld found in a recent experiment she conducted that when people are asked to stare directly into someone’s eyes they reported a much greater generalized sense of power than if they are asked to glance away intermittently.

“The most important thing is to recognize that these status dynamics are happening in every situation,” Gruenfeld counseled the participants of the program.  “You need to understand what is at stake and adjust.  If you are saying something authoritative, stop smiling.  On the other hand, if you sense someone is threatened by your competence, perhaps give them a smile.”

Gina Bianchini, Founder of Ning and Clayman Institute Advisor

Gina Bianchini, Founder of Ning

Gina Bianchini, co-founder of Ning and a participant in the Greenhouse program, found professor Gruenfeld’s talk to have immediate impact, saying, “her research provides useful tools to address power dynamics in the workplace.  It’s definitely effective to look directly into people’s eyes when you have a serious message, but I’ve also found that it’s effective to lighten things up from time to time with humor.”

Gruenfeld hopes that as more people are exposed to women in high-power positions,  cultural beliefs connecting men with leadership qualities and women with nurturing qualities will change. She believes that it is this type of cultural change that will allow future generations of women leaders to avoid the kinds of trade offs and backlashes with which today’s women leaders must contend.

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17 Responses to “For Women Leaders, Body Language Matters”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Judy Hamilton and Wendy Beecham, sallythornton. sallythornton said: Stanford research: For Women Leaders, Body Language Matters @Clayman_Inst @ginab #womenpower [...]

  2. Suzy Beemer

    Nov 17th, 2010

    This is fascinating research (if also unsurprising and dismaying)–but it’s not clear to me how Gruenfeld’s suggestions address the problem. Adopting more authoritative gestures would seem to be exactly the sort of thing that violates norms of female “niceness”–thus preserving the same “trade off” that it purports to remedy. I.e., when women act in these dominant ways, it makes them even more unlikeable.

  3. admin

    Nov 17th, 2010

    A note from one of our readers:

    Reading your article on ‘For Women Leaders, Body Language Matters,’ I thought of another recent article on how our brains work, published in the LA Times by Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Biology, Neurology and Neurosurgery at Stanford University. His articles relate to biology and behavior. Interesting reading when you relate the two articles….

  4. Mike

    Nov 19th, 2010


  5. Nadine

    Nov 20th, 2010

    This article is proof positive of how America socializes its girls and women to become obedient housewives rather than educated leaders. Often times women leaders face backlash based on cultural perceptions and the dynamics of which play itself out as unspoken codes of conduct. These cultural perceptions comprise the “glass ceiling” through which many women find difficulty breaking because quite frankly, many women and men are uncomfortable with women in leadership positions. This article should be published and widely circulated among high school and college students for feedback.

  6. John Paval

    Nov 21st, 2010

    Suzy Beemer is right, Gruenfeld has correctly identified the problem but her proposed solution does NOT solve it. I have been training men and women executives and managers for a decade in presentation skills. Posture and physical behavior form an important part of what I teach. The problem with Gruenfeld’s approach is that she recommends a form of posture (known as the expanded posture) which is known to create an impression of arrogance and even aggressiveness. The research on this goes back to groundbreaking work by clinical psychologist William T. James at Cornell University in the 1930s, followed up by lots of research starting in the 1970s. What women need to know is two things: First, their posture and physical behavior will be tend to be judged more critically than a man’s, and any unhelpful impressions which they give (of either timidity or dominance) will all too often be counted against them. What to do? Well that’s the second thing they need to know. Second, there is one dependable, professional posture which they should emulate at all times, and model their physical behavior to be in harmony with this posture. And that posture is NOT the inflated posture which Gruenfeld suggests. But the right posture and accompanying physical behavior will both create a positive impression on audiences AND serve as the kind of physical expression of competence which can help to overcome the kind of unspoken doubts which many people (men and women) often harbor, still, about whether an particular woman is competent—a kind of doubt which the male gender does not provoke.

  7. Vineeta G

    Nov 23rd, 2010

    I totally agree that women give away power all the time by sounding softer and not staring into people’s eyes. Many women try to people at ease rather than making a strong point and make people uncomfortable. However, this research shows that Queen Victoria was standing un-smiling with a steady gaze, has clearly worked to create an authoritative feel about the Monarchy at that time.

  8. [...] For Women Leaders, Body Language Matters [...]

  9. James

    Nov 26th, 2010

    A stunningly simple minded solution. ‘Do this all the time’ style of advice is ridiculous.

    Every leader should adjust his/her body language based on the desired impact and knowledge of the audience.

    example: when you wish to impose your will on a man, stare him directly in the eyes (highly confrontation, generally, for men). When you wish to communicate shared goals with a woman, stare directly into her eyes (considered highly trustworthy by most women).


  10. [...] researcher, Deborah Gruenfeld, demonstrates that no matter a woman’s body type, her body language has an immense effect on the way she is [...]

  11. Jennifer

    Dec 3rd, 2010

    Another dissapointing article from the Institute for Gender Research at Stanford. You would expect visionary ideas to be coming out of Academia, right? WRONG. Same old ‘gender-equality’ efforts…”Want to succeed in the workplace? Walk and talk more like men!” I say we as women stop trying to measure up to men and start changing the metrics! When will we let go of this lust for equality and start demonstrating the power and genius of a woman’s approach as the key to successful, modern enterprise?

  12. [...] Leadership Greenhouse program. Gruenfeld cited the same study, adding this disturbing little nugget: And the more assertive a student found the female venture capitalist to be, the more they rejected [...]

  13. Mindy Hollar

    Jan 8th, 2011

    Check out the research of Cuddy, Fiske and Glick on warmth and competence. It seems to come a lot closer to the mark and suggests that women really must demonstrate both to be seen as effective leaders.

  14. Linda Bialecki

    Feb 6th, 2011

    After recruiting for Wall Street firms for 25 years, I could only sadly nod in agreement with the findings. The double standard dramatically affects who is hired, promoted and paid. Women, often younger, who believe that it is a level playing field are in for a rude surprise. I applaud the recommendations. Women all too unwittingly play into cultural stereotypes: not speaking up in meetings, tilting their heads, etc. — giving away power.

  15. T. Brown

    Mar 2nd, 2011

    As a young professional who has been climbing the ladder for 10 years now….this is totally right…and for the dudes on here saying she’s wrong…what do you know…try being a 30 year old up and comer and have your male teammates stretch out and do the whole hands behind their head in a meeting…UGH…guess who suddenly owns the room and meeting I was leading? Oh and trust me I am no blushing violet, but my solution?? Wear pants to big meetings….;)

  16. supreet

    Mar 13th, 2011

    excellent work

  17. Juan Ignacio

    Apr 24th, 2011

    You have many real life examples like the one describe in this research. Just look at how the employees and investors reacted with Carly Fiorina and Mark Hurd when they were CEO of HP. In both cases they did profound changes to the company, some more needed than others, but in any case they both exercised forceful leadership. In the case of Carly she was attacked without mercy, but in the case of Mark he was praised as a great leader, until we was fired for not following the business conduct standards of the company…

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