For International Women’s Day: boost your body language and beat the backlash

It’s depressingly well documented that when a woman makes demands, challenges the status quo and generally speaks up, there is often a backlash from those around her. And that backlash isn’t just from men; there’s a great deal of research supporting the dismal view that both men and women penalise the woman who dares to disrupt the prevailing gender hierarchy. The penalties include a drop in the woman’s ‘likeability’ and ‘hireability’ (compared to a man behaving in the same way). The responses can range from sneers and scorn to outright sabotage. You’ve seen it happen: at work, in family gatherings, in public life – and elections.

So no big deal then

‘Displaying dominance’ as it’s called in the social psychology literature can take different forms, such as verbally challenging, arguing and making direct demands (and let’s not forget ‘manterrupting’ and ‘mansplaining’). It can also take the form of non-verbal communications. Intriguingly, Melissa Williams and Larissa Tiedens, two U.S.-based psychologists, analysed over 70 studies and found that some dominant behaviours are penalised – but not all.

What can a woman do about this?

It turns out that not all assertive behaviour is penalised equally; some goes unnoticed and unpunished. The researchers distinguished ‘Explicit’ assertive behaviour such as arguing and ‘Implicit’ assertive behaviour such as eye contact, and when they looked at responses the non-verbal assertiveness didn’t get the same backlash response as the verbal. Williams and Tiedens conclude that much of our body language is subtler than our words; we process non-verbal cues unconsciously. Unless the body language is pronounced or exaggerated, it doesn’t get our attention in the same way as the speaker’s words. Which means that we can use non-verbal techniques to speak up, be heard and make a case – whilst staying below the radar of prevailing social norms. For example, a woman can try:

  1. Speaking more often, and more loudly than your normal conversational volume.
  2. Making and maintaining eye contact when speaking and listening.
  3. Breathing more slowly and deeply, thus helping the voice.
  4. Taking a longer stride (try it! I was surprised).
  5. Making constructive suggestions, e.g. “how about…?”
  6. Speaking in shorter sentences.
  7. Standing with weight distributed evenly on both feet (for example, if you’re presenting, it’s a standing meeting or corridor conversation). Don’t put all the weight on one leg.
  8. Asking questions to probe further and test others’ suggestions.
  9. Using more ‘expansive’ posture and gesture – see Amy Cuddy’s TED talk*.
  10. Speaking up on behalf of others, for example your team, rather than just for yourself.

What if you’re a man reading this?

Hello! How lovely to see you here. Please consider your female friends and colleagues when they speak up, particularly in meetings, and pause for breath to notice how they behave and how they appear to be perceived.

If you’re chairing a meeting and notice a female colleague being interrupted, tell the culprit to wait their turn and ask the female speaker to continue. Pointing this out whenever it happens will a) raise awareness of how common it is and b) encourage better manners all round.

Notice when and where your biases (we’ve all got them) kick in when you’re dealing with colleagues, male and female.

I think I can speak for my sorority when I say we’ll all be deeply grateful.

* TED has recently posted a Q&A with Amy Cuddy, which gives her the chance to respond to criticism of the science behind her ‘power pose’ TED talk, and share the extensive work that’s been done since it was filmed.

You may also find this post useful: Help! I’ve been told to speak up more in meetings

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’, available now at bookstores and on Amazon.

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