Carol Kinsey GomanThere is no doubt that women face unique challenges in being promoted to leadership roles. One of them is the unconscious bias that results in fewer such opportunities being made available to them.

In a New York Times article, Isabelle Kocher, former CEO of the French energy company Engie, talked about how sexism in the male-dominated energy sector was often subtle: “I realize that every time we discuss a job placement and look at a list of both male and female candidates, there’s a question that comes up pretty much all the time for the woman: ‘Will she know how to assert herself?’ It’s not meant to be malicious. It’s more, ‘Will she manage to take the leadership of the team you want to entrust to her?’”

Managers – male and female – continue to take viable female candidates out of the running, often on the assumption that the woman can’t handle or want to do certain jobs. It’s no wonder that when researchers ask both men and women to draw a picture of a leader, they’ll almost always draw a male figure.

Women also run headlong into the “double-bind paradox” where men can be both powerful and likeable, while women must project authority to advance in the business world, and the more powerful they appear, the less they are liked.

A frequently cited study, the Heidi/Howard case, shows that when the same highly assertive and successful leader is described to graduate students of both genders, that leader is seen as far more appealing when identified as a male rather than a female. Blame it on the stereotype of women as nurturing, sensitive, and collaborative (all highly effective and undervalued leadership attributes). When their behaviour is congruent with these traits, women are liked but not seen as especially powerful. When their behaviour runs counter to the stereotype, they are perceived negatively.

Women are constantly navigating these shifting gender expectations, social roles, and leadership requirements. To do so, the most successful women I’ve worked with are deeply aware of their personal values and boundaries while also maintaining a keen sense of how others perceive them. Because they understand that leadership presence is totally dependent on the impression they make, these savvy females can adapt and adjust their interactions to achieve the best outcome in a particular situation.

This awareness and flexibility pays off. Research at Stanford University Graduate School of Business also shows that assertive and confident women who can turn these traits on and off depending on the social circumstances get more promotions than other women, or even men.

Women who stand out as the talented leaders they truly are, understand the verbal and nonverbal behaviours that most powerfully impact the way others perceive them.

For example, try this now: Sit in a chair with your legs tightly crossed, bring your elbows into your waist, clasp your hands together and place them on your lap while slightly rounding your shoulders. It’s not surprising that most people would evaluate that posture as powerless – but it may surprise you to know that some version of this very posture is the way most women sit. We tend to condense our bodies, keeping our elbows to our sides, tightly crossing our legs, and contracting our bodies to take up as little space as possible. And when we do, we don’t look like leaders. We look physically smaller, weaker, and more fragile than we are.

While warmth and likeability are shown by smiles, eye contact, head tilts, and slight forward leans (all of which are great for building relationships), power and authority are non-verbally expressed by expanding into height and space, and people will be evaluating how your body language strengthens or weakens your leadership presence.

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Keep projecting warmth, but don’t let it be the only set of nonverbal signals you send. Remember that you look more authoritative when you stand tall, pull your shoulders back, widen your stance and hold your head high. You can show presence when seated by uncrossing your legs and putting both feet flat on the floor, taking up more space by placing your arms on the arms of your chair and straightening your posture. You will instantly look (and feel) surer of yourself.

It’s a similar situation verbally; how you express yourself either adds to or detracts from other people’s perception of your leadership presence. No matter how credible you authentically may be, you sound less assured when you ramble instead of getting to the point, use devaluing qualifiers (“I could be wrong, but … This may be a stupid idea, but …”) or add minimizers (maybe, sort of, somewhat). And you undermine the contribution of you and your team if you start statements by saying, “We’re just …” instead of stating directly what you are accomplishing.

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You also sound more confident when you take ownership by making “I” statements. Each time you find yourself offering an opinion in the form of a question (“Don’t you think it would be a good idea to have our meeting next Tuesday?”), stop and turn it into an “I” statement (“I propose we have our meeting next Tuesday”).

Of course, good posture and assertive verbal messages alone won’t automatically give you leadership presence. Neither will your excellent business results – unless other people know about them – and you.

One of the saddest comments I’ve heard was from the head of Human Resources for a Fortune 500 company who told me he’d proposed a female candidate for promotion to a group of executives – and no one in the room knew who she was.

Don’t let that be said about you! As gifted as you are, you can’t be the only one who knows it. You’ve got to get out there and become visible in your organization. This kind of self-promotion is all about setting yourself up for that next promotion by making sure that others know who you are, what you’ve done, and what you are capable of doing next.

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence. For interview requests, click here.


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