10 Body Language Tips for Female Leaders

There are two sets of body language cues that followers look for in leaders: warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status). Although I know several leaders of both sexes who do not fit the stereotypes, I’ve also observed that gender differences in body language often align with these two groupings. Women are the champions in warmth and empathy, but lose out with power and authority cues.

All leaders are judged by their body language. If a female wants to be perceived as powerful, credible, and confident, she has to be aware of the nonverbal signals she’s sending. Women unknowingly employ behaviors that reduce their authority by denoting vulnerability or submission.

Here are 10 body language mistakes that women leaders commonly make.

1. They use too many head tilts. Head tilting is a signal that someone is listening and involved—and a particularly feminine gesture. Head tilts can be positive cues, but they are also subconsciously processed as submission signals. Women who want to project power and authority should keep their heads straight up in a more neutral position.

2. They physically condense. One way that status is nonverbally demonstrated in a meeting is by physically taking up room. Lower-status, less-confident men (and most women) tend to pull in their bodies and minimize their size, while high status males expand and take up space. So at your next meeting, spread out your belongings; claim your turf!

3. They act girlish. Everyone uses pacifying gestures when under stress. They rub their hands, grab their upper arms, and touch their necks.Women are viewed as less powerful when they pacify with girlish behaviors (twirling hair, playing with jewelry, biting a finger).

4. They smile excessively. Smiling can be a powerful and positive nonverbal cue—especially for signaling likeability and friendliness—women should be aware that, when excessive or inappropriate, smiling can also be confusing and a credibility robber. This is especially true if you smile while discussing a serious subject, expressing anger, or giving negative feedback.

5. They nod too much. When a man nods, it means he agrees. When a woman nods, it means she agrees—or is listening to, empathizing with, or encouraging the speaker to continue. Excessive head nodding can make females look like a bobble-head doll. Constant head nodding can express encouragement and engagement, but not authority and power.

6. They speak "up." Women’s voices often rise at the ends of sentences as if they’re asking a question or asking for approval. When stating your opinion, be sure to use the authoritative arc, in which your voice starts on one note, rises in pitch through the sentence and drops back down at the end.

7. They wait their turn. In negotiations, men talk more than women and interrupt more frequently. One perspective on the value of speaking up comes from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who—when asked what advice she had for up-and-coming professional women—replied, "Learn to interrupt."

8. They’re overly expressive. While some movement and animation adds passion and meaning to a message, women who express the entire spectrum of emotions often overwhelm their audience (especially if the audience is comprised primarily of males). So, when you want to maximize your authority—minimize your movements. When you appear calm and contained, you look powerful.

9. They have a delicate handshake. Women with a weak handshake are judged to be passive and less confident. So cultivate your "professional shake." Keep your body square to the other person—facing him or her fully. Have palm-to-palm contact with the web of your hand touching the web of the other person’s. And, most of all, shake hands firmly.

10. They flirt. Women gain likeability, but lose the competitive advantage in a negotiation when they flirt. In a UC Berkeley study of sales, flirts are offered 20 percent less, on average.

First Published in Leadership Excellence www.leaderexcel.com 8/2010.