How body language might be holding women back

Recently, I blogged about non-verbal communication in the US Presidential election. A chance encounter today has made me think further about how body language might be impacting women who want to get on in their career.

At an event, I bumped into someone I’m keen to work with on a project and it made me think about something I have noticed before around that classic greeting – the handshake.

Have you ever thought about how men and women use this differently? I’ve considered many times how the handshake can create connection and wondered if women are disadvantaged as a result of social norms surrounding this classic greeting.

What I’ve observed is that men shake hands with each other a lot. Every time they see each other, even informally, they tend to shake hands.  This creates a physical connection which is strengthened each time they meet.

A little online research told me that the handshake is linked to hierarchy and can be used to indicate power. Thinking about the gesture in this way made me wonder if this is a subtle reinforcement of patriarchy which unconsciously puts women at a disadvantage.

It seems that women might use this gesture when they are in a position of authority and want to indicate this. Interviews are a good example or also in a meeting with clients. In more informal situations, women are far less likely to use such a greeting unless responding to an offered hand.

So if the seemingly innocent handshake has this kind of impact, what else should we be looking out for?

Here are a few non-verbal messages that women should be aware of:

1) Space – men naturally take up space. They spread themselves out using arms, legs, paperwork and anything else to ensure they put their stamp on the environment around them. Women should be aware of this and mark themselves out in a similar way. For example, keeping arms above the table and keeping them open so that their presence is also known. [Amy Cuddy, Your body language shapes who you are]

2) Nodding – when a man nods, it means he agrees but when a woman nods, it means she is listening and empathising. Have you ever been in a situation where a man is saying something you disagree with and you are nodding politely to show they can go on? Try not to do that in future or your male colleagues might take it as the royal mark of approval. [Psychology Today, Nodding doesn’t mean ‘yes’]

3) Waiting your turn – women tend to be very polite in waiting for their turn to contribute or find a gap in the conversation to say their piece. Men are often more comfortable with interrupting and will hold the floor for as long as possible so assert yourself and make sure your voice is heard. [Deborah Tannen, You just don’t understand: men and women in conversation]

4) Failing to sit at the table – one of the key messages from Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In was to make sure you are at the table. Whatever happens, never sit around the periphery. You have every right to be there and should never allow yourself to take a back seat. [Sheryl Sandberg, Why we have too few women leaders]
Other relevant articles: How Donald is Trumping Hillary in the ultimate leadership race


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