Unconscious Bias
Work and Organizations

For women leaders, body language matters

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.

As 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.

Shift the power dynamic

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

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.”  Research shows that people unconsciously defer to those who use dominant physical postures. 

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 and CEO of Mightybell 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.


The Thought Leadership Greenhouse is the earlier version of the Clayman Institute Voice & Influence program.