So why the disparity? Is it simply traditional sexism? Or is something more complex going on? In The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - Or Hurt - How You Lead, Carol Kinsey Goman asserts that the difficulty lies with women “being subconsciously recognized by their peers as acceptable leadership material.” In a University of Delaware study nonverbal responses by females “elicit visible non verbal cues of negative affect.” In particular, “females speaking up and taking a leadership role receive fewer pleased responses and more displeased responses from fellow group members than males leaders offering the same input.”
These unconscious, negative nonverbal cues come in the form of head shakes, frowns, and eye-contact avoidance, and they tend to be mimicked throughout a group. This reinforces the idea that women should not speak up or take leadership within any group. This finding is suggests that it’s not simply men refusing to acknowledge the work contribution of women. In part, it points to how unconscious gender expectations play out in the work world, even in mixed company. It also reveals how body language cues play out with regard to gender.
So what can women do to combat this situation? Becoming aware of this dynamic is an important first step. Knowledge is power, so to speak. Recognize, for instance, that angry outbursts tend to lessen the perception of a woman's power and competence - just the opposite of what happens when men become assertive or forceful.
With regard to specific body language cues, Goman reminds female leaders to practice several commonly-advised leadership behaviors: retain a calm and authoritative voice (“curb your enthusiasm”), employ a firm handshake, and dress like a leader, avoiding sexy outfits as counterproductive. She also suggests that female leaders smile selectively, claim their space (stand when presenting their ideas and broaden their stance), watch their hands, speak up, avoid tilting their heads, and keep their eyes at eye level to mid-forehead when they converse,
Although females leaders face unfortunate discrimination because of the unconscious bias against them, they can fortify their position by avoiding specific body language cues that undermine their credibility. Women who must interact regularly in fields that are overwhelmingly male, like computer science and engineering, need to do their research on how better to navigate the trickier social waters they face.