Banning 'Bossy'

Jason Raish

Do female leaders get penalized for being "too" assertive?

The answer is definitely yes, according to our research. But there are big exceptions to that rule that give women plenty of leeway to take charge.

It isn’t hard to find claims that people react differently to women than men in leadership roles. Supporters of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign argue that calls for her to smile more, or “yell” less, are evidence that she is held to a different standard than her arguably grumpier (male) opponents. A #banbossy campaign by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg sought to eradicate a word that is said to be aimed at women but not men.

To test this popular view, my colleague Larissa Tiedens, of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and I recently synthesized 71 studies testing reactions to people who behave assertively. We found that women, on average, were disparaged more than men for identical assertive behaviors. Women were particularly penalized for direct, explicit forms of assertiveness, such as negotiating for a higher salary or asking a neighbor to turn down the music. Dominance that took a verbal form seemed especially tricky for women, compared with men making identical requests.

Yet we found that women weren’t penalized for assertiveness that was expressed through nonverbal means—such as through expansive bodily stances or physical proximity. Likewise, they weren’t penalized for using paraverbal cues, such as speaking loudly or interrupting.

This new finding opens up possibilities for women, who may feel they face a catch-22 in their professional roles: being effective leaders without being penalized for being effective leaders. It certainly isn’t ideal—or fair—but by using these alternative expressions of leadership, women can sidestep the prejudices that make it hard to keep the respect and admiration of their team.

Action Without Words

Significantly, in our analysis, assertive behavior didn’t lead women to be seen as less competent than men. Rather, the costs were limited to interpersonal qualities, such as likability or warmth. But of course, in business, being liked can be just as critical to success as being respected. “Difficult” people are unlikely to be invited to join projects, teams, or boards. So, for women leaders, being disliked for being assertive can carry real career costs, not just social ones.

Nonverbal behaviors clearly enhance influence. People are more likely to follow the lead of a person who maintains eye contact with them while he or she speaks, compared with a person who doesn’t.

So why aren’t women penalized for using them? Because these behaviors work on a largely nonconscious level.

Think about the last time you watched a particularly motivating presentation. It’s probably hard now to identify exactly why you found the speaker persuasive, dynamic, or charismatic. Mostly we are left with the unsatisfying conclusion that “it was just something about him.” Or her.

Research suggests that the process of figuring out who’s on top in a group of people is so rapid and automatic that it often happens outside conscious awareness. We suspect that this fact works in women’s favor.

When people see a woman asking for something, they may interpret her act of dominance as inappropriate, as out of bounds for women. Yet when people see a woman stand tall and speak loudly, they tend not to consciously label such behaviors as dominance—so they may not trigger outmoded reactions about how women “ought” to behave.

Our research suggests, therefore, that women should feel free to drape an arm over the adjacent chair, to touch a colleague’s arm when speaking, or to lean in—literally. They shouldn’t hesitate to speak first, and loudly, and even to interrupt when it’s needed. Our data suggest that these behaviors will be interpreted as warmth and engagement—not assertiveness—even while they increase one’s stature and influence over others.

Other research suggests that assertiveness penalties may be less likely when women ask for resources on others’ behalf—a raise for one’s assistant, say, or a deadline extension for one’s team—compared with when they make requests on their own behalf. So, if a subordinate needs something, women leaders shouldn’t hesitate to push hard.

Not A Perfect Solution

Nonverbal dominance isn’t, of course, a long-term, or complete solution for women’s professional challenges. It’s unreasonable to expect a woman leader to get everything she needs through nonverbal signals, without ever making a direct request. At some point she’ll need a raise, and body language isn’t going to cut it.

It’s also hardly fair to suggest that the burden of changing the system in which leaders are evaluated should lie solely with women. Men have a role to play, too, in fostering an organizational culture in which all voices are heard. And it is top managers who set the tone, communicate company values, and shape policy with regard to gender equity.

But while waiting for the world to change, aspiring women leaders will have at least a few tools available. Think of nonverbal dominance as a side door to achieving influence at work.

Melissa Williams is assistant professor at Goizueta Business School. This essay originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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