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The Body Language Mistakes That Women Leaders Commonly Make

Written by Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.. Posted in Business and Career Articles

body language

10 Body Language Mistakes Women Leaders Make


There are two sets of body language cues that followers look for in women leaders: warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status). And, although the goal is a balance of both warmth and authority, there are circumstances when one set of signals is the most effective (for example, encouraging collaboration requires more warmth signals from leaders). Although I know several leaders of both sexes who do not fit the stereotypes, I’ve also observed that gender differences in body language most often align with these two groupings. Women are seen as champions in the warmth and empathy arena, but often lose out with power and authority cues.

If a female wants to be perceived as powerful, credible, and confident, she has to be aware of the nonverbal signals she’s sending. There are a number of behaviors I’ve seen women unknowingly employ that reduce their authority by denoting vulnerability or submission. Based on information from "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help -- or Hurt -- How You Lead," here are ten 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 very positive nonverbal 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 business 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 and claim your turf!

3. They act girlish

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

4. They smile excessively

While 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. This 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 are overly expressive

While a certain amount of 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 in situations where you want to maximize your authority -- minimize your movements. When you appear calm and contained, you look more powerful.

9. They have a delicate handshake

Women with a weak handshake are judged to be passive and less confident. So take the time to cultivate your "professional handshake.” Keep your body squared off to the other person -- facing him or her fully. Make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that the web of you hand (the skin between you thumb and first finger) touches the web of the other person's. And, most of all, remember to 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 female actors play the roles of sellers of a biotech business. Half were told to project a no-nonsense, business approach. Half were instructed to flirt (using the nonverbal behaviors of smiling, leaning forward suggestively, tossing their hair, etc.) – but to do so subtly. The outcome was that the “buyers” offered the flirts (dubbed “likeable losers”) 20% less, on average, than what they offered the more straitlaced sellers. 


About the author:

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is an executive coach, change-management consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She’s an expert contributor for The Washington Post’s “On Leadership” column, a leadership blogger on, a business body language columnist for “the Market” magazine, and the author of  “THE SILENT LANGUAGE OF LEADERS: How Body Language Can help – or Hurt – How You Lead.”

To contact Carol about speaking or coaching, call 510-526-172 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. To more information or to view videos, visit Carol’s website

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