Women leaders, watch your body language

How you're perceived can, at times, come down to non-verbal cues as simple as head tilts or nods

By Khaulah Abbas, Founder of Your Professional Presence

Published: Fri 8 May 2020, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 15 May 2020, 8:24 AM

Presence. You know it when you see it but, somehow, can't pinpoint it. Presence is how you are perceived by others. It's a combination of traits, such as your appearance, body language, poise and communication skills.
Research shows that leaders are evaluated on two things: warmth/approachability and power/confidence. This is especially difficult for women because when they show dominance and power, they are described as pushy, bossy or too masculine; and when they show empathy, they are viewed as weak.
Women who are able to balance both aspects are seen as better leaders. Much of these can come from non-verbal behaviour. With simple awareness of what to avoid and how to practise confident body language behaviours, women can control some aspects of how they are perceived. Here are six tips to improve your leadership perception.

Space invading
Authority is demonstrated through height and space. Traditionally, women are taught to be nurturing and quiet; to sit elegantly on a corner of the chair, keep our hands in our laps, elbows tucked into our waist. To show confidence, take up space: sit tall, feet on the ground, elbows on the arm rest, spread your laptop, coffee cup and other items neatly around rather than stacking them on top of each other.

Head tilting
Head tilting is seen as a submissive gesture. When used in situations that require empathy, it's a positive. In the workplace, when giving direction, it's best to keep your head straight. You will be seen as more confident and authoritative by colleagues and clients.
Nodding too much
Women tend to be more empathetic than men and, therefore, nod more as a sign of encouragement. However, too much nodding can have a bobble head effect - detracting from the image of authority you want. While it suggests friendliness, it can also show signs of being a pushover. Nodding is good when you want to show agreement; however, limit it to 2-3 nods and use them cautiously during conversations.

Smiling too much
Women tend to give away a great amount of their power by over-smiling because we want to be seen as kind. But over-smiling can affect credibility and gravitas, resulting in the perception of a weaker leader. Smiles are encouraged at the appropriate time and place. When first meeting someone or when you are genuinely pleased with a result.

Hair twirling
Throughout history, hair twisting is a sign used to attract another person, to bring attention to the face. Touching the face, neck or jewellery are pacifying gestures that women do often, especially when nervous or unsure. These behaviours can cause you to be seen as less powerful.
Use your hands to reinforce words. Showing your palms may increase people's trust in you and using the steeple gesture (bringing fingertips together with palms apart) shows you as confident and commanding.

Research shows that people with lower pitched voices are seen as more authoritative. It isn't about changing your voice; rather, strive to be mindful of the tone in which you speak to get the right message delivered. Today, it has become a popular way to speak with an upward inflection or upspeak. While it may sound more playful, it sounds like a question rather than a statement, resulting in you sounding unsure of what you are saying. It will also lower others' perception of your competence as well as their attention span.

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