Chapter 6 - Gender and Body Language

(EN: Given that there are political sensitivities toward the topic of gender, the author begins this chapter by rather gently informing the user that it is rather foolish to dismiss any notion that men and women are different as politically motivated. While stereotypes and prejudices exist, there is clear evidence that gender is a determinant of behavior - whether for genetic or cultural reasons. Some stereotypes turn out to be quite accurate, and as the present book is based on practical advice, they must be acknowledged, such as they are, and accounted for.)

This chapter considers the ways in which gender can influence the body language of leaders, the way that men and women react differently to emotion and stress, the communication strengths of male and female leaders, and how to alter or accommodate your own body language to be more effective.

The Neuroscience of Gender

In terms of research and gender, it's not a question of which gender is better than the other - merely acknowledging that the two are different.

The notion that upbringing and socialization are the cause of gender differences has been questioned by physiological observations about the brain: men have 6.5 times as much grey matter (localized brain activity) than women, and women have nearly 10 times as much white matter (connections between activity centers) as do men. Because of this, men tend to be better at focusing intently on one task at a time, whereas women tend to be better at assimilating information from various sources.

It is also found that there are different patterns of electrochemical activity in the brain when emotions are experienced: women are more empathetic, and men seek to take action. This has to do with the manner in which the temporal-parietal junction is engaged in the male brain: while women seek to understand the context of a problem, men seek to find a solution. It is suggested that the traditional roles (male hunter, female homemaker) have also caused male and female brains to evolve in different ways, to better support these functions.

This is expressed in the business environment, in that women in positions of leadership tend to behave differently than men in the same positions. And again, it is not a matter of which is "better" - as the most effective approach is sometimes one or the other - and quite often neither.

Why Women Don't Lead

Women have crossed the 50% threshold to become the majority of the American workforce, and the majority of college graduates - but in spite of this, few have risen to the top: there are only ten companies in the Fortune 500 led by female CEOs.

There is a great deal of speculation about this, largely centered on the notion that people believe that the characteristics typically associated to men (forcefulness, self-confidence, and goal-orientation) are more germane to leadership than those of women (empathy, nurturing, and people-orientation) - though it should be self-evident that the male characteristics are more closely related to personal performance than organizational management.

It's also been observed in ethnographic studies (Butler 1990) that, in team situations, ideas proposed by women receive a more negative response than those proposed by men. When a woman states her opinion, negative nonverbal cues are evident (frowning, head-shaking, avoidance of eye contact, etc.) in other members of the team. Not only does this make it less likely that there will be consensus to act on a woman's suggestions, but the constant negative nonverbal feedback she encounters may discourage her from presenting her ideas in future.

This is not merely male chauvinism discounting the contributions of females - as even women react more negatively to ideas proposed by women. (It's speculated that this behavior by women may be imitative - they are attempting to "fit in" with male colleagues by being more dismissive of female ones.)

As such, even firms that attempt to address the problem of sexism are still prone to promote male employees that female - management may set objective criteria to recognize the contributions of individuals and ignore their gender, but given that women's ideas are less likely to be accepted and implemented than men's ideas, they can show fewer accomplishments.

Gender-Based Differences in Nonverbal Communication

The author provides a list of some differences in the way men and women communicate. (EN: Only one of which cites a study as evidence, and a few others refer to articles in non-scholarly business publications, so take this list with a grain of salt.)

Leadership Styles of Men and Women

Some differences are observed in both laboratory and field observational studies in the way that leaders of different gender interact with their subordinates.

Generally speaking, women leaders tend to be more interactive with their followers, seeking to build consensus and collaborate. Their empathetic style makes their subordinates feel empowered, but also decreases their perception of her own power as their leader. Women are concerned with the needs of their subordinates, which is warming but makes them seem less serious about achieving goals. They encourage their subordinates to cooperate with one another.

Men tend to be more aloof, using authority and control to gain obedience and discourage resistance. This style makes subordinates feel disempowered, but also causes them to regard their leader as strong and decisive. Men are also most concerned with achieving goals and seem indifferent to the personal needs of their subordinates. They encourage their subordinates to compete with one another.

The author observes that there are instances in which one or the other of these leadership styles is most effective in a given situation - and suggests that leaders of both genders should consider the choices they make (and the consequences of them) to the success and morale of their team. Ultimately, it is good to have both sets of behavior represented in leadership - but a person who clings tightly to their default style may find that they are considered to be effective in some roles but not others.

Body Language of Male and Female Leaders

The author cites some of her own research into the communication styles of men and women in positions of authority - largely a survey of subordinates' perceptions of their leaders.


The three greatest communication strengths of male leaders were identified as:

  1. Physical Presence - Men simply "look more powerful" than women, which creates a sense of respect and confidence in their subordinates
  2. Direct Approach - Men are straightforward and get straight to the point, so subordinates are confident that they understand.
  3. Nonverbal Power - The gestures, expressions, and posture of men communicate power and control, which again creates a sense of respect and confidence in their subordinates.

The three greatest communication strengths of female leaders were also identified:

  1. Intuition - Women have the ability to pick up on subtle cues and have more insight into what is really going on.
  2. Listening - Women focus more than men on giving attention to a person who is speaking and understanding what they say before replying.
  3. Empathy - Women convey a sense of friendliness, warmth, and approachability and are generally more "tuned in" to others.

It's obvious that these skills or qualities are very closely correlated to the leadership styles identified in the previous section: men wield authority, women build consensus.


The author observes that the perceived weaknesses of male and female leaders are very often a restatement of their strengths.

The three greatest communication weaknesses of male leaders were identified as:

  1. Bluntness - Men can be overbearing and intimidating to others.
  2. Callousness - Men do not seem to care about how others feel, rely too much on what is practical and logical and completely ignore the emotional impact.
  3. Arrogance - Men value their own opinions highly, and do not seem to care what others have to say. They even tend to interrupt others or refuse to listen.

The three greatest communication weaknesses of male leaders were identified as:

  1. Drama - Women let their feelings show too much and often seem like they are losing control. Other times they ham it up, exaggerating their emotional state to manipulate or confuse others.
  2. Indecisive - Women talk around an issue and never get to the point, particularly when faced with a tough decision or delivering a message that will be unpleasant.
  3. Immaturity - Women often rely on "girlishness" or attractiveness to influence others, rather than keeping covnersaations logical, practical, and professional.

Body Language Tips

The author mentions that her work as a coach and consultant often places her in contact with individuals whose nonverbal behavior is already effective in certain situations (they would likely never have found their way into leadership positions if they were completely hapless) but who have recognized that there are often situations in which the signals they are sending are not effective or counterproductive.

Tips for Women

Women are often capable of projecting warmth and empathy and do well in situations in which they must get people to collaborate and work together - but they are often not very good at projecting authority and credibility. To that end ...

Tips for Men

Men who rise to leadership positions are often already effective in projecting authority and credibility, but seem cold and distant, and as such have difficulty getting others to contribute rather than merely comply. Tips follow to project warmth and empathy, to become the kind of leader followers respect and support.

Accept That Men and Women are Different

It's long been recognized that men and women are different: different in their temperament, perception, understanding, intuition, cognition, communication skills, and a host of other ways that are too numerous to explore in the present book. The differences are so well and so deeply established that this is unlikely to change. Aside of being deeply ingrained in every human culture, much of the differences are biological.

It is likely that a hundred or a thousand years from now, men and women will still be different, so our approach should not be to insist on a complete dismissal of gender, nor insistence that people act exactly the same. The best the author hopes for is that men and women can become aware of these differences and adjust their behavior in those situations in which their gender-based proclivities are counterproductive.