Gender differences related to physical presence in the workplace are holding women back, according to Harvard Business School’s Professor Amy Cuddy – a renowned body-language expert whose TED talk on ‘power poses’  has clocked up some 47 million views.
In an interview with Forbes,  Cuddy points out: “When an individual has power, they take up more space. If you adopt these postures you are more likely to feel confident and see the world in a way that is filled with opportunities rather than challenges. If someone is seen as confident then they are also seen as competent.”
Cuddy believes that in “just about every way imaginable”, men take up more physical space in the workplace than women – even through using techniques such as speaking slower and more deliberately to occupy greater slices of conversational airtime.
In Cuddy’s view, that constant projection of male confidence leaves women at a disadvantage: “Perceptions of confidence and competence are extremely highly correlated,” she says. “Not the actual traits, but the perceptions of those traits. So, if women are seen as less confident, people attribute that [lack of expressed confidence] to a lack of competence. But really this is about what women think they are allowed to do. Women are simply trying to conform to the stereotype of their group.”
However, do the majority of people in the workplace really police and calibrate their own body language in such a detailed way – and police others’ with the same level of scrutiny?
Is it not the case that more people are concerned about what they say verbally than the image they convey with their posture? Is it, in fact, wrong for someone to regard your body language as evidential of the ‘real you’? And in a working world that is starting to pay more attention to neurodiversity – factoring in talented individuals who may be uncomfortable in social situations – is it perhaps somewhat unethical to have such a ‘one-size-fits-all’ view of what body language may communicate?
“I would take issue with many of these people who talk about the nature of confidence,” says The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper. “In their view, females are in deficit, because the norm is to be overconfident, to take up a lot of space, to speak more – so if women are not doing any of those things, then they are somehow wrong.
“But what we should be doing is reimagining what is normal. Perhaps overconfidence is a risky flaw. Perhaps claiming that you can do things when you can’t is unconstructive. Perhaps talking too much in a meeting situation means that you are taking someone else’s time. And perhaps we should be challenging those behaviours and power plays, instead of seeing them as normal.”
Cooper notes: “we certainly judge people all the time on their physical presences, and on the ways in which they speak – whether it’s the tone or accent they use, or their choice of words. Body language contributes hugely to the overall impression that individuals make. But what we’re beginning to learn when we consider issues of neurodiversity is how people use language in different ways, depending upon who they are, their backgrounds and their neurodiverse conditions.
“Indeed,” she adds, “some individuals within the neurodiverse segment will communicate in very direct ways – and there are copious organisational benefits to receiving direct instructions, requests or even criticism. Office manners, overlaid with our often diffident British culture, ensure that we can be incredibly indirect about what we want people to do. So, again, a new normal is probably what we should be looking for, rather than regarding deviations from the current normal as somehow lacking.”
For further thoughts and insights on communication, check out these learning resources from the Institute