Assertive women perceived negatively

At some date in the first months of 2010, women will cross the 50 per cent threshold and become the majority of the North American workforce.

At some date in the first months of 2010, women will cross the 50 per cent threshold and become the majority of the North American workforce.

Females already make up the majority of university graduates in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, as well as the majority of professional workers in several rich countries, including the United States. And women already run many of the world’s great companies, from PepsiCo in America to Areva in France.

As a speaker at business conferences, I’ve addressed organizations around the world, and I’ve seen the genuine commitment that many companies have made to develop the leadership abilities of female employees and to create workplace environments with family-friendly policies and flexible work arrangements — all in hopes of attracting, retaining and grooming women for top management roles.

But despite this effort and this progress, far-too-many talented females still bump their heads on a glass ceiling: Only two per cent of the senior leaders of North America’s largest companies and five per cent of their peers in Britain are women.

In my book, The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, I talk about the power of silent signals in the workplace. So I was fascinated to come across research that helps explain why even the best-intentioned efforts at developing women leaders are failing.

The research deals with emergent leadership in groups of equal status. And the findings have everything to do with body language.

Doré Butler and Florence Geis, at the University of Delaware, compared the nonverbal affect responses to male and female leaders and found that intellectual assertiveness by women in mixed-sex discussions elicits visible nonverbal cues of negative affect.

Females taking a leadership role in the group received fewer pleased responses and more displeased responses from fellow group members than male leaders speaking up and offering the same input.

From earlier research, we know that displeased expressions by fellow group members cause a leader’s contribution to be rated less valuable than the identical contribution when embedded with cues of approval. So you can see how women’s ideas can be devalued simply by receiving less positive and more negative responses than men’s contributions of the same objective quality.

Here’s what can happen in a team meeting: A woman states her opinion. In response, negative nonverbal affect cues — frowns, head shakes, eye contact avoidance, etc. — are displayed, processed, and often mimicked by the entire group to produce a negative consensus about the value of her contribution. And all of this occurs without individuals on the team being aware of what’s happening.

Three key points:

l This was a study of leadership behaviors in peer groups. There is no evidence to suggest that women in formal leadership roles generate any greater negative (or less positive) emotional cues than do their male counterparts.

l This was not about men discounting the contribution of women. The groups in the study had an equal mix of male and female members.

l The power of nonverbal communication lies its unconscious nature — and bringing the covert into awareness can help nullify its effect.

So, if you want to groom women for top positions in your organization, keep doing those things that have proven to be helpful: Offer females the coaching, mentors, and career opportunities that develop leadership potential.

But, in addition, pay attention to your own body language. Employees look for and emulate the nonverbal signals they get from their bosses. Current leaders can help create a level playing field for emergent leaders by providing the same cues of positive affect when listening to women as they do when listening to men.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. is a change-management consultant, and international keynote speaker.