Many female professionals have experienced it: colleagues ignoring their suggestions until a man in the room says the same thing, to universal acclaim. Or being mistaken for someone’s assistant, when you’re the senior leader in the room. Or being “mansplained” to, despite having the most knowledge or experience about the subject at hand.
How can female executives stand their ground and claim their true authority, without resorting to braggadocio and looking like a self-promotional jerk? It’s a subject I tackle directly in my LinkedIn Learning course, Body Language for Women.
Indeed, we can often do the heavy lifting of self-promotion much more effectively with our bodies, rather than through the words we use.
Here are three easy ways that female executives and entrepreneurs can distinguish themselves and convey their true power:
1. Consider taking up more space.
Our body language sends messages about power, dominance and status. And while individuals vary, in general, men tend to signal dominance by taking up space in some way – whether it’s sprawling their papers out on a conference table or spreading their legs or their arms.
Women more commonly do the opposite, according to researcher Carol Kinsey Goman. They tend to shrink, to condense, elbows in, legs demurely crossed, papers neat.
That’s what’s culturally expected – but because of the link from your body to your emotions, it puts us at a disadvantage. Men’s expansive behaviour creates a feedback loop that makes them even more confident, while our contraction makes us less confident.
So, it’s worth thinking about how we take up space in the world, because it also shapes us from the inside out.
2. Make sure to project your voice.
At a very basic level, if people can’t hear you, they can’t respond to – or appreciate – your ideas. And yet, most of us can probably think of a talented colleague, usually female, whose voice is so soft that it’s almost impossible to hear her across the conference table.
Sometimes this is a shyness issue, where you might feel embarrassed or like you’re going to be judged. If that’s the case, start by practicing in safe situations, like a low-stakes meeting, or even in group outings with your friends at first.
Sometimes the issue with projecting is physical. Some people say they literally don’t know how to project their voice enough to be heard. If that’s the case, hiring an acting coach or a voice coach is an incredibly useful investment in your career.
It’s unfortunate but true that people are too busy to ask you for the 14th time to speak up: it’s your responsibility to make yourself heard.
3. Focus on your stance.
I teach executive communication courses for Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and consult for corporate clients on effective presentation techniques, and this issue is one of the most frequent. When people get nervous, their tendency is often to sway back-and-forth, or to shift their weight onto one foot, giving them an off-kilter appearance.
The tendency to sway or shift your weight affects both men and women. But, because women are already culturally perceived as less powerful, they can benefit more from a strong stance that conveys confidence and authority.
Instead, make a point of standing with your weight evenly balanced, about hip-width apart. This is the default stance in most sports, because – even if shoved – you’re in the strongest stance possible and are less likely to topple. The body is a master of metaphor and the message you’re physically conveying is the same: you telegraph confidence and efficacy to others.
By following these three simple tips – you can easily convey your true power and authority to others, and make sure your ideas are heard.