A few years ago, Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at the Harvard Business School, popularized the term “power pose,” a way of positioning one’s body in order to perform better and be perceived as more competent in professional environments. In an election cycle where Hillary is told to smile as Trump forever frowns like a goblin, it seems that the era of assessing gendered assertiveness is back, and stronger than ever.
In order to find some answers about how we perceive assertiveness in women, Melissa J. Williams of Emory University and Larissa Tiedens of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business took 71 different studies on people’s reactions to assertiveness and synthesized them. What did they find with this new stack of results? Women are often penalized for verbal assertiveness — i.e. asking for a raise or requesting an office mate turn down their music — but are not punished and occasionally rewarded for nonverbal cues of assertiveness. This can mean anything from taking up more space to standing close to another person, i.e. enacting a so-called “power pose.”
As Williams points out, nonverbal behaviors are proven to increase the influence of the person using them. “People are more likely to follow the lead of a person who maintains eye contact with them while he or she speaks, compared with a person who doesn’t,” she writes. But if women are frequently taken to task for their verbal assertiveness, why are we forgiven for and encouraged to utilize our nonverbal cues? Williams argues it’s because of the “nonconscious level” on which these interpretations happen:
When people see a woman asking for something, they may interpret her act of dominance as inappropriate, as out of bounds for women. Yet when people see a woman stand tall and speak loudly, they tend not to consciously label such behaviors as dominance — so they may not trigger outmoded reactions about how women “ought” to behave.
But if women are really insistent on using verbal assertiveness (as we should be), there is one area in which women will not be penalized: When we ask for things on the behalf of others, like “a raise for one’s assistant, say, or a deadline extension for one’s team.” Want something yourself, like a raise or a promotion? Sorry, you’re being too bossy.