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Developing Leadership Presence as a Woman

February 11, 2020

Anyone who successfully serves in a leadership role – or who hopes to – should think about how they are perceived by others. Education, experience, and results mean little if you aren’t viewed as a leader, and so quite a bit of your potential success comes down to presence.


As women, we need to be even more aware of how we carry ourselves. This is because studies repeatedly show we have four factors constantly working against us in the workplace: Imposter Syndrome, Unconscious Bias, the Double-Bind Paradox and Nonverbal Submission Signals. Let’s dive into each:

Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills. This is the barrier to female leadership success that you’re probably most familiar with. It refers to the lack of confidence many women feel, even if they’ve been highly successful. Have you ever found yourself downplaying your own success or even feeling like a fraud, believing you lucked into a result that had little to do with your true value? If so, you’re not alone. We often let our self-doubt impact our level of self-confidence, and in a visible way that can negatively impact our careers. For example, consider this statistic from Hewlett-Packard’s 2014 internal research: women only apply for positions when they feel they meet 100 percent of the requirements. Men, however, apply confidently for jobs when they meet just 60 percent of the requirements.

Unconscious Bias

Today, most people would never say outrightly that they believe women don’t make good leaders, and this is because most of us are open-minded and consciously believe in a woman’s ability to lead. Unfortunately, many people remain saddled with an unconscious bias in favor of men as leaders – even women. For example, multiple research studies have shown that participants who are asked to draw a picture of a leader will nearly always draw a man.

Double-Bind Paradox

This particular barrier is probably a phenomenon you’re familiar with, even if you’ve never heard the technical name. It refers to the idea that women have to project authority and confidence in order to advance in the workplace, but the more powerful they appear to be, the less well-liked they become. As women, we tend to care about what other people think of us, so this paradox is a real barrier to leadership success. Not surprisingly, men do not face this dilemma. They move up the career ladder and gain power and authority while easily maintaining their likeability.

Non-Verbal Submission Signals

Of all the roadblocks we women must surpass in building leadership presence, this is perhaps the one we can exercise the most control over simply by having more awareness. You see, as women we tend to exhibit non-verbal cues of submission without realizing it. Here are a few examples:

  • The Head Tilt: Do you ever find yourself tilting your head as you listen to someone else speak? This is known as a prosocial nonverbal cue – one that is meant to help other people in some way. For example, the head tilt is something we often use to show concern or empathy, and this makes it a useful tool in interpersonal communication. However, use it too often in the workplace and this nonverbal cue can be read subconsciously by others as submissive. (Consider the fact that a dog tilts its head to expose its neck as an act of deference to a dominant animal – this should make you think twice before using a head tilt during a presentation or when asking for a raise!)
  • Making Yourself Small: When you sit in a meeting around a conference table, consider your posture. Do you cross your legs, keep your elbows close to your body and your hands folded in your lap? Many women do, and this is a subconscious way that we condense our bodies and take up less space. Unfortunately, this is incredibly damaging to leadership presence. It makes us appear less confident, powerful and professional than we actually are. Instead, focus on ways to take up more space. These expansive body postures are sometimes called “power poses” and you can learn more about how to use them here. If you do nothing else, though, keep your feet both flat on the ground and sit up straight in your chair during your next meeting.
  • Acting Invisible: We women often believe that if we just keep our heads down and do good work consistently, we’ll be noticed. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true. A human resources professional once told me that, all too often, senior executives look at a talented woman’s resume and say something like, “I have no idea who she is.” It’s a sad fact that has played out in recent Silicon Valley studies, too. For women, it’s not enough to do good work; we also have to make ourselves and our successes visible to our superiors. So, volunteer for important presentations, publicize your team’s successes and look for mentors who will help to make your work more visible, too.

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