women in business: lean in

Reproduced with permission of Punch Limited

Sheryl Sandberg’s fantastic book Lean In - - and the support group it spawned lean in - has done much to raise awareness of the ongoing struggles faced by women in the workplace to be taken seriously, especially at senior levels.

As well as societal factors to do with upbringing and conditioning, Sandberg (the COO of Facebook and 5th on Fortune Magazine’s list of most powerful women in the world) identifies some of the ways in which women’s own behaviour prevents them achieving the recognition and promotion their talents deserve.

I encounter many bright, capable women who are frustrated at being sidelined or overlooked at work and who are undoubtedly held back by similar behavioural traits. You may recognise some of them:

  • giving way too easily when others interrupt
  • hesitant or darting eye-contact
  • deflecting/refusing praise
  • saying too much (the intention is often to appear knowledgeable, but the impression is sometimes approval-seeking)
  • saying too little (I know, I know, it's difficult to strike the right balance)
  • deferring too quickly to the superiority or expertise of others
  • a slight tilt of the head (I spoke about this on the Personal Impact page)
  • vague, fluttery hand gestures
  • waiting to be asked rather than volunteering

being liked

Often it’s clear that what lies behind these behaviours, as Sandberg notes, is a desire to be liked and to be seen as a team player. But unfortunately this desire sometimes reads - to everyone else’s System 1 - as a sign of weakness and insecurity.

I’m not suggesting women should resort to the kind of tiresome alpha behaviour we’ve all seen in some powerful men, more akin to a chest-thumping silverback gorilla than an intelligent executive. But subtle shifts in behaviour – more direct eye contact, sitting forward (literally leaning in), turning up the volume slightly, waiting a second longer before giving way when interrupted (by which time the attempt at interruption may have stopped) - can have dramatic consequences on one’s impact.

One of my greatest satisfactions is seeing female clients make small adjustments to their System 1 behaviour to acquire more gravitas and authority, without sacrificing their femininity or making them any less likeable. You’ll see some of the positive feedback I’ve had on the clients page of this site and in my linkedin profile.


Sandberg argues that women must, literally and metaphorically, sit at the table. I have long been fascinated by the dynamics of meetings, which is frequently where reputations are made or lost. They are a fascinating forum, with all sorts of dynamics playing out to do with hierarchy, ego, dominance, rivalry and credibility. How we conduct ourselves, including where and how we sit, has a massive bearing on how we are perceived by the System 1 of others.

And it’s another area of work life where small adjustments to behaviour have the potential to raise status and credibility significantly.

For example here's some sage advice from Professor Lisa Jardine, honorary fellow of the Royal Society and former chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority:

“When you get into a room and you are the only woman, make sure your voice is heard first in the room. Ask for a glass of water, ask for a window opened, say “has anybody got a pen?” because your voice has to be heard in the room.”

She knows that until you have spoken, you are not at the meeting and the technique she describes allows you to establish your presence discreetly without having to muscle your way into discussion before you have something to contribute.

fake it till you make it

Academic research has begun to confirm what actors have known for many years: the relationship between the physical and the mental works both inside out and outside in. Our bodies and our voices reflect our inner state. But we can also alter our inner state by changing our physicality.

Research by Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy [1] suggests that simply standing in a ‘power pose’ - with arms and legs outstretched - for 2 minutes significantly increases testosterone levels, with the result that we feel more empowered and behave more assertively. Her TED talk outlining her work is one of the most watched ever, having been viewed over 47 million times.

There has been some controversy about whether these findings can be reliably replicated in a lab (see her latest thinking here) but my own experience with clients is that it works. Whether or not there is a measurable physiological effect, I have worked with many women (and men) who have subjectively felt more assertive as a result of consciously managing their own physical resources. And there is a raft of System 1 behaviour - how one occupies space and uses silence and eye contact – that women can readily adjust both to enhance their gravitas and credibility and give themselves more confidence to contribute more effectively

So if you don’t get taken sufficiently seriously in the workplace or want greater gravitas to get you to the next level, I may be able to help.

  • [1] Power Posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk testosterone; Carney, Cuddy and Yap 2010