Women, power, and body language

Moving your body differently can change how you think

wonder woman danny haasNext time you’re on an airplane, take a look around.  If you look closely you’ll notice a phenomenon that I’ve experienced many times: the men on the plane have spread out unabashedly, while women have constricted their bodies to make themselves smaller.  As a petite woman of 5’4”, I have repeatedly been surprised by the audacity of the men next to me whose arms sprawl over the divider and whose knees almost touch mine.  At first I rationalized that they couldn’t quite fit into the small seats, but size didn’t fully explain it.  What I eventually realized was that these men carried themselves differently than I did; they were unapologetic about the space they took up.

Once I took this awareness into the world, I began to see it everywhere.  Looking solely at body language, women didn’t seem to come across as powerful as men in many situations.  I saw women taking on poses that made them smaller and less dominant – crossed legs, crossed arms, hunched shoulders – in conference rooms, classrooms, coffee shops, restaurants, and even walking down the street.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy observed this phenomenon in her classroom, noting that women exhibiting body language associated with low power participated less than their male counterparts.  This led Professor Cuddy and her collaborator Dana Carney to wonder if body language was affecting how the women in their classes felt.  The two published a paper in 2010 called “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance.”  The findings show that simply holding one’s body in expansive, high-power poses for as little as two minutes stimulates higher levels of testosterone (the hormone linked to power and dominance in the animal and human worlds) and lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone that can, over time, cause impaired immune functioning, hypertension, and memory loss). Controlling for baseline levels, they found that high-power poses decreased cortisol by 25 percent and increased testosterone by 19 percent for both men and women. In contrast, low-power poses increased cortisol by 17 percent and decreased testosterone by 10 percent.

The clear implication: not only does body language affect the way that others perceive us, it also affects the way we perceive ourselves!  When we consciously or unconsciously carry ourselves in a low-power way, we end up feeling less powerful.  We shape our bodies and in turn our bodies shape us.  To take this one step further, Pranjal H. Mehta, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, has shown that the combination of high testosterone and low cortisol is correlated to dominance in leaders.

As someone who has cultivated a yoga practice over the past five years, these findings support something that I’ve felt intuitively for some time: moving my body differently has an impact on my mind.  After yoga class, I feel both powerful and calm – qualities that correspond to the high testosterone and low cortisol combination cited in Professor Cuddy’s research.  This is likely because many yoga poses require a broad chest, raised arms, and a stretched, expansive body.

Yoga is not the only path to a more powerful and “leader-like” self, and yoga teachers aren’t the only ones who can help intervene in the body language dynamic.  Anyone who engages in a physical practice that increases body awareness has an advantage when it comes to feeling more powerful, calm, and ultimately more like a leader.  And anyone who coaches aspiring leaders can pay attention to the space their clients take up and help them be more mindful of what poses they strike and when.

All of this of course applies to both genders, but I think women in particular could benefit from taking up more space, in poses that allow them to exhibit and own their power. Amy Cuddy recommends standing for two minutes in a power pose (think Wonder Woman) before an important meeting or interview.  Use your body language to your advantage and, as she says, “fake it until you make it.”  And make sure to spread out on your next flight!