How Your Body Language Can Defeat The Double-Bind Paradox

August 24, 2017 | Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

He's the boss, she's bossy. He's assertive, she's domineering. He strategizes, she schemes.

He's powerful and likeable, she's powerful or likeable.

As males rise in rank and status at work, they retain (and often increase) their perceived likeability – so they can be both powerful and likeable. The Double-Bind Paradox states that women must project authority in order to advance in the business world, but the more powerful they appear, the less they are liked. Catalyst, an organization that studies women in leadership, calls this the “dammed if you do, doomed if don’t” dilemma. Their research shows that women in power can be seen as capable or likeable -- but rarely both.

Blame it on the stereotypes we hold of women as nurturing, sensitive and collaborative, When their behavior is congruent with these traits, women are liked, although not seen as especially powerful. When their behavior runs counter to the stereotype, they are perceived more negatively. A frequently cited Stanford University Graduate School of Business study, the Heidi/Howard case, shows that when the same highly assertive and successful leader is described to grad students (of both genders), that person is seen as far more appealing when given a male name instead of a female one.

Does that mean that female leaders are indeed “dammed or doomed” as Catalyst suggested? Well, maybe not.

One encouraging possibility that addresses this bias comes from another study at Stanford that found businesswomen who are assertive and confident, but who can turn these traits on and off depending on the social circumstances, get more promotions than either men or other women. This research suggests the most successful women have developed a strategic ability to read a situation and alter their behavior accordingly.

The obvious implication for women who want to advance in their organizations is to master this ability to display competence and power signals when the situation requires it, and then to be seen as more empathetic and inclusive, when it is more effective to do so.

And here’s where body language comes in.

When working with a leader, followers continuously and unconsciously assess her nonverbal signals for warmth (empathy, likeability, caring) and authority (power, credibility, status). Knowing how your body language cues are most likely to be perceived can be the first step to being able to move successfully from making one impression to the other.

Take head positions, for example. Head tilting is a signal that someone is listening and involved -- and a particularly feminine gesture. As such, head tilts can be very empathetic and warm, but they are also subconsciously processed as submission signals. (Dogs tilt their heads to expose their necks, as a way to show deference to the dominant animal.) Remember to use head tilts when you want to demonstrate your concern for and interest in members of your team or when you want to encourage people to expand on what they are saying. But when you need to project power and confidence -- when asking for a job promotion or giving a presentation to senior management -- keep your head straight up in a more neutral (and authoritative) position.

Then there is the matter of posture. Status and authority are nonverbally demonstrated through claiming height and space. Watch the high-ranking males in your organization. They almost always expand into available space and take up room. So, when you want to project status, remember to stand tall, pull your shoulders back, widen your stance, and hold your head held high. On the other hand, when you want to display empathy or increase collaboration, you’ll also want to minimize your power signals, and replace them with warmer ones -- forward leans, head nods, and aligned shoulders, torso, legs pointed toward whomever is speaking.

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Gestures, too, send their own messages, and by paying attention, you can make sure they are sending the right message. Since early history, people showed their palms to one another to display the fact that they were unarmed – and therefore friendly. Open arms with palms showing indicate candor and inclusiveness, and are very effective when you want to proclaim your sincerity or build trust in a group. Projecting confidence and certainty is achieved when you “steeple” (finger tips touching, palms separated) or rotate your hands palms-down. Both gestures indicate that you are absolutely sure of your position.

It’s a similar issue with physical animation. When you want to pull people into a discussion, stay animated in your facial expressions and use your hands as illustrators to make what you describing more vivid. But when you want to maximize your authority, maintain more of a “poker face” and minimize your gestures by keeping them smaller and displaying most of them around waist height.

As important as it is to be able to switch from power to warmth cues, there is one key business opportunity to blend both sets of signals in a single nonverbal act. You’ve likely heard about the importance of a good handshake, but various research studies back up the conventional wisdom. It's been found that men have firmer handshakes than women do, on average, but women who have firm handshakes tend to be evaluated as positively as men are. This is significant because a firm grip is one of the few signs of power and authority that doesn't fall victim to the Double-Bind Paradox. Let me repeat: Women (just like their male counterparts) with firm handshakes are evaluated positively.

There’s one more issue to consider: Various studies show that leadership continues to be viewed as culturally masculine. Power signals make male executives look like leaders. Or at least they did in a hierarchical, command and control setting. The 21 Century is seeing new global business realities that add up to one word: collaboration. And when it comes to leading collaborative teams and building high trust work environments, those “masculine” behaviours can undermine a leader’s effectiveness. Increasingly, leaders are required to demonstrate a greater degree of emotional intelligence – and to show they understand, support, and care about the people in their charge. It is this collaborative aspect of leadership that may finally eliminate the “Double-Bind Paradox” by highlighting the value of a more “feminine” approach.

Thank you for reading. This was brought to you by Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., an international keynote speaker and leadership presence coach. She’s a leadership blogger for Forbes, the author of "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead,” and the creator of LinkedIn Learning’s video course, “Body Language for Leaders.” Carol is based in Berkeley, California, and can reached by email: or through her website: