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Can Women Ever Be Taken Seriously?

It’s tough, but not impossible, for women to communicate a powerful image

There are times in life when we want, and need, to be taken seriously. Gravitas is the sense of seriousness and power that people communicate through a combination of body language and dress. Everyone from politicians to business executives, who seek to get you to believe or invest in them, strives to get that balance of seeming serious but also likeable and trustworthy. Showing that you’re serious and able to take care of business –by having gravitas- is a way to do that.

The opposite of gravitas is silliness. People whose moods seem changeable, who are constantly cracking jokes, and who dress in a way that seems frivolous or trendy are less likely to be seen as people you can count on. Imagine the constant joker in the room who’s always playing pranks, making wisecrack comments, and whose dress seems a little sloppy and poorly put-together. Would you really vote for this person or give this person your hard-earned cash? Probably not.

Because of its association with power, and the fact that men are typically seen as having greater dominance than women, gravitas is a notion we think of as a male quality. Women who wish to appear powerful often have to do so by putting on more masculine clothes, such as the traditional business suit or at least a blazer. Most women don’t wear ties, but they may wear “statement” scarves or jewelry.

Ironically, perhaps, in the USA Network series, Suits, the women wear high-fashion (and clearly expensive) dresses that often have a low-cut neckline or are tight around the hips. They all wear impossibly high stiletto heels. Another way for women to assert their power, if we believe this version of the business world, is by looking as sexy as possible.

It’s in this context that a study by Yale University psychologist April Bailey along with Colgate University’s Spencer Kelly (2015) can help us understand the gender difference in gravitas. As they note, “Within 1–5 min of three strangers meeting, a power hierarchy has already emerged among them.” This hierarchy becomes formed on the basis of gender and race (with white men being seen as more powerful) and body pose (dominant vs. submissive).

When interactions within groups are organized on a power dimension, they are said to be “vertical,” and when organized on the basis of the peer-to-peer or friendship dimension, they are “horizontal.” In a vertically-organized group, the people with the power are said to be high in “V.” If you’re a high-V person, then, you’re the one who holds the aces in any given interaction.

According to Bailey and Kelly, men are so frequently associated with high V that gender itself becomes a cue for a person’s power. However, it’s also possible to gain high V by posing yourself in a way that suggests dominance. Bailey and Kelly note that body poses associated with high V include openness (keeping limbs open instead of crossed), expansiveness (taking up more space), and lack of fidgeting (called “self-adaptors”). It’s possible, then for a woman to acquire high V by standing in the same way that a powerful man would stand.

Would women be rated as low V regardless of pose and men as high V? To answer this question, Bailey and Kelly devised a priming task that allowed them to test, in more subtle ways than possible with rating scales, the combined role of gender and body pose on perceived dominance. The basic task for participants was to judge the meaning of words that had been preceded by a photo. The researchers arranged these photo-word pairings in a way that would either prime dominance (high V poses) or submissiveness (low V poses).

The photos provide instructive examples of how to look like a high V person. In the high V photos, models sat with one leg crossed over the other knee, put their arms behind their head and kept their legs open, or sat with legs open and pointed one finger. While standing, they placed their hands on their hips, arms akimbo. In the low V photos, models sat with their hands folded in their laps, crossed their legs at the ankle, or crossed one arm over the chest and held the other to their face. In the standing photos, they crossed both arms over the chest.

After seeing the photos, the participants rated the word meanings of the high and lowV words. High V words included such adjectives as powerful, controlling, respected and skilled; some Low V words were compliant, inept, naïve, and dependent. If the photo primed participants to think “dominant,” then they would respond more quickly in identifying the high V, dominant-themed words than the low V, submissive-themed words.

Because we associate men with high V, participants seeing men in these poses should therefore be quicker to judge high V words, especially when the men were posed in a high V stance. Seeing women in high V poses should make the job more difficult, because these go against stereotype, and therefore participants should take longer when they see this pairing. Bailey and Kelly also measured electrical activity in the brain associated with each pairing to see if they could identify the neural basis for the behavioral judgments, but those measures failed to produce an effect.

The findings on word-judging times showed that pose trumped gender in the length of time it took participants to make their judgments. Men and women in high V poses served to prime participants to respond more quickly to high V themed words. Women in low V (submissive) poses also primed participants to respond more quickly to low V themed words, but the same effect didn’t occur for submissively-posed men.

The upshot of the study is clear: Anyone can have gravitas. For men, the job is a little easier- in fact men may have the opposite problem of communicating their desire to let others take control.

For women, if you want to appear powerful, you have not only to walk, but to stand and sit, like a man. It doesn’t take designer clothes, expensive suits, killer heels or even short hair to show that you’re in charge. Your body’s pose will tell it all.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015


Bailey, A. H., & Kelly, S. D. (2015). Picture power: Gender versus body language in perceived status. Journal Of Nonverbal Behavior, doi:10.1007/s10919-015-0212-x

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