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How to close the gender gap at work? Strike a pose

John Brecher / NBC News

Beth Monaghan, principal and co-founder of public relations firm Inkhouse in Waltham, Mass., in a "Wonder Woman" power pose. Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, in Waltham, Mass.

This story is part of a week-long series on women and the economy based on "The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink."


Plenty of pundits have idiosyncratic ways of prepping for a big speech. But if you’re a six-foot-one progressive lesbian debating a conservative white man on Fox News, you’d better have a good one.

Sally Kohn, 36, has a ritual: A few minutes before she heads on set, she ducks into a hallway, spreads her feet, stands up perfectly straight and puts her hands on her hips, chin tilted up. She holds the pose for two full minutes – at which point her testosterone levels rise and her cortisol drops, making her more confident and less anxious. Then she walks on camera.

Kohn learned the trick from Amy Cuddy, a Harvard Business School social psychologist whose TedTalk on "Power Posing" – a shortcut to boosting confidence and gaining a quick competitive edge — has been viewed nearly 10 million times, and spawned a global following.

The allure of Cuddy’s work is in its ease: She knew from studies of facial feedback that when people smile, they can fake themselves into feeling happier.

And so, with two colleagues, she decided to try that theory out on body language – placing 42 research subjects into a series of high-power (bodies spread wide, feet up on desks) and low-power (sitting, slouched, arms wrapped tightly to the body) positions, tracking their hormone levels as she went.

After just two minutes, subjects in the high-power poses saw testosterone levels rise by as much as 20 percent and cortisol levels sink by about 25 – the chemicals linked to confidence versus stress, respectively. As it turns out, the best business leaders — both men and women — have relatively high testosterone and low cortisol levels, traits that tend to increase their appetite for risk, and configure our brain to cope in stressful situations.

For women looking to improve their leadership skills at work — to, as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg puts it, lean in to their ambitions — could it really be so simple?

"A lot of this stuff isn't gendered, per se — I don't feel like I'm using men's tools,” says Kohn. “I feel like I'm using tools that we should all have access to and know about, but women simply haven’t been raised to cultivate."

The new tools

 Power posing is just one of a number of ways many ambitious young women are adjusting their behavior, ever so slightly, to try to correct for a system in which stereotypically male leadership traits (assertiveness, dominance) are rewarded.

That might mean taking a quick trip to the ladies’ room and striking an expansive pose before a pitch then walking in and using your “warmth” (another one of Cuddy’s terms) to facilitate trust and communication. It may be devoting yourself to being “relentlessly pleasant,” as some experts have described it, to overcome the fact that ambitious, hard-charging women tend to be less liked by their peers.

It’s learning how to negotiate like a man, but doing it with a smile – to avoid being branded “pushy” or “aggressive” (and thus, less likely to get the raise). Maybe it’s even enrolling in a course to overcome “Impostor Syndrome,” that creeping feeling that you just don’t really deserve to be there.

Beth Monaghan, a Boston business owner, calls that “faking it until you make it” — or getting over the womanly insecurities that prevent us from confidently articulating our legitimate expertise.

“In general, I feel that we are not going to eliminate sexism overnight — or even in a year — so we should prepare women to do as well as they possibly can, even when facing sexist situations,” says Cuddy.

The demand for Cuddy’s services — and others — would suggest that women agree. Executive leadership training programs have been around since the 1970s but those targeting women have suddenly become a niche, available at most business schools (Harvard, Northwestern, Stanford) and in specialty programs like the Negotiation Academy for Women at Carnegie Mellon, which launched last year.

“These programs help women feel like they have agency," says Robin Ely, a professor of business administration at Harvard, and one of the journal article’s authors.

Evelyn Murphy, the former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, is the president of a nonprofit called the Wage Project, which provides negotiation trainings on 350 university campuses in 48 states.

Last month, she got a call from a network of Arizona YWCAs who wanted to implement the program for working women, as well as the governor of Montana; he is flying one of her facilitators out to train all the women on his staff.

“We’ve been doing this for 10 years, and I’ve never seen this much momentum,” says Murphy. “I think women are tired of waiting around for things to change, and so they’re going to make the change for themselves.”

Making progress

Today, workplace sexism is subtle — and oftentimes, it’s not overt sexism at all. Women are more likely to be interrupted when they speak in meetings; according to a 2009 study, they often underestimate their job performance, while men tend to overestimate theirs. Gender bias can take curious forms, like the fact that women are still more likely to internalize that “impostor” feeling, says Valerie Young, the author of “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women” — or that when men succeed, we like them more, but when women are successful, we like them less (which is why women are so busy smiling and showing gratitude and being appreciative... you get the drill).

But correcting for that doesn’t mean acting like men. (No Working Girl suits here.) But it does mean learning the skills that often come more easily to men – confidence, risk-taking – to lead like women. It’s what writer Henriette Lazaridis Power calls “sitting tall”: owning your body to take up more space, or noticing, as Amy Cuddy has in her graduate students, the way that women make themselves small, hunching their shoulders or wrapping their legs around themselves (which in turn reduces confidence).

Perhaps it’s walking into a salary negotiation — as one New York businesswoman recently did – and starting it at the top with: “The research shows you’re going to like me less after I negotiate. So I just wanted to get that out of the way.” (You can imagine the stunned silence.)

“I actually hate the word ‘tactics’ – as if I'm playing some game,” says Kathleen Warner, a 49-year-old startup founder who has worked in law, government and business. “But I've developed skills and strategies that have held me in good stead: I've rarely thought that it's about ‘acting as a man’ but rather, exercising a muscle that I already have that has been under-utilized and under-developed. I always take a seat at the table. I have a ‘power’ pose and a strong handshake. I try to stay focused, firm and moving forward but always with a smile and a fair amount of charm. Oh and I fake drinking shots a lot. Seriously.”

Peeling back all those layers of internalized gender bias ... well, it sounds exhausting. And yet, it works. Just as research has found that women who negotiate are considered pushy and less likable — and, in some cases, less likely to be offered jobs as a result – the economist Linda Babcock, at Carnegie Mellon, has determined that women can counteract that assessment by appearing warm or friendly.

The key, of course, is making the tools feel authentic – or nobody will believe you anyway.

“I'm not telling women to be like men or to be different from who they are now; I'm recommending they should be their best, most effective selves,” says Cuddy. “Why would anyone not strive for that?”

Jessica Bennett is a New York-based journalist and a contributing editor at LeanIn.Org