How Women Can Lean In Without Backlash

Author: Matthew Hutson


When Hillary Clinton ran for President in 2008, one of her biggest opponents was a mere nine inches tall, and looked remarkably like her. It was the Hillary Nutcracker, a novelty kitchen device for opening walnuts and oppressing women. This year you can once again denigrate strong female leaders as emasculating with the 2016 version, sporting a new bob cut and a smart pink jacket.

Many women understand that if they act too assertively, they will face backlash. People will describe them using words beginning with b, c, and other letters of the alphabet. They will seem unlikeable. But while extensive research has documented this phenomenon, some studies have failed to find it. Which raises a question: Are there ways women can be strong without penalty? A new paper in Psychological Bulletin reports that yes, there are. The trick is to show dominance through body language while avoiding outright demands.

For the research, Melissa Williams, a social psychologist at Emory University, teamed up with Larissa Tiedens, a social psychologist at Stanford. "Both of us teach in business schools where we encounter working women who are challenged by this problem," Williams says, "and they want to know—as people in the real world often do—not just that there is a problem but what they can do about it." That prodded them to look deeper.

Previous research has found that women who assert themselves are disliked because they threaten the culturally enforced gender hierarchy. Both men and women are invested in the idea of social order, and, per the order in most societies, men have higher status than women. Therefore both men and women have a subconscious tendency to put in his or her place anyone who upsets that order, using scorn or sabotage. (Not everyone does it, but on average we do.)

Williams combined her interest in backlash effects with Tiedens's interest in nonverbal behavior and came up with a hypothesis: Behavior that doesn't plainly violate prescribed gender roles and upset the order might just go unpunished. They considered running an experiment to test their idea but instead ran a meta-analysis of existing research, compiling 71 published and unpublished studies, which allowed them to include many types of dominant behavior and many types of outcomes.

Unsurprisingly, they found that women were liked less, by both men and women, when they acted assertively. But they also split the studies into two groups based on the types of dominant behavior measured. Explicit behavior included making demands and arguing for a group to take a certain position. Implicit behavior included nonverbal and paraverbal cues such as expansive posture, standing close to others, and speaking without hesitation. Perceivers tended to dislike both men and women who were explicitly dominant, and the dislike was greater for women, showing the backlash effect. Further, people rated these men and women as less hirable and less electable. But the meta-analysis reveled something else: Implicit dominance had no effect on likability.

It may seem odd that people wouldn't notice a woman's bold body language and recognize it as upsetting the stereotype. Why would only explicit demands make her disruption conspicuous? According to the authors, body language is often subtle enough that we process it unconsciously; it takes focused attention to deconstruct it in a way that can be contrasted with expectations—Hmm, that pose means power, and women shouldn't be powerful, so something's wrong. They draw a parallel with findings on priming and persuasion. Subtle cues that may seem obvious in retrospect can easily sway our behavior. It's only when we focus on them that they lose their power. Then we often react against them to reassert our autonomy, just as we react against obvious norm violations to reassert the social code. But below that threshold, we're receptive.

The authors suggest we might even capitalize on under-the-radar female dominance in order to change stereotypes: As long as the actions don't overtly break the social mold, observers might incorporate them into women's expected repertoire, thereby expanding the mold.

Men also have a mold to fill. They, too, suffer backlash when they upend the gender hierarchy by acting too passively. One study of job applicants, for example, found that modest men were deemed weaker than modest women—and thus less likable. On the other hand, men should be careful when showing dominance: Williams and Tiedens found that men, too, lost personality points for making explicit demands. The cost was not as great as that for women, because they weren't breaking gender norms, but in the analyzed experiments the explicitly dominant behavior was seen as rude or cold. It doesn't have to be: One can take the lead while also energizing others.

We have a lot to gain by taming backlash effects. According to Laurie Rudman, a social psychologist at Rutgers who coined the term backlash effect, "There were so many examples of backlash against [Hillary Clinton] before and during the 2008 campaign—young men shouting 'Iron my shirts' at her town halls, Tucker Carlson complaining that he always needed to cross his legs when he saw her on TV, and the Hillary Nutcracker, whose sales I've heard continue apace—that I have deliberately tuned it out this time around." But she's vigilantly aware of the persistent problem. "Masterful, assertive women," she says, are "paid less than male counterparts; more likely to be overlooked for promotion, or even sabotaged, disliked, and excluded for being 'too pushy'; and ignored when they voice an idea, only to have that same idea praised when voiced by a man."

Fortunately, this new paper finds that implicitly dominant behavior doesn't hurt, and although they didn't have enough data to study whether it helped, other research finds that it might. Studies have reported that speaking more, speaking louder, and making eye contact when speaking all increase ratings of competence and leadership potential—for both men and women. And there are other ways women can reduce or eliminate the costs of acting confidently; one study found that women who assertively advocated for others in a negotiation were punished less than those who assertively advocated for themselves. Outside the lab, a manager might frame a request as benefiting her team.

As serious as backlash effects are, Williams argues that women probably overcompensate, particularly given her results. "You don't have to be shy about having a dominant presence in a meeting or in front of other people," she says. "You don't have to come across nonverbally as humble or tentative. And in fact if anything that would probably backfire." Ultimately women still suffer more than men for leaning in. But, she says, "thank goodness there's something we can do in the meantime while we solve this bigger problem."