October 21, 2015

The Power of Female Leadership: 3 Important Behaviors to Adopt

hatWe’ve all read about the qualities it takes to become a great female leader: how to “lean in,” what language to use in order to show an attitude of cooperation, the importance of personal flexibility, etc. In addition to these overt actions and the content of what we say, subliminal messages play an important role in leadership.

Sometimes, these subliminal messages can be more powerful than our surface messages. They can either undermine your attempts to be seen as a leader or boost the power and resonance of your leadership. Recent research in the areas of psychology, speech, and human behavior have brought to light what some of these subliminal messages may be.

To find out whether you’re helping or hurting yourself as a leader, pay attention to some of these less obvious aspects of your leadership style:

Speech Intonation

It’s not just about what you say — it’s also about how you say it. A speech pattern called “upseak” has become common among women in the U.S., and it can undermine our perceived strength and authority.

Have you ever noticed the voices of your female friends getting higher in pitch towards the ends of sentence, as if they were asking a question — even when they weren’t? This is upseak, and it can make a person appear uncertain or low in confidence. It’s perfectly fine to use this speech habit when chatting with friends, but in a professional setting, it might work against you.

In my work with women, I have noticed that this speech pattern can be spread socially. We all tend to mimic the behaviors of the people around us, often without even realizing we are doing so. Pay attention to the speech patterns of your friends. Do you hear upspeak? If so, it is likely you are using upseak yourself.

The good news is that upseak is not a difficult habit to break. Once you hear it, you’ll be able to recognize its sound and remind yourself to make your statements sound like statements, not questions.

For a lively discussion on the smapubject of upseak, check out this Fresh Air broadcast with Terry Gross.

Body Language

Like it or not, at a very basic level, we are animals. In the animal kingdom, body language can demonstrate who is in charge and who is at the bottom of the pack. Science shows us that those who rise into leadership roles tend to have different hormonal makeups than those who don’t.

In a recent TED talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy explores how we can change our body language for our own benefit. By using more “powerful” body language, we can not only send messages of confidence and power to those around us, but we can also change our hormonal profiles to that of a leader.

Do you tend to cross your arms in front of you, touch your neck, or round your shoulders? Not surprisingly, as women in a society that has treated the genders unequally, we tend to adapt body language that is less powerful than the body language of our male counterparts.

I notice that my most professionally successful clients make time in their schedules for physical activity. Active people are most in tune with and confident in their bodies. Exercise also helps lower cortisol levels and keep adrenaline levels in check. As Cuddy points out in her TED talk, these are hormonal marks of true leaders.


For those of us trying to break ground as a woman in historically male-dominated fields, it can be tempting to try to climb the ranks by “becoming one of the guys.” In doing so, we may use subtle means of demonstrating that we are “better than” the other women in the department and, therefore, more worthy of a promotion.

Time and time again, individuals in groups who are not the majority turn against one another while trying to climb the ranks of the wider population. This type of “every-woman-for-herself” attitude will hurt you in the long run.

Instead of seeifootprintng the other women around you as competition, find strength in each other. When we women bond together to work toward common goals, our power in the workplace will rise. I have been fortunate to coach many academic women in STEM areas. Often, their coaching was funded through grants won through their cooperative efforts. Existing women researchers placed an emphasis on the development of other women in their fields, thereby benefiting both themselves and the new female faculty members. Everybody won.

If you are a woman in a leadership position, make a conscious effort to support the rise of other women around you. When our numbers grow, you will be remembered for your support — and your own rights as a woman will be stronger.

This article originally appeared on BusinessCollective.

Carmen Bolanos has been coaching professionals to meet personal and business goals for the past 15 years. Her clientele is internationally based and her work is by telephone. She specializes in the coaching of underrepresented and female executives, academics, and business owners. Learn more at her website, Carmen Bolanos Coaching.

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