Decoding the Hardwired Gender Biases: How our Nonverbal Communication Sets the Tone

Huffington Post (Ron Chapple Studios - Getty Images)

Huffington Post (Ron Chapple Studios - Getty Images)

Following recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment of women in Hollywood and one of the most controversial election cycles in American history, sexism has become a daily topic of conversation in the media. There has been much debate about the expectations and norms of women both professionally and personally, and there are no shortage of points of view about what is acceptable behavior and what might be interpreted as provocative or inappropriate, even amongst school-age girls.

I won’t be the first to call out the fact that these same rules do not apply to men. As a mother of two sons, I am continually discussing with my boys what is appropriate and acceptable behavior with young women in general and for them in particular. But I never need to have a conversation with them about their clothing options or how revealing or provocative their outfits might be.

The same is not true of my counterparts with daughters. For them, there is no shortage of debate about the length of their shorts, whether or not leggings are appropriate or if a cropped shirt is showing too much skin. And, presumably, all of this discussion is rooted in the idea that my boys cannot control their impulses when they lay eyes upon a girl with a short skirt or a midriff-revealing top.

Gender Difference in Nonverbal Communication

In 2008, Hillary Clinton, on a campaign stop on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, was notably observed demonstrating emotion as her eyes welled up with tears while answering a question of one of the rally-goers. This was considered a transformational moment in her campaign because she seemed more human.

When has a male candidate ever been considered more human or more electable or more relatable because they cried?

Surprisingly, there has been very little research done on how differently men and women communicate nonverbally and how they address the implicit expectations born out of gender bias. For that one moment that Clinton was lauded for her demonstration of emotions, she sustained dozens of attacks on her stoicism or attempts to act “masculine.” There is a tremendous pressure on women to either neutralize their gender or fit in with men - both of which often backfire because they run counter to what we are conditioned to believe about women. Women who show little emotion are often criticized as being cold or insensitive while men are applauded for their strength when they do the same.

In 2012, Ronald Reggio, a professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California and a foremost researcher on body language, published an article in Psychology Today speaking to the nonverbal power cues of men and women. His article reinforces much of what we know to be true about the differences between men and women, primarily that men nonverbally demonstrate dominance through the space they take up with their bodies, their posture, their use of touch and of eye contact. Women tend to make themselves smaller, often because they have sensitivity about their bodies, tend to close themselves off by crossing their arms and legs and rarely invade personal space with touch. In addition, women often have the burden of restrictive clothing including short, tight skirts or high heels that complicate their nonverbal behavior.

The differences in the way men and women communicate nonverbally creates challenges both with the messages they are trying to communicate to each other as well as how they are receiving messages. We are all hard-wired to receive messages in a certain way and biases are instilled in us from a very early age. Even as our behaviors with children are evolving, we are a long way from providing nonverbal cues to send the messages to young girls that they can be equal to men. Children, more than anyone, learn from what they observe rather than what they are told.

For me and my sons, I have tried to show them that their parents bear equal weight in our household and demonstrate that I can be both hard and soft. Yet, in a progressive era in a progressive community, they still have a deep-rooted understanding about how boys and girls are meant to show up. When my high schooler sees girls be aggressive and outspoken, it is jarring and unsettling for him because, despite what we’ve shared with him, he has been programmed differently.

As we all step forward with our #metoo on Facebook and declare the need for more gender equality, it would serve us well to take a step back and look at the root causes that allow Harvey Weinstein or other predators to take shape. Until we seriously consider the subtleties of implicit bias and nonverbal cues, we will remain a long way from achieving our goals. If we really want to see equality in the highest office in the land and encourage women to have an equal seat at the table, we might want to consider how she is sitting.


Surviving in the Idea Economy


In 2006, Tony Robbins said, “ideas are the commerce of the 21st century.” Eleven years later his comment is still spot on. We have been fed a steady stream of ideas through the growth of TED talks and everyone’s ability to vlog their thoughts on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and more.

Every day, TED talks receive over one million views. Each month, YouTube has over one billion unique visitors. For anyone under the age of 40 (and plenty over that age), information is more readily acquired and shared via video. The same is true for our workplaces.  Each day, 30 million PowerPoint™ presentations are shared -- many, if not most, via video conference -- and 15 million people hours are spent each day consuming presentations. There is no question that we are sharing ideas to enrich, improve and advance our societies, but I can’t help but wonder…

How many ideas are being left on the cutting room floor because of an overt fear of communicating them?

You’ve no doubt heard that 75% of the population has a fear of public speaking. This fear tops every list of phobias, surpassing death. For some, it is crippling and prevents them from ever speaking in public, let alone share their novel ideas. If that’s the case, we must consider how many great ideas never make their way to mass consumption -- how much innovation we lose because the people with the ideas are afraid to speak up.

Daniel Pink, one of the most influential management thinkers in the world, and prolific author and speaker suggests in his book To Sell is Human that everyone is now in sales. (Check him out on YouTube.). He theorizes that while sales have changed over the past 10 years and consumers can pretty much research and buy any product online, one in nine workers are still in sales, totaling some 15 million people. However, Pink suggests that the other eight workers are also selling -- not objects or items, but ideas and techniques. We are all persuading, negotiating and pitching. This means that even the mere act of cajoling your child to get their homework done is a sales process, requiring influence, negotiation, and an ability to communicate effectively.

With this in mind, we must ensure that everyone’s voice can be heard and that all great ideas are shared. It is paramount that we create a world where people can speak confidently and competently in order to participate in the commerce of ideas. And, as another generation enters the workforce -- one that is severely under-skilled at communications (56% of them acknowledge that their communication skills are sorely lacking) -- we must ensure that we have tools that match the needs and styles of these learners, our future leaders.

In order to survive in the 21st century idea economy, we must be able to communicate our ideas. Who knows what we may miss from the 75 percent who are simply too scared to speak up.

My Albert Brooks Moment


Remember the movie Broadcast News (1987)?

Watching it in college, I desperately wanted to be Holly Hunter's character, Jane Craig - the fearless, confident yet vulnerable, one-step-ahead-of-everyone-else news producer.  A journalism major who had dreams of being behind the scenes at a big network news show,  I saw myself as Jane yet I related so much more to Albert Brooks' Aaron Altman.  He was second fiddle to cool, calm and suave Tom Grunick, the handsome idiot newscaster played by William Hurt.  Aaron was smarter and more accomplished but when he got his big break - getting called up by the network to fill in on a Sunday night news broadcast - his classic meltdown induced the worst case of flop sweat in history, hilariously showcasing his severe lack of presence.

The reason why Aaron's flop sweat scene was such comedic genius was far more than the talent of Albert Brooks or the brilliant writing of James L. Brooks.  That scene resonated with the millions of viewers who ever suffered stage fright or gotten nauseous at the thought of having to speak in front of others.  Including 20 year old me.  What I failed to admit to myself is the real reason I wanted to be Holly Hunter's Jane was because I was truly terrified at the thought of having to endure what Aaron did during that newscast.  I was afraid to talk in front of anyone. That scene helped me to characterize my own anxiety: I'd rather be behind the scenes than step into the spotlight for fear of failing.

In the end, I did not  pursue a  journalistic career and took a safer route in book publishing. Despite my editorial experience, I ended up in marketing and sales, taking a career journey that found me struggling when it was time for me to speak in front others - which was quite often.  Whether sitting around the conference table sharing a project update or giving a presentation to the sales reps, I suffered from butterflies in my stomach, dry mouth and an inexplicable memory loss that prevented me from finding the words I needed to say. I even dreaded talking on the phone.

I was 10 years into my career when I had my quintessential Albert Brooks moment.  Six months pregnant with my first child, I had to present to a group of sales reps, and it devolved into a panic-filled, sweaty debacle. Within minutes, I was far more focused on my fear and anxiety (and my self-consciousness about being extremely pregnant and extremely sweaty) than the important information that I was there to present. Ironically, going in, I was feeling incredibly confident about the subject matter  and hadn’t even planned to rely upon the slides to tell my story. But as the fear intensified,  I simply read the bullet points to get to the end.  

Epic fail.
In that darkened conference room, soaked in sweat, I confirmed that I was a terrible presenter and public speaker. From that day forward, that image was in my head any time I had to make a presentation. That  belief and ongoing anxiety stayed with me for the next 10 years.

As my career advanced, I was required to present in more venues and larger audiences. After getting feedback from a  colleague about my obvious discomfort, I committed to fixing my problem. From that point forward, I began to seek out new opportunities to speak and tackle my fear head on. My process for improvement included studying those speakers I admired to glean whatever I could from their performance, identifying key strategies and behaviors to emulate, hoping this would give me more confidence.  While I struggled to challenge the demons in my head, my desire was great.  I wanted to get up there and do it really, really well, and my plan began to work.  Over time, I found myself developing more of an ease with public speaking - although I was nowhere near ready for primetime.

Several years later, I had the opportunity to get some individualized coaching:  a full immersion over several days that, next to birthing my children, was one of the most painful and  meaningful experiences of my life. When I came out on the other end of the training, I was a caterpillar about to transform into a butterfly.

I now understood the fundamentals. I now had techniques to overcome the fear and challenges that plagued me from so early in my career. And I learned that inside of me there was a talented communicator waiting patiently to emerge. The idea that great speakers were born and not made?  Debunked.

I am walking proof that there is life beyond the crippling fear of public speaking. I am grateful that I had the experiences that I did and was ultimately able to tap into the skills that were always there, just waiting to be harvested. Now I relish every opportunity to stand up in front of a group and make a compelling presentation. Sure, sometimes I still get butterflies before I open my mouth, but I know how to handle them and how to gain control. And while I still have not given my 30-minute keynote, it’s still high on my bucket list. I think everyone has a TED talk inside of them - me included. I'm not yet sure what story I will be telling, but it is sure to include how I traveled the road to become someone who would even consider getting up and telling my story.  

How about you?
What was your Albert Brooks moment?  Please share your stories with us!  We'd love to hear from you.  Drop me a note at or share your story on our facebook page: