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.


Tammy Palazzo

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