7 Behaviors That Keep Women From Getting Ahead

Over the past two years, this blog (published in April, 2010) has been number one in readership, reaping well over 25,000 unique visits. Numerous bloggers have referred to the blog, even plagiarizing the hell out of it (that’s fine with me). It’s also the most commented upon blog with extremely negative and even more extremely positive comments. The commenters engaged in several heated discussions with each other, positioning themselves within their own ideology.

Initially, I responded to some of the comments, but as time went on I realized that the discussion didn’t need my input.


So, I’m recycling it because of its popularity. . . and because of its obvious relevance to the workforce.

It strikes me that I need to explain why a male would write for females so directly. One of the reasons is that more than a quarter of my clients were women, many of whom stated that they wanted to work with a man who understood gender differences. The fact that our three daughters are also professionals plays into my personal interests. Still, as a scholar in the field of organizational and interpersonal communication, gender differences have been a hot topic for years, a topic that has always intrigued me.

You’ll notice that the blog is supported by a significant amount of research. Indeed, many of the topics have been systematically studied by many scholars. Second, I have tried to be as practical as possible, making the recommendations immediately useful.


On numerous occasions over the years, I’ve coached women managers and execs. Recently, while going through my file on influence management, I stumbled on an old article by Mary Ellen Drummond entitled, Seven Things We Do That Keep Us From Getting Ahead, from a now defunct (?) magazine called Women Managers. Although these recommendations don’t apply to a few female execs that I’ve worked with, they certainly apply to a large number. Drummond doesn’t mention the basis for her conclusions, but because of my studies in nonverbal research I’m well aware that a number of the recommendations have a research basis. This information seems to go in cycles in business circles, but I’ve seen a number of recent articles on personal presentation. I’m also aware that the top business schools, including Booth, Kellogg, Harvard and Stanford give time in their program for personal presentation, usually in leadership development programs that focus on interpersonal communication.

I’ve found that typically, because of their socialization, women are not aware of these issues. The issues surface out of the assumption that business is a man’s world, and that if a woman wants to succeed, she’ll need to mimic some of the male behaviors. (Although I’ve seen and read all kinds of responses to that assumption, I recommend a great deal of flexibility in these issues. FYI: I’ve noticed more than a few men that need help with their business behaviors.)

Since what you don’t know can hurt you, here are some things to think about and perhaps get some feedback on.

1. Women do not take up enough physical space. This is not a matter of size, but how you hold yourself when standing. If you expect to be perceived as a powerful person, stand with your feet apart, and perhaps your hands on your hips. Drummond recommends the steeple gesture, placing your hands so that just your fingertips are touching. This forces the palms apart and makes your arms take up more space whether standing or sitting. This is a classic negotiating posture, so watch for it when observing others.

Although Drummond doesn’t mention this, it’s a well-researched fact that when men and women all sit down at a large table, women take up far less room. Men put papers and books over as much as twice the space as women. I recommend that women spread out on the business table just like the men. Take ownership of a huge area of space. The difference often has a powerful impact on the discussion.

2. Women nod their heads when listening. A man nods his head only to show agreement, while women nod to show they’re listening. Plenty of women in executive suites have been schooled to avoid this. Present yourself as a powerful person, not a nice lady. Just last week, I took my wife to see an endocrinologist at the university clinic. Prior to seeing the physician, the nurse took information and was nodding her head, encouraging my wife and me to talk. Then the physician, a nationally known woman walked into the room. The difference was shocking. Though smiling and warm, she was totally in charge from the time the door opened. She asked questions, but didn’t nod. She interrupted me a couple times, probing for information. Once I acceded to her authority, the conversation became much more familiar. It was a hilarious experience for this communication scholar, but also a very powerful way for the physician to assert her authority. I had nothing but kudos and trust of her insights by the end of the session. Well done!

3. Women tilt their heads when they talk. Check this out and notice that women tilt their heads when listening and talking, without even knowing it. It is not a power position from which to speak. So keep your head up, chin forward and untilted, and relax your shoulders backward, not hunched tightly forward, when you want to speak. You want others to listen to you.

4. Women introduce themselves too soon. Research shows that no one listens to what’s being said in the first 5 to 7 seconds of meeting new people. They’re too busy visually checking you out, and they pay little to no attention to what’s being said. That’s why we forget the names of people we’ve just met. We weren’t listening. So, when first meeting someone, explain what you do, the company you work for, and then, finally your name.

5. Women’s voices rise at the ends of sentences. It makes a woman sound like she’s asking a question and asking for assent instead of making a statement. There is a geographical component to this. Women from the Upper Midwest are terrible at this. Sometimes I just want to yell at the phone to get them to stop it. My wife, who’s from Detroit, has never done that. My daughters? Not in a thousand years. I’ve seen them roll their eyes at a woman doing this. My middle daughter, in a playful mood, will mock someone doing it. When we moved to Minnesota and she was in the fourth grade, someone asked why she talked like she did–mouth open, and no questioning at the end of sentences. Her response? “Why would I want to talk like you?” Ummmm. Just to set you straight, she has a terrific number of friends, including a large number of Harvard, MIT researchers who think that when it comes to research protocols and animals, she’s god.

6. Women fidget. Although I think this is somewhat dated, the research shows that when men enter a conference room, they make 12 major movements. Women make 27. Many of these involve pulling out a chair and sitting down, but then women start adjusting their clothes and jewelry. The more movements you make in business settings, the less powerful you seem to your colleagues. Beware what you do when you enter a room, and keep your movements to a minimum.

7. Women let men finish sentences for them. Fading out at the end of a sentence is more common for women than men, so is being interrupted. You need to complete your sentences and your ideas. So, keep talking, a bit louder and hold up your finger to signal you’re not finished. Never, never, never let men get away with interrupting you. On occasion, you can also interrupt right back to make your point. And keep talking. As Drummond says, stick to your guns and your sentences.

These bad habits are all learned. They’re not natural. The good habits can also be learned. So women, don’t let the men take advantage of you. Frankly, I lose my respect for a woman who lets a man take advantage of her. I raised my daughters to know better! FYI: I was never interested in raising “nice girls.” Our objective was to raise intelligent, achieving females who could make some serious contributions to this world. Abrasive candor is a given. I’ve always taken the comment that my daughters or my wife could be difficult to be a compliment. It was expected.

Photo fm Flickr.com

Originally Posted on Dan Erwin.com.

6 Responses to 7 Behaviors That Keep Women From Getting Ahead

  1. Sue Robichaud April 2, 2012 at 7:27 am #

    This was a very good eye opener for any woman to read. I learned a lot about myself reading it, so thank you very much for re-posting it. You are correct that we do not even realize that we are doing them. I will be letting other people know about it.

  2. Mary Livingston April 2, 2012 at 9:36 am #

    Thank you for this eloquent, spot-on article! At 62, I continue to work at changing these learned, in-grained behaviors. And especially thank you for raising three daughters into strong women. Now, how can we help raise sons to not be afraid of strong women, and help our daughters not be competitive with other strong women? Sadly, there are too many (unaware) frightened men and competitive women in the business world–major roadblocks.

  3. Ian November 10, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    LOL. I our successful business it is absolutely about taking ownership and driving a team. This is just a laugh and comes only from the perspective of the person with the power being the arrogant and agressive style. So wrong in our business but spending so much time wondering why they are unsuccessful shows they will never be successful be they Male or Female. But I sadly have to say in practic women are the worst enemy of other woen being successful. I hate it but it just keeps reinfocing.


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