Influence isn’t only something wielded by organizations and governments; individual influence is just as important an area of study. Here, Elizabeth Stevens cuts past the reams of self-help books and looks at the evidence. The results suggest that women are rewarded for subtly different behaviours than are men – a finding that complicates much of the advice on ‘getting ahead’.

Women, Influence & Leadership: The rules for successful professional and political influence and leadership behaviors are not the same for men and women

Academic research is showing more and more that traditional thinking on successful influence and leadership behavior does not apply to men and women equally. Although all the same rules are still relevant to men, the academic research suggests that the professional perception of a woman may actually be hurt when she uses the exact same behavioral approaches that men do.

These findings are particularly worrisome for women because there are still many male-dominated organizations where women look to senior male leadership, managers or co-workers to model their own behavior. Women from entry-level through to senior roles are all at risk of making behavioral decisions that can negatively impact how both male and female co-workers and superiors perceive them, resulting in potentially damaging career consequences. To add to the risk, there are still numerous career coaches, self-help books, mentors, and political and professional consultants who offer male-only appropriate advice and strategies to both their male and female clients, unaware of the potential negative impact for females.

This article discusses some of the traditional advice commonplace in leadership and influence consulting and research and offers the updated thinking to help ensure that women can make informed decisions on how to best manage their professional identities.

The Traditional Advice

Expression of Emotion

Advice: “Expressing anger when displeased at work conveys status, authority, power and independence.”

The research shows that this advice is correct, but only for men. Victoria Brescoll and Eric Uhlmann (2008) looked at the relationship between anger, gender and status conferral and found that men were perceived as having higher status when they showed anger vs. sadness at work as perceived by both male and female evaluators. However, when women showed anger at work they were seen as being emotional, moody, out of control, not competent or incapable of dealing with stressful situations by these same male and female evaluators and were perceived to have less status than both angry men and women who did not show anger at work. Interestingly, it did not matter what the position of the woman was: a female trainee and a female CEO were both negatively perceived when they showed anger.


Advice: “If you don’t talk yourself up, no one else will. Self-promotion highlights your abilities and makes you more likely to get noticed for career opportunities, professional advancement or getting hired.”

Once again, this advice is more useful for men than for women. Laurie Rudman (1998) conducted a study that explored the costs and benefits of self-promotion. She found that males who did not self-promote (who were self-effacing) were perceived to be less competent and less likely to be hired than those who did promote their own abilities. Although women who self-promoted were in fact seen as having higher competence than those who did not self-promote, they did not enjoy any benefit to this perception and instead were seen as less likeable and less likely to be hired.

Power-Seeking Intentions

Advice: “Be public about your goals. Communicating your ambition makes others take you seriously.”

In one study looking at the potential backlash for women seeking to gain political power, Okimoto and Brescoll (2010) found that female politicians who expressed their desire for power were viewed as less competent, less caring and less sensitive than non-power seeking females. These women were less likely to be voted for and sparked feelings of moral outrage in voters. Men did not suffer any negative consequences for their public ambition and expression of power-seeking actually improved perceptions of male politicians in some scenarios.


Advice: “Speak up often in group contexts to establish your dominant presence and position of authority and influence among the group.”

In a study on total speaking time (called “volubility” in the academic literature) and gender, Brescoll (2012) found a strong positive relationship that showed that powerful men do speak more in group contexts, but that this relationship is not true for women. Her research further shows that women who do speak more than others incur a penalty in perception by both males and females for doing so. In her study both a female and male CEO were shown to speak disproportionally longer than others in the workplace. The female CEO was judged as less competent and less suitable for leadership compared to the male CEO and a female CEO who spoke much less than others. Interestingly, the less talkative female CEO was judged to be equally as competent as the vocal male CEO, while a quieter male CEO suffered as he was seen as equally incompetent/undeserving of leadership as the highly talkative female CEO.

Displaying Success

Advice: “Bringing attention to your success highlights and reinforces your professional competence and leadership potential.”

The findings in this area relate to women in traditionally male-dominated areas. Heilman and colleagues (2004) conducted research looking at women’s success in male-dominated occupations and found that women who were recognized as successful were less liked and suffered negative interpersonal consequences. The authors further showed that being disliked often resulted in career-affecting outcomes and negative overall evaluations.


Academic research has shown some surprising and perhaps counter-intuitive realities that suggest ambitious women who want to succeed professionally and/or politically should use different approaches then men when choosing how to behave at work and with others. Many of these differences are residual products of workplace sexism, and women should not feel obliged to change their behavior because of them. That though is a decision they can only make when they have all the information about the costs and benefits of doing so; an important first step is for women to understand these research findings and to be mindful of them when managing their own career and professional and/or political reputation. It is also important for men and women to be aware of this research generally, as familiarity with these findings can help to minimize bias and unfair and/or inaccurate assessment of female co-workers, subordinates or superiors based on non-merit based evaluations.


Brescoll, V.L. (2012). Who takes the floor and why: Gender, power, and volubility in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 56, 621-640. Link.

Brescoll, V.L. & Uhlmann, E.L. (2008). Can an angry woman get ahead? Gender, status conferral, and workplace emotion expression. Psychological Science,19, 268-275. Link.

Heilman, M.E., Wallen, A.S., Fuchs, D., & Tamkins, M. M. (2004). Penalities for success: Reactions to women who succeed at male tasks. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89, 416-427. Link.

Okimoto, T.G. & Brescoll, V.L. (2010). The price of power: Power seeking and backlash against female politicians. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(7), 923-936. Link.

Rudman, L.A. (1998). Self-promotion as a risk factor for women: The costs and benefits of counterstereotypical impression management. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 629-645. Link.

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