Perceived Gender Differences in Executive Presence

Executive presence. Two words that carry a whole lot of meaning for those of us in the workplace. Is it what you say? How you say it? How you carry yourself? What you wear?

The answer to all of these questions is: Yes! It’s all of the above. I define executive presence as:

• Dress
• Language
• Actions

And pulling off executive presence is tougher for women than it is for men. Why?


Men are allowed a neutral form of dress in the workplace. Women are not. If the occasion calls for business dress, men can wear a suit, tie and decent shoes and they’re set. For women? Not so easy. We can wear a suit or separates; pants or a skirt; blouses or dressy sweaters. We are never neutral and therefore we are scrutinized more closely. Even business casual is tougher for us. Men get away with Dockers and a golf or button-down shirt. Women? Anything goes. Which makes the decision tougher and riskier. And there are other subtler forms of appearance that ensure conformance for men but decisions for women.

For example:

Hair: Men’s is conventionally short, women’s can be short or long.

Shoes: If men don’t wear flat-soled shoes, they may not be asked back to work the next day; women can wear heels or flats (so how much heel is too much? And when do flats make us look dowdy?).

It may seem that we have greater freedom of choice than men do, but in reality we have higher risks. We can never just revert to the neutral state to be safe. We are constantly making a judgment call about our appearance – and everyone else, it seems, is making that call for us as well!


In a previous blog, I discussed high-power language and the fact that men use it more often than women. This gives them an automatic “executive air.” However, women can practice this and get just as good at it as men are. The problem with language is that men get away with some things that women don’t. For example: profanity. While this is becoming less the norm in most corporate environments, a guy can usually let out a choice word or two on occasion to emphasize a point. Women? Not so much. Your co-workers will probably raise their eyebrows more if you use certain forms of profanity in the workplace than if your male coworker does. It’s a double standard that I believe still exists.

And how about tone of voice and volume? Remember when you were young and your parents told you not to use your “outside voice” when you were in the house? Well, my opinion is that men get to use their outside voice in business situations a whole lot more than women do. If men use theirs, they are passionate or forceful; if women do, we are strident, aggressive or downright hysterical. Enough said.


Certain behaviors affect perception of executive presence: poise, confidence, passion and openness/honesty. Let’s just look at passion and openness. If a man is passionate about his beliefs, he is seen as committed to his work; if a woman is passionate, she is often seen as too emotional (the kiss of death for women in the workplace). If a man is open and honest, he is seen as direct; if a woman expresses this same honesty, she can be seen as whiny or bitchy. Unfair, but often the reality.


So what’s a woman to do? The first step is to be aware that what we wear, say and how we act is often scrutinized more closely. The second step is to keep our dress, language and actions professional… and then move on and just do our jobs. This is not a popularity contest. If you work with your team to do what’s best for the bottom line and the company, you’re on your way to self-confidence – which is the most important.

By Erin Wolf

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