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July 22, 2010Is hair twirling responsible for gender inequity?

The 1982 book, Women at Work: A Psychologist’s Secrets to Getting Ahead in Business, instructs readers that “attitudes of male-oriented management” are not to blame for the barriers women face at work. Rather, women’s passive, risk-averse, “ladylike” qualities are the problem.

According to the authors: “Women’s speech tends to be more polite and more emotional in quality”; “Men’s speech is more direct, more informative”; and “Women make their voices go up in a questioning tone, as if they’re asking for approval.”

The book’s bottom line: women must change their behaviors to get ahead.

I wish I could dismiss this book as a vestige of a bygone era, a time where fixing the women was more important than fixing the workplace. But nearly 30 years later, women are still told how to act to get ahead.

Take this recent article in ForbesWoman. “Women are the champions in the warmth and empathy arena but lose out with power and authority cues,” writes Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. Her solution: stop “acting girlish,” including “twirling hair, playing with jewelry or biting a finger.” And she observes: “Women's voices often rise at the ends of sentences as if they're asking a question or asking for approval.”

Sound familiar?

Speech and body language are important—a female or male employee who wears short shorts to work or leads a meeting in undecipherable whispers is unlikely to get a promotion (or a job, for that matter). But the reality is, many women do not do these things and still can’t get ahead in business.

The playing field is not level. Ingrained biases, unfair hiring practices, unequal pay, and sexist stereotypes are rife. These barriers are rooted in social and cultural norms that are hard to change, but businesses and leaders are addressing them. And the solutions have nothing to do with hair twirling.