Trapped! Women and the smiling myth

A few weeks ago I wrote a post “10 ways women supposedly sabotage their careers“. It sparked some heated discussion. The 10 ways were lifted somewhat unceremoniously by Citibank’s Diversity Department, from the book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois Frankel (sales of 27 million) and converted into dubious “bumper sticker” phrases to support women in the organisation (+/- 330.000 employees globally).

One seemed to attract more attention and curiosity than the others – women seemingly sabotage their careers by smiling inappropriately. This I thought merited closer inspection, because that’s a helluva lot of women believing they smile at the wrong time in the workplace. But what constitutes inappropriate? Where does this smiling myth originate?

Some basics
A spontaneous smile is defined as “a facial expression formed by flexing those muscles most notably near both ends of the mouth. The smile can also be found around the eyes ..” known as the Duchenne Smile. A smile is deep within our primate nature. It depicts positive social relationships and confirms anthropologically that no harm is intended. Combined with eye contact a smile is perceived to be the sign of a confident person, but most importantly, it suggests energy and vibrancy to the recipient. How can that be damaging?

Some research
According to Daniel McNeill, author of The Face: A Natural History, women are genetically built to smile in order to bond with infants. “Smiling is innate and appears in infants almost from birth….The first smiles appear two to twelve hours after birth and seem void of content. Infants simply issue them, and they help parents bond.”

Although women apparently smile more than men, this statistic changes when other variables are factored in: culture, ethnicity, age, or when people think they are being observed, according to the study funded by the National Science Foundation.

It would be interesting for social psychologists and anthropologists to look at these data because the wide cultural, ethnic and other differences suggest that the sex difference is not something that is hard-wired,” said Marianne LaFrance, professor of psychology at Yale and senior author of the study published the journal psychological Bulletin. ” This is not a function of being male or female. Each culture overlays men and women with rules about appropriate behavior for men and women”

Minimal differences
The cultural variables were also interesting, with women in the United States and Canada smiling more than in other parts of the world, (England and Australia) African-American men and women smile equally, while there is indeed a gender difference amongst American Caucasians. They also noted that when occupying similar work, power and social roles, the gender differences in the rate of smiling disappears or is minimal. Here, LaFrance surmises that the sex differences are overridden by smile norms for the position one is in, rather than by gender.

As they rise up the career ladder, the rate at which women smile therefore is line with their male counterparts. This is why Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and any other senior professional woman would conduct themselves correctly! The converse then should presumably apply and men working in service roles should be motivated to crank up their own smile levels a notch or two. Speaking from personal experience, I would suggest some French waiters or male railway personnel (Platform 5, East Croydon to London Victoria) might be a good target market for any future books on the appropriateness of the male smile.

Assigned roles
Research also shows that the facial expressions of men when stressed become fearful and angry, while the incidence with women is less. So in male dominated stressful business environments are we just conditioned to expect this type of reaction from our leaders than anything else? Do we simply expect our leaders to look fierce? Perhaps this is the reason why according to Management Today trust in CEOS increases when a woman is in charge in difficult times.

Imprecise vocabulary
What sort of situations would therefore merit accusations of smiling inappropriately, or is it simply poor word choice? Delivering bad or sensitive news with a wide grin perhaps? Smiling when anxious, more accurately called grimacing. A sarcastic smile – known as a smirk? As women are recognised as having superior qualities of empathy, then the same research would suggest that they are actually less likely to react inappropriately. LaFrance says women are more likely to smile to defuse tension doing what she calls “emotion work” – but as creativity tends to go out of the window when tension exists why is this negative?

Trap 1 of the smiling myth
Perhaps the smiling quotient (and herein lies the first trap) is related to the fact that women have traditionally carried out service functions and men have been assigned ” warrior” roles. Their smiles are therefore perceived (no matter what they are achieving) as being an indication of deference , and therefore self sabotaging, in leadership roles. This myth is now even being perpetuated by women themselves.

Trap 2 of the smiling myth
What is even more worrying that countless women now believe that in order to succeed they must modify a key and instinctive part of their behaviour to conform to male norms over and above what they do naturally as their careers progress up the male hierarchy. That will lead to that age-old fall back of course, the second gender trap: accusations of PMS in the corner office.

If there is to be any levelling out of smiling ratios, the next slew of books should perhaps focus on men smiling more.

What do you think?


14 thoughts on “Trapped! Women and the smiling myth

  1. Sugarluxe Art

    As a certifiable “Nice Girl” and as someone who has enjoyed a good bit of success both in my former corporate life and now as a business owner and entrepreneur, I love reading about these theories.

    More importantly, I take great pride in doing everything I can to disprove them. Particularly when it comes to narrowminded philosophies about how women SHOULD behave to get ahead.

    What a disservice it is to women to suggest that being nice, smiling, or offering kindness is akin to showing weakness.

    In truth, those qualities are the very foundation upon which my success has been built. A genuine smile is disarming – and that can open many doors.

    In fact, if I may share…one of my most popular pages for the last 6 years on my website (long before I even had a blog) is about what I call: Feminine Feminists. Hope you don’t mind me sharing here:

    Thanks for this GREAT post Dorothy!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Chandra – thanks for your comment and great piece via your link on beauty and brains not being mutually exclusive. There are clearly some gender stereotypical behaviours ( from both men and women) that are not condusive to effective workplace relationships, but smiling I feel isn’t one of them.

      1. Sugarluxe Art

        Agree wholeheartedly.

        And -thank you so much Dorothy. I’ve spent a good deal of my morning reading your blog. I love it.

        My link might seem like a leap from the topic at hand, but I guess since I see beauty as something that comes from within…and I think a smile is the window through which to see what’s inside – then a genuine smile can be instrumental in breaking down barriers, building relationships and creating a sense of trust. Key components of doing good business.

        Keep smiling 🙂

        1. Dorothy Dalton

          Thanks Chandra. It was great and the brains/beauty issue is a perennial chestnut! You might enjoy my post ” She’s too sexy for her job”. Similar theme.

          I think we’re in a period of change. It’s palpable, exciting, challenging and fun!

  2. Tim Douglas

    Great piece of work, Dorothy. Your comment in trap 2 about women adapting a natural trait in order to seek greater success has been documented before, for example in women ‘dressing like men’ in power suits, etc. Don’t be too harsh on women who are often trying to break into a still male-dominated business world. We wish there weren’t gender-based barriers to overcome but, whilst there are, adopting signature ‘male’ traits seems one logical way to try to compete.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Tim for your comment – I agree that those tactics of adopting male behaviours seemed to be the way to go at one time and that was all women had to go on. Copy and paste! But happily there is lots of new research coming out now that suggests alternative behaviours do work! We women can learn from men – but they also have plenty to learn from us! The next 10 years in the workplace will be exciting and interesting times I think.

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