Executive Presence for Women Leaders

Executive Presence and How to Get It (Or Fake It) | CorporetteHow would you define “executive presence,” particularly for women? Have you worked to build your executive presence? What are your best executive presence tips? Here are some qualities of women with executive presence that Corporette readers have mentioned during conversations that have taken place in the comments:

  • having a “cool, calm, and commanding” presence
  • being a skilled public speaker
  • appearing put-together (clothes fit well, hair is neatly styled, etc.)
  • seeming “knowledgeable but not a know-it-all”
  • staying cool in a crisis
  • showing confidence
  • having an attitude of “the buck stops with me”

Earlier this year, we discussed new research that showed that looking “put-together” and exhibiting “good grooming” can boost women’s salaries (even more so than being considered attractive), and a couple of years ago we talked about a study that stated wearing more makeup makes women look more competent. Today we’ll go beyond that to take a closer look at executive presence and what it means for women leaders at work. (In the past, we’ve shared posts on imposter syndrome, the difference between confidence and arrogancebeing taken seriously when you look young, and books and resources to help you become a leader and a better manager. We’ve also discussed the book The Confidence Code.)  

According to research from Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, executive presence is composed of “how you act (otherwise known as gravitas, the most important quality), how you communicate, and how you look.” A 2013 Business Insider article describes it with 7 Cs: composure, connection, charisma, confidence, credibility, clarity, and conciseness. Hewlett (whose book we link to below) says that executive presence “accounts for as much as 28 percent of a woman’s success” (!).

These definitions sound straightforward enough, but cultivating executive presence requires women to walk a very fine line, thanks to the maddening contradictory messages we receive about how to act at work. You know: If you don’t ask for a raise, you’re blamed for the gender wage gap, but if you ask for a raise, you’re viewed as “greedy, demanding or just not very nice.” If you act with confidence and strength, you’re “too aggressive” or “a bitch”; if you don’t appear assertive enough, your behavior is interpreted as weakness. (As social psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson puts it, the typical dichotomy for women is “competent and cold — that’s the bitch — or warm and incompetent — the doormat who no one takes seriously.”) Of course, this predicament extends to physical appearances, too; research shows that women with “unkempt nails” lose executive-presence points but that those with “overly done” nails are also viewed negatively. Faced with this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” minefield, some women are paying $2,000 to $5,000 to attend special workshops on executive presence.

Putting all of that aside for a moment, here are a few concrete tips on exhibiting executive presence at work:

  • From a PR professional who preps company spokespeople for media interviews and public speaking: “Overall, one of the best ways to achieve executive presence is to make everyone around you feel like he or she is the only person in the room. … Don’t hog the conversation, and don’t speak over others or interrupt. When someone is talking, maintain eye contact, lean toward her, and nod at what she’s saying. Then, thoughtfully respond to what you heard, asking good questions to show that you were paying attention. The more you listen to other people, the more they will want to listen to you. 
  • From a CEO: “[P]repare for dinner parties by knowing something about the people [you] are going to be sitting with. This helps you be more comfortable when you meet senior people in a social setting — you can ask them questions about themselves. 
  • From a principal at a management consulting firm: “[F]ind your voice as an executive: that is, identify your assets and leverage them to the hilt. Some people are naturally gregarious and can fill a room with their personality. Others … rely on their listening ability, sense of timing, and ability to maintain their composure when others get emotional. In an increasingly diverse world, executive presence will look very different from one executive to another.”
  • From an executive coach: “Whether you’re speaking to a crowd or chatting one-on-one, you’ll have more gravitas if you speak directly, without hesitation or self-deprecation. Ask colleagues to notice the way you talk, so they can help you spot self-critical phrasing or annoying habits like starting sentences with ‘I think,’ or, ‘I’m not an expert, but.’ If you sound like you’re not confident of your abilities or of what you’re saying, you can’t expect others to be convinced.”
  • Kat’s tips: If you don’t want to start by asking colleagues to notice the way you talk, you can try a few things yourself or with friends, such as asking someone to interview you and recording the interview, either with audio or video — when you watch it you’ll start to see red flags like slumping, repeated hand gestures, unconscious tics like licking your lips. If you start leaving voice memos to yourself, or try to dictate memos or notes to yourself or your assistant, you’ll be able to hear more red flags.

What is your definition of executive presence? What have you done to try to develop it? Do you think it’s harder for women to be seen as possessing executive presence? How important do you think appearance and “grooming” are to executive presence? Have you read any books, watched any TED Talks, or gone to any workshops that teach about this?

Further Reading:

Image: Pixabayexecutive presence women - image of Wonder Woman from Pixabay

How can women get (or fake) executive presence? Women leaders are often told they need "executive presence" to advance, but what does that really mean? We look at how to define it, get it, fake it, and perfect executive presence.



  1. This is a good topic – thanks, Kat! – and one that I think about often. I wonder if anyone else also has addressed questions of their voice. I have what I would call a mid-range female voice – not overly high in tone but not heavy/gravely like mens voices. I make an effort to speak in a measured and confident manner, never to upspeak, and I don’t have vocal fry (its not common in my region). But I cannot change the tone of my voice – I cannot make it boom or be naturally louder than other male voices in a meeting, for instance. I also worry that I have a bit of a ‘sexy’ voice – it sounds a bit silky (but not throaty) when I listen to audio recordings, and that this might be undermining me professionally. Ladies, does this concern you and what tips might you have from your own experience?

    • I don’t know your voice and I understand the point of the topic and of your post but I am sure your voice is perfectly fine. If you are a good public speaker (and that is a skill worth working on), no one will care a lick about your voice.

  2. Great topic and very important. Walking that fine line and dealing with the “double bind” situation is key, and missing those gender equity issues can be very damaging. Unfortunately, too many people do not realize these subtle issues are there until years go by and they are hurt by them.

    Another great resource is Andie Kramer and her husband Al Harris – they have an incredibly helpful new book, highly recommend.
    Info on the Book: http://andieandal.com/books/breaking-through-bias/
    My review of the book (page 28): http://www.nawl.org/p/cm/ld/fid=82
    Andie and Al on Women Lawyers News: http://www.womenlawyersnews.com/andie-and-al-part-1/

    • Shameless plugs for your own content are generally not well-received here.

      • Eh, for my two cents, I don’t think this ventures too far into shameless plug territory. More like cross-referencing to the place (ie the book review) where she thoroughly explains why she found the book helpful. The thing that’s ultimately being recommended –the book–doesn’t appear to be the poster’s content. I’m not offended.

  3. Great article on such an ever- important topic! I’ve never thought about the use of voice being so crucial before, really eye opening! xx


  4. Don’t talk too fast! That’s the quickest way to appear frantic rather than cool and collected.

    • Anonymous :

      I agree with this, as a fast talker myself. Also, avoid vocal fry. I know women (and a few men to a lesser extent) who use it all the time, and it makes them sound less confident and younger.

      • Newbie Associate :

        Yes! Just judged a moot court competition and reminded a lot of female competitors about 1) speed and 2) vocal fry.

      • What is vocal fry?

        • Anonymous :

          I strongly recommend you not ask / try to listen for it.

          I never knew before, and then NPR had a big radio story about it, playing numerous examples and describing how often they get complaint calls/emails about it. It happens more often in younger women. Now that I can “hear” it….. I notice it all the time and it annoys the hell out of me. That is totally nonsensical, since it never bothered me before.

          To put it simply, when you hear it, part of me wants to tell the speaker… please clear your throat. It’s a bit of a raspy quality.

        • Anonymous4 :

          I had the same question and found this article helpful


      • On the other hand, dismissing the vocal fry is somewhat similar to critique of local speech patterns. Here’s a decent piece on the function of this speech pattern.


      • +1 for speaking more slowly, and clearly, too. I work in multinational environments, and although I don’t have a great speaking voice or style, I consistently get compliments on my more measured, clear speaking style. Part of it is that I’m Southern, so my natural pace is a bit slower, and a lot of it is that I unconsciously ‘code switch’ to a very neutral accent and standard word choice because I know a lot of my audience are non-native English speakers. I know part if it, oto, is that American accents are often easier to understand than the many strong regional British accents, but even Brits have complimented my clarity, which surprised (and delighted, if I’m being honest) me. So if you’re in a global environment, keeping to a measured, neutral American voice can really help.

  5. I’ve definitely found that body language makes a big difference. You can look around the conference table at the meeting and see how people are posturing themselves. Some people take up a lot more space than others. I’ve worked on taking up space (in a way that is authentic for me) and now it feels much more natural.

    I also lean forward and use my hands to some degree when I’m speaking at a meeting. As a general matter, I’ve noticed that people are much more engaged with me when I appear more dynamic. My voice is naturally soft and lower pitched and I specifically make my tone more authoritative when in a professional context. It makes my voice sound much more very confident and resonant.

    • +100. Take up space, make eye contact, gesture appropriately (that also helps keep your hands from doing distracting things), and even smile a bit (but no nervous laughing!).

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