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February 1 2016

It's a "Power Pose" When a Woman Takes Up Space but "Manspreading" When a Man Does the Same Thing

Charlotte Allen

Why is it called “power posing” when you’re a woman and you stand or sit so that you take up as much space as possible—but called “manspreading” when you’re a man and do exactly the same thing?

The former earns kudos as enabling women to exude them the self-confidence that will win them a pay raise at the office or speeded-up service at the dry cleaner. As Slate’s Katy Waldman puts it : “Think a cobra rearing and spreading its hood to the sun, or Wonder Woman with her legs apart and her hands on her hips.”

The latter is…a crime, at least in New York City, where two men were arrested in June 2015 for taking up too much seating space on a Gotham subway, even though the alleged offense occurred at 12:11 a.m., a time that made it unlikely that many other passengers were even riding the subway.

In 2010 Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at the Harvard Business School, published a paper with some research collaborators asserting: “Humans and other animals express power through open, expansive postures, and they express powerlessness through closed, contractive postures…[R]results of this study confirmed our prediction that posing in high-power nonverbal displays (as opposed to low-power nonverbal displays) would cause neuroendocrine and behavioral changes for both male and female participants: High-power posers experienced elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power and tolerance for risk; low-power posers exhibited the opposite pattern.”

 Cuddy’s paper morphed into an ultra-popular TED talk and then, at the end of 2015, a book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.  The book garnered a rave review in the New York Times. Google “power pose image,” and you’ll see dozens of photos of men and women with their elbows akimbo, their legs propped up on the conference table, and their knees and ankles spread as far apart as the Colossus of Rhodes’s.

Most recently, the quality of Cuddy’s research and the validity of her conclusions has been questioned by other social scientists. Slate recently reported that a research team led by Eva Ranehill of the University of Stockholm had published a paper in 2014 pointing out that they were unable to replicate Cuddy’s results. Their own study concluded that there was no statistically significant correlation between power posing and higher hormone levels

As a non-social scientist myself, I’m not qualified to decide whether Ranehill’s study was more solidly grounded than Cuddy’s, or vice versa. But I do find it amusing (or maybe not so amusing for guys in New York facing criminal charges) that posing like Wonder Woman while dropping off your blouse at the dry cleaner is good, but posing like Superman while riding in a subway car, maybe on a trip to the same dry cleaner is bad.

I suspect it has something to do with those “testosterone” levels. High testosterone in an assertive woman? We love it nowadays. High testosterone in an assertive man? Arrest that fellow!



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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