Sound familiar? "When it comes to body language, men move in and women make room for them," explains Judi James, author of Bodytalk. "And it doesn't just happen on the way to work. It happens when you get there. In fact, a range of new studies shows that although women in the late Nineties have made huge strides in the business world, they still limit themselves enormously by sending out the wrong signals with their bodies."
Indeed, a study that hid cameras in British offices revealed how women - even in top positions - make themselves look smaller with arm-folding, leg-crossing and papers across the chest, while men use strong spatial behaviours. "No surprises as to who appears more confident and capable," says James. "And since the number of male secretaries is growing at an astounding rate, it's high time female secretaries started to think about changing their behaviour."
Making this a particular challenge, admits Dr Lillian Glass, a US communications specialist, is the fact that body language isn't usually noticed or used consciously. "That's why it is such a powerful weapon." And it seems that the British have the most to learn. "Take a study by the University of Florida, which noted how many times different nationalities touched each other as a sign of empathy when talking in public. In Puerto Rico, it was 180 times an hour. In Paris, 110. In London, it was zero."
Lesson number one, she believes, should consist of spreading your papers around a meeting-table and practising using your hands and arms while explaining things, rather than typically female movements such as touching your hair and clothes. "The trick is to show that you are in control rather than appearing nervous or submissive."
Then - perhaps surprisingly - secretaries need to concentrate on not smiling too much. "Smiling creates an atmosphere of relaxation, demonstrating women's concern with social harmony," explains Rachel Reeves, a social psychologist at Oxford University. "But it can also be an appeasement gesture - demonstrating acceptance of the other person's power. In other words, when the corners of your mouth turn up, make sure that it doesn't make you look desperate for approval."
Do not, however, make the mistake of imitating men, says James. "In business, that was the mistake of the Eighties," she claims. "Before then, we conceded too much - our dress had to be feminine, and men stood up when you walked into an office. In the Eighties, we reacted by mimicking men in dress and body language because power was applauded. In the Nineties we are more comfortable and confident. That's reflected in our dress, but we need to work on body language."
Above all, she says, women need to be assertive without the Eighties aggressiveness.
Sara Bates, a business trainer in non-verbal communication, says women need to work particularly hard at using eye contact.
"Averting your eyes - particularly when conversing with a man - can make you appear worryingly humble and even a bit flirtatious," she says.
Mind you, James thinks men have a few lessons to learn, too. "As part of my training course, I show a slide of a business woman looking straight into the camera. The women always say she looks pleasant, but the men say she looks a bitch and they wouldn't want to work for her. The women perceive her friendliness; the men just see threatening eye contact. It's because we've been socialised to believe men's place is to be in the authoritative role."
According to Allan Pease, author of Body Language, if you want to be ahead of the game, you should be aware of cultural differences.
"For instance, research shows that, as with Australians, the distance that British people stand apart from one another when socialising is further than most nations."
Consider the example of a Danish couple who migrated to Australia. At a club they attended in Sydney, several female members claimed the Danish man was making advances to them, while the males thought the same about the Danish woman. It was just a misunderstanding ,as a result of Danes having a smaller personal zone than Australians. This can also have the opposite effect, which can be fatal in international business dealings.'
Pease believes that aspects of body language are already in women's favour. "Research indicates that women are naturally more aware of the unconscious signals of body language than men. Less than 15 per cent of men are able to read non-verbal signs. So if a man is going to lie to a woman and doesn't want to be caught out, he's better off doing it by fax or phone, so she can't see him."
The bottom line, body language experts agree, is that the total impact of any message is 7 per cent verbal, 38 per cent tone and a staggering 55 per cent non-verbal. What's more, taking control of your non-verbal actions is now deemed to be more significant than what you wear. So if women want to "make it" at work, they simply can't afford to ignore its impact any longer.
`Body Talk' by Judi James (Industrial Society, pounds 9.95); `Body Language' by Allan Pease (Sheldon Press, pounds 6.99)Reuse content