Leadership & Management

Hiring Female CEOs Changes How Companies Talk About Women

Women in executive positions can challenge gender stereotypes about leadership — without sacrificing their likability.

August 31, 2022

| by Lisa Wong Macabasco
Illustration of a thought bubble and speech bubble, surrounded by smaller thought and speech bubbles. Cory Hall

Firms with women at the top were more likely to describe women as effective, independent, and determined. | Cory Hall

The underrepresentation of women at the top of corporate America is a persistent and exasperating problem. Women currently hold 32 CEO positions in S&P 500 companies — slightly more than 6% of the total.

“We have all this knowledge on stereotypes and the biases and challenges people face, but there’s still so little progress in actually diversifying the leaders of the largest companies in the country,” says M. Asher Lawson, an assistant professor of decision sciences at INSEAD.

Women trying to climb the corporate ladder often run up against insidious gender stereotypes that associate men — but not women — with highly valued leadership traits of agency and achievement. And when women do display stereotypically “male” leadership traits like assertiveness and decisiveness, they are often seen as less warm and likable.

These stereotypes may be hidden in plain view in the language a company uses to discuss leadership and women in its annual reports, proxy statements, and investor calls. So how can companies change the way they talk about women — and perhaps help break the double standard that undermines female leaders?

To answer this question, Lawson teamed up with Ashley Martin, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Along with Imrul Huda of the University of Chicago and Sandra Matz of Columbia University, they parsed the text of 43,000 documents produced by 39 S&P 500 companies between 2009 and 2018 — more than 1.2 billion words. Among the firms that named female CEOs during that time were GM, Yahoo!, Oracle, IBM, Duke Energy, and General Dynamics.

Leading Between the Lines

The team found, as reported in its recent paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that gender-stereotyped language decreased after firms hired women as CEOs. Appointing women to top-tier management also helped associate women with characteristics essential for leadership success. And it did so without making them seem less likable, suggesting that putting more women in positions of power isn’t just a worthwhile goal but a concrete way to combat stereotypes that hold women back.

This suggests that the presence of a woman in the C-suite can be a relatively simple, effective way to reach a goal that firms are spending big money chasing. “S&P 500 organizations invest a billion dollars each year in diversity training and trying to reduce stereotypes in people’s minds,” says Martin. “They’re trying to change these stereotypes at the employee and manager level to increase representation. But by implementing a female CEO, you might be able to do that anyway.”

Typically, research into stereotyping relies on surveys or tests, which may not be ideal for probing implicit associations. “It’s very difficult to get people to admit their biases in that way,” Martin says. “But we’re seeing it in language, in the natural way people talk about women, capturing something that’s so present in the way stereotypes are being transported and transmuted across organizations and beyond. It’s taking social psychology and putting it in the wild.”

S&P 500 organizations invest a billion dollars each year in diversity training and trying to reduce stereotypes in people’s minds.… But by implementing a female CEO, you might be able to do that anyway.
Ashley Martin

Her team dove into its trove of public documents using natural language processing, a type of artificial intelligence that can understand words’ meaning in context. “We wanted to use machine learning to ask questions about gender because in the big data explosion, there’s all this new text data,” Lawson notes. “We wanted to look at these biases in language in ways not really done before. It’s computer science and psychology working together, which has massive potential as a tool to measure culture and what’s going on inside companies.” This approach enabled the team to study how words relate to each other, instead of merely how many times they appeared.

Focusing on the periods before and after a company hired a woman as CEO, the researchers could discern how a business associated women with various characteristics, in essence revealing itself through its language. “Rather than just looking at what they say, it’s really how they say it,” Lawson explains. “No company between 2009 and 2018 is saying, ‘Women are less, we’re sexist’ — but they are by accident. Even in these very highly controlled texts, when they’re trying to be professional and represent themselves, this culture seeps through.”

The research found that organizations that hire women as CEOs or directors were more likely to describe women using words typically associated with personal agency, such as “effective,” “independent,” and “determined.” Among 11 companies that appointed female CEOs, more than two-thirds saw a stronger association between women and agency in their documents, while fewer than a third of 22 firms with male CEOs did.

One example of this effect was seen at General Motors, which named Mary Barra, MBA ’90, its CEO in 2014. It signaled the correlation between women and leadership in its 2018 definitive proxy statement, which described her as “a key leader” who had enabled “strong oversight” and kept the company “relentlessly focused on putting the customer at the center of everything we do.” In contrast, after Ford named another man its CEO, it used less language linking women and agency.

Being Boss Without Backlash

However, at first it wasn’t clear that this shift in corporate messaging would be a good thing in itself. “One of our main fears was that when a woman was hired as CEO, they would start to seem bossy and dominant,” Lawson says. “They’d be more powerful but less likable and less associated with communal traits like being kind and caring.” As Martin notes, there’s a robust body of literature about this backlash effect, where women with traditionally masculine agentic traits are perceived negatively.

To the researchers’ relief, the likability of female CEOs and board members didn’t decrease after they stepped up. “That’s phenomenal, in my mind, because you’re still keeping the elements of femininity, communality, or womanhood that are really positive,” Martin says. “Things like being supportive, warm, and kind — qualities that you definitely need in leadership as well.” Likability doesn’t have to be a trade-off for competence.

What’s more, bringing female leaders into a company may lead to more women being hired, setting off a “virtuous cycle” that can have a positive impact on the entire organization’s culture. Female business leaders may not only create a cascading change in a company’s attitudes toward women, they may also alter our understanding of leadership. Lawson notes that they found a small increase in the association between women and communality among companies with female CEOs.

“My hope in a 50- or 100-year time horizon is not just that women are conferred agentic traits but actually we expand our definition of effective leadership to also value communality and a broader set of traits within that remit,” Lawson says. “This reinforcing cycle of increased association of communality and increased representation of womanhood not only shows this cultural shift of embracing women but also of adopting a more diffuse meaning of what it means to be a good leader, which I think is really exciting.”

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