By Emma Young
When an organisation appoints a new male CEO, the announcement will typically highlight his past achievements and the competencies that make him ideal for the job. What if the new CEO is a woman? The widely expected, gender-neutral thing to do is, of course, to make precisely the same type of announcement. However, according to the team behind a new paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology, this can make work life more difficult for her, and shorten the time that she spends in that role. Priyanka Dwiwedi at Texas A&M University and her colleagues base this striking conclusion on an extensive analysis of data on women who have been appointed to top positions in the US, as well as in-depth interviews with female executives.
Why might an announcement that focuses on the winning candidate’s past successes and competences affect a female vs a male leader differently? Perhaps, the team theorised, it might showcase “that the new female leader does not adhere to prescriptive norms about how women ‘should be’. Such violations could elicit social disapproval, backlash and evaluation penalties for women.” In other words, new female leaders who are praised for their competence, confidence and ambition (stereotypically “male”-type leadership traits) may then experience “stereotype threat” — and feel judged for not conforming to the stereotypically female profile of being nurturing, socially sensitive and group-focused. The psychological burden of this could then make it harder for the woman to remain in her job. Lab-based work has supported these ideas, and there has been some anecdotal evidence in its favour, too. But this is the first attempt at major, real-world investigation.
To start with, the team considered 91 female CEO successions among companies included in major US stock market indices between 1995 and 2012. When a host of other factors that could plausibly have influenced any CEO’s longevity were taken into account, the researchers noted a link between endorsements that focused on success and competence and a shorter time as CEO. (These endorsements came from the companies’ own websites, press releases and annual reports, for example.) Two factors did emerge as being linked to a longer time in the job despite success-focused endorsements, however: the female CEO being an internal rather than an external appointment, and the presence of a relatively high number of female executives in the company. Analysis of a matched sample of male CEOs did not reveal a link between endorsement content and time in the role.
The team then ran semi-structured interviews with 31 female executives (not all CEOs, though all in senior management positions), each with an average of 25 years’ experience at a variety of US companies. The findings from this qualitative portion of the study supported the team’s idea that such women are subject to stereotype threat. They found that “female executives were chronically aware of gender stereotyping and continued biases in the male-dominated context of upper echelons both during their transition into, and throughout their time in, their executive roles.” These women also reported all kinds of negative personal responses, including anxiety about being perceived as incompetent, or having insufficient legitimacy as a leader, as well as feeling exhausted with dealing with the stereotypes. For example, one commented: “When a woman is demanding, they think she’s a bitch… But if a man is demanding, they see him as tough and good.” Another talked about how, as she moved up the ranks, she felt much more hostility and exclusion — so much so, that she eventually quit her job.
The interview-based segment of the study supports the idea that women in top leadership roles suffer from unhelpful stereotypes about women. When it comes to the team’s main conclusion, however — that the content of the endorsement of a new female CEO can affect her longevity in the job — it’s important to note that the link is correlational. (Though the team’s failure to find such an association for the male CEOs is certainly worth stressing.) Though the researchers did control for a lot of other potential influences on their results, this study could not definitively demonstrate that the content of the appointee endorsement in and of itself causes greater or lesser stereotype-related pressures on a female CEO. But if their suggestion that it does is correct, what are the practical lessons?
It does pose a dilemma for companies, the researchers accept. “While they would do well to support their new female leaders in as many ways as they can, they also need to constantly recognise that any such support could backfire because of implicit gender biases and stereotyping”. The team did find that the presence of more female executives mitigated this, though. So: “Perhaps the only long-term solution to this dilemma is for organisations to obtain a critical mass of female leaders in order to buffer them against potentially negative stakeholder perceptions.” They add that though this study focused on women, it’s likely that CEOs from other minorities in the executive level in businesses will experience something very similar. The finding also contributes to the growing body of work finding that well-intentioned attempts to counteract gender stereotypes can backfire.