Female CEOs Change How Firms Talk about Women

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Appointing women to leadership positions renders organizations more likely to describe all women as being powerful, persistent, and bold

Karen Hopkin: This is Scientific American’s 60-Second Science. I’m Karen Hopkin.

Think of a top executive at a powerhouse company. You can imagine someone confident, smart, determined and decisive. Although it hurts me to admit it, you are probably picturing a male. You wouldn’t be far off the mark, which is sad.

Asher Lawson: Around only 7 percent of S&P 500 CEOs are women, despite women making up 50 percent of the population.

Hopkin: That’s Asher Lawson, a graduate student at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. He believes that changing the way we think and talk about leadership could help to level the playing field. He and his colleagues found that women are more likely to be described as leaders in organizations that have female CEOs. Their findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Lawson: Gender inequality has been deemed the “greatest human rights challenge of our time” by the United Nations. Our research focuses on the causes of gender inequalities and the consequences of gender stereotypes.

Hopkin: To get at the roots of these stereotypes, Lawson and his team took a closer look at corporate speak — and the words businesses use when referring to women.

Lawson: So we’re really interested in language because it gives us this deep insight into how people are thinking about women in a way that doesn’t rely on them reporting it themselves.

Hopkin: Now, coming straight out and asking companies how they feel about females can lead to some fanciful forecasting.

Lawson: So if you ask organizations whether they believe in gender equity or whether they’re interested in fairness, because of social desirability concerns, they’ll nearly always say yes.

Hopkin: To find out if businesses talk the talk AND walk the walk, the researchers parsed the shareholder reports and investor documents of S&P 500 companies. Using natural language processing techniques, they analyzed some 43,000 files…containing more than 1.2 billion words…and they looked for associations between words that signify women…like she and her…and words typically associated with leadership…like assertive or ambitious or effective.

Lawson: One way to think of it is if you had an autocomplete system like you use on your phone and you said “she is…” it would be like, how likely is it that the next word is powerful?

Hopkin: Once they assessed this association…

Lawson: We then asked: how do these associations change when you hire women as leaders? We saw the same pattern in all data: hiring women to be senior leaders led us to a greater association with leadership-congruent traits.

Hopkin: And it wasn’t that the companies were extolling the virtues of their own specific staff.

Lawson: So it’s not just discussion of those new CEOs and board members. It can be used to discuss women more generally. We were so happy to see this result.

Hopkin: At the same time, they wondered whether there might be any backlash…in other words, when a woman is seen as more competent, is she then considered to be less compassionate and considerate.

Lawson: Happily, we saw that there was no decreased association with being caring and these kinds of likable traits.

Hopkin: Even better, the data suggests that the organizations that saw the biggest boost in female-linked leadership language are more likely to hire even more women.

Lawson: So this highlights the opportunity for a virtuous cycle where the effect can snowball. Appointing women can lead to women being more closely associated with the traits that are necessary to be leaders. This can help to increase the likelihood of hiring more women in future. It’s an exciting process to be a part of.

Hopkin: And something the head honcho will surely write about in her next annual report.

For Scientific American’s 60-Second Science, I’m Karen Hopkin.

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]


    Karen Hopkin is a freelance science writer in Somerville, Mass. She holds a doctorate in biochemistry and is a contributor to Scientific American‘s 60-Second Science podcasts.

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