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The way new women CEOs are announced may shorten their tenure

June 22, 2021

By Katie Bohn

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When announcing newly hired women CEOs, companies may want to write glowing endorsements for the new leadership. But the language they use may inadvertently hurt the subsequent success of the incoming CEOs and their chances of staying in the office, according to new research.

Researchers found that the more companies praised and touted the past accomplishments of their incoming women CEOs when announcing their hiring, the more likely it was for these women to then have shorter tenures in the CEO role.

Interviews with top women executives suggested this may be due to stereotyping — such early endorsements make it more likely that the women will be at the receiving end of stereotypes and biases in their new role, and as a result, end up staying in the CEO position for a shorter amount of time.

However, these effects were smaller when the women CEOs were insiders at the company — when they were an internal hire — or when there were other women on the leadership team and board.

Aparna Joshi, Arnold Family Professor of Management at Penn State, said the findings suggest that while companies likely mean well when touting their female CEOs, these symbolic gestures are not enough and they also need to invest in more substantive and long-term ways to support diversity.

“Organizations should know that focusing on the talent and the talent pipeline leading up to the top leadership roles matters more than symbolic gestures,” Joshi said. “And obviously, the question of gender inclusivity is impossible without men’s involvement. Women have done enough by getting in, staying in, and making it to the highest levels of organizations. So I think it’s time to raise awareness among male leaders and get their buy-in and engagement.”

According to the researchers, the study was partially inspired by a double-binding effect, or catch-22, that many women — especially those in leadership — often encounter in their professional lives.

Vilmos Misangyi, professor of strategic management at Penn State, explained that this happens because women are subjected to two types of stereotyping. Women are stereotypically seen as being sensitive and nurturing and thus not fit for leadership roles, but when women show that they are competent enough for leadership roles, they are then judged as not fulfilling the stereotypical expectations for what women should be.

“When women act confident and leader-like, it can violate these societal expectations of what a woman should be, which is highly problematic,” Misangyi said. “Organizations may want to help women by touting their accomplishments, but as soon as they do, it can trigger a backlash. They’re trying to help, but it may actually end up hurting.”

With women still grossly underrepresented in top leadership positions — about 94% of Fortune 500 CEO positions are held by men — the researchers said they were interested in investigating how these stereotypes contribute to the stalling of women’s progress in the workforce.

“We were curious about whether something as straight forward as a leadership endorsement — which usually includes listing their skills, abilities and achievements — actually serves to trigger stereotypes,” Joshi said. “And if it does, then that's a wake-up call about what else might be triggering it. To us, it's a reflection of how easily these biases get triggered, and the impact it can have.”

For the study, the researchers examined 91 instances of women who were hired into a CEO position between the years of 1995 and 2012. The researchers analyzed the language used in the firms’ succession announcements and related press releases to describe the new female CEOs’ competence as well as how they referred to the outgoing CEOs. The researchers also noted how long the women ended up staying in those roles.

“You wouldn't think that an organization endorsing their new female leader would be a bad thing or that it could actually end up being detrimental to these women,” Misangyi said. “This is a seemingly gender-inclusive type of action, but as it turns out, because of prescriptive stereotypes, unfortunately what we find is it seems to not work out so well.”

The researchers also performed a second study in which they interviewed 31 female executives who each had, on average, about 25 years of experience in such areas as finance, marketing, supply-chain, strategy and operations.

After analyzing the interviews, the researchers found two main themes. First, the women interviewed reported being very aware of the stereotypes and bias they were up against in the male-dominated world of upper leadership throughout their tenure as an executive.

Second, they also reported feeling concerned about being right for their job, anxious about being seen as incompetent, and exhausted from dealing with these stereotypes on a regular basis.

“Over time, the one thing that I did find was true is that if women complained, on average they were seen as whining,” said one interviewee. “And I used that word specifically and intentionally because it was like sort of that whiny complaining. Whereas when men voice a concern they were [seen as] bringing good points up.”

Another interviewee reported people being surprised to see her walk into the room as a woman of color in an executive position. “I felt like I did not fit in and I used... to think of [being a woman executive of color] as a negative,” she said.

Overall, Joshi said the paper — recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology — underlines the robustness of stereotypes that women are still up against, and the need for organizations to do more to support their female employees.

“It tells you how susceptible and vulnerable the C-suite is to stereotyping, despite all these efforts organizations have made and women have made to get into these roles,” Joshi said. “At this level, you might think that these women would have overcome all of these odds, that they're tough and that they can deal with the stuff that's thrown at them. But their stereotype-driven anxieties still seemed to seep into their subconscious and shaped their experiences even at the highest levels in companies.”

Priyanka Dwivedi, an assistant professor at Texas A&M University and a Penn State alumna, also co-authored this work.

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