New York, NY – Language has the power to shape and transform businesses – the way a company describes itself, its employees and its products can determine whether it grows and expands, or fades away. For generations, large corporations have been dominated by male leadership, meaning that men set the tone for how businesses portray themselves and their employees. Past analyses of corporate filings show that when men lead organizations, it can lead to the perpetuation of damaging gender tropes for their female subordinates: women who project qualities of being compliant will end up being viewed as warm but incompetent. At the other end of the spectrum, highly-motivated, driven women are viewed as competent but less likable.
However, a new study from researchers at Columbia Business School, Stanford University Graduate School of Business, and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business demonstrates how giving women a seat in the boardroom can transform organizational culture. The research team finds that companies that hire female chief executives and board members are more likely to see changes in the way an organization uses language. Hiring women into leadership positions helps associate women with characteristics that are critical for leadership success. When women are in power, there is no longer a semantic tradeoff between likeability and strong leadership – shattering the myth that women can’t be both capable and kind executive leaders. Values flow from the top, and when a woman is on top, she ignites conscious and unconscious shifts in internal language and culture that betters the workplace for other women throughout the organization. Thus, this study reveals that women executive leaders provide substantive, rather than mere symbolic, representation.
“The language we use to describe men and women speaks volumes and has consequences for stereotypes, career outcomes, and beyond,” said Sandra Matz, the David W. Zalaznick Associate Professor of Business at Columbia Business School. “In recent decades, marketing campaigns have shifted focus to breaking down gender norms and changing what it means to be a woman. Such attempts are meant to change stereotypes and increase women’s confidence and advancement into positions of power. But, for genuine change to occur, there also needs to be a concerted effort from the organizations themselves to uplift women into these leadership positions.”
“This is really encouraging evidence that organizations that appoint women to leadership positions are clearly communicating that they embrace women as leaders,” said M. Asher Lawson, a PhD candidate at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “Organizations will both consciously communicate the positive traits of their leaders, as they are motivated for these leaders to be successful, and unconsciously convey the changes in understandings of gender and leadership at these organizations. This commitment from those organizations to signaling the congruity between women and leadership has the potential to start a virtuous cycle, where the changes to language use can foster a more welcoming cultural environment where future female leaders can flourish.”
The research team of Matz, Lawson, Stanford University Graduate School of Business Professor Ashley Martin, and Columbia Business School pre-doctoral fellow Imrul Huda used natural language processing techniques to analyze internal and external organizational documents, shareholder reports, and investor documents, from various S&P 500 organizations between 2009 and 2018. To capture organizations' outward-facing language, they analyzed 1.23 billion words extracted from 43,396 text files comprising DEF 1A filings, 10-K filings, and transcripts of investor calls for all S&P 500 organizations within the same ten-year timeframe. The researchers identified the subset of these organizations that had a female CEO, text data for at least three years, and a male CEO predecessor before the female hire. This resulted in 11 target organizations, including General Motors and IBM.
For each of these targeted organizations, the researchers identified two similarly matched S&P 500 organizations that did not hire a female CEO, allowing the researchers to account for changes in gendered language that were not related to the hiring of a woman as a CEO.
- Positive perceptions of a female executive leader transforms perceptions of women throughout the organization. The association of a woman CEO with agentic traits trickles down throughout the organization, and women employees throughout the company become more closely linked with qualities like decisiveness, confidence, and ambition.
- Having more women in positions of power results in conscious changes to the organizational language. When a woman is promoted to a position of power, female words become more closely related to agentic, leadership-congruent traits, without imposing a trade-off with likeability. This shift happens because the organizations are more motivated to describe their leaders as both agentic and likable.
- Female role models matter. Female representation in senior leadership positions changes gender stereotypes by providing female role models, who become unconsciously associated with traditionally male-oriented, leadership-relevant, agentic qualities.
For example, comparing General Motors – which hired Mary T. Barra in 2014 – and Ford shows that while Ford saw a drop in the association between women and leadership traits after 2014, General Motors saw an increase. General Motors signal the congruency between women and leadership with quotes such as this from their 2018 DEF 14-A statement, “Ms. Barra… has been a key leader as we have reset our culture of safety and relentlessly focused on putting the customer at the center of everything we do. As Chairman, she facilitates your Board’s continued strong oversight of compliance and enterprise risk management programs.”
“We often see that when women engage in agentic, leaderlike behavior they are described as more competent, but also less likeable,” said Professor Martin. “We do not find that here – instead, we find that a newly appointed woman CEO or board-member is described as both competent and likeable, mitigating the ‘double bind’ women usually face.”
“Taken together, our findings suggest that female representation in leadership positions can induce language change, such that the semantic meaning of being a woman and being agentic become more similar,” Matz said. “Companies that are looking to increase women’s representation throughout their organization would do well to start at the top. Our results indicate that woman executive leaders are far more than mere tokens, these women catalyze shifts in language and culture that directly foster a more welcoming workplace for women. When it comes to breaking down stereotypes, female representation is not merely an end but also a means: simply hiring a female CEO or appointing a female board member may shift the semantic association between what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a leader.”
The study Hiring Women Into Senior Leadership Positions is Associated with a Reduction in Gender Stereotypes in Organizational Language is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researcher
Sandra Matz takes a Big Data approach to studying human behavior in a variety of business-related domains. She combines methodologies from psychology and computer...Read more.