Exploring The Unintended Benefits Of Hiring Women Into Leadership Roles

Hiring a woman CEO is a good way to reduce organization-wide stereotyping.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 7, 2022

A new study published in the journal of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences shows that hiring women as leaders in organizations can help mitigate gender biases throughout the organization.

To better understand the findings, I recently spoke to Asher Lawson, a researcher at Duke University in the Fuqua School of Business and co-author of the new study. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of hiring women into senior leadership and its association with reducing gender stereotypes, how did you study it, and what did you find?

One motivation for us in pursuing this topic was seeing two things:

  1. the proportion of women in senior leadership positions is still low (particularly in CEO positions)
  2. women face backlash for acting in the ways that leaders are expected to

This led to us wondering, what can be done to dissipate the gender stereotypes that prevent women from being suited for such positions?

The effects of diversity training on people's attitudes have been found to be mixed, so we asked a simpler question: what's the effect of hiring women into these positions?

In terms of the actual study, we started off by studying the gendering of language in the organizational text. To do so, we trained word embedding models to capture subconscious associations between women and different characteristics in the language that organizations use.

Specifically, we focused on leadership congruent traits that are associated with people's ability to make a change such as being competent or independent (called agency) as well as what might be called more traditionally feminine traits, including being kind and caring (called communality).

We trained word embedding models using organizational documents, both annual reports, other official documents, and transcripts of investor calls. These models are trained by trying to predict a central word in a sentence by using the words around it. One way to think of it is if we had an auto-complete system like you use on your phone and you said, "She is", how likely would it be that the next word is, "powerful"?

Having measured how associated women were with both leadership characteristics and traits such as being caring, we then asked, how do these change when you hire women as leaders?

We looked both at hiring CEOs and board members and saw the same pattern: hiring women as senior leaders led to an increased association with those leadership congruent traits.

Importantly, it looks like the association goes beyond specific references to the women who are appointed to women more broadly.

We were heartened to see this result, but first concerned as to whether this now meant that women wouldn't be seen as warm and likable.

Happily, we saw that there was no decreased association with being caring and these kinds of likable traits. This is in contrast to the typical sort of double-bind story that we hear: that even if women are seen as competent and worthy of being leaders they might face backlash in terms of being liked less.

What we think is going on is that when organizations hire women as their leaders they're motivated to signal both women's competency and likeability, which helps them to circumvent this bind.

Your research mentions that gender stereotypes in organizations are perpetuated in language and women are described in less agentic terms than men. Can you describe how stereotypes and language are correlated and the association of agency with women?

Stereotypes are views people hold that associate groups with particular traits or behaviors.

These have been, and continue to be, very harmful, as they create expectations that distort how people are perceived.

In the case of agency, gender stereotypes dictate that women are less agentic than men. However, being agentic is required in CEO/senior leadership positions. As a result, these gender stereotypes create the expectation that women will not be as effective in these positions as men.

Language is a primary way by which these stereotypes are communicated and perpetuated: the way that people discuss men and women speaks volumes, and reveals their latent associations with different genders. As a result, we feel that looking at language use can offer direct insights into the gender stereotypes held by different organizations.

There are two studies in your research: hiring women as CEOs and hiring women on the executive board. What were the practical takeaways from both the studies?

In the second study, we found preliminary evidence that companies that did experience greater changes in this association between women and these positive traits were more likely to hire additional women in the future.

This highlights the possibility for a virtuous cycle where the effect snowballs.

One implication of this work is that the act of hiring women as leaders can help to dissipate insidious gender stereotypes, which both quantifies a direct benefit of increasing female representation and suggests that systems such as quotas may have greater benefits than we thought.

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

I think one thing that surprised us was just how positive the findings' implications were. We found that increasing female representation in senior leadership roles consistently increased the association of women with leadership-oriented traits, without any backlash, and in a way that potentially precipitated a virtuous cycle. Heading into the project we expected that women might be penalized in terms of their warmth and likeability, but that wasn't what we observed.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on women in leadership roles in the future?

I think there are two key future directions that I'm really excited about exploring.

For one, though the present work has been focused on whether women are associated with leadership congruent traits when appointed to such positions, these traits might still be seen as masculine. I am interested in how people's perceptions of what it means to be a leader change as the demographics of those in leadership positions change. Ultimately it may be the case that increasing female representation in leadership roles may shift the definition of what are leadership congruent traits to a more comprehensive view of the styles of leadership that can be effective.

Secondly, we know that women face difficult conditions when hired, such as the glass cliff and hostile cultures. These can limit the extent to which women are allowed to lead effectively.

If our language measure can be seen as the extent to which women are culturally embraced, it might be able to explain why different companies do or don't experience the benefits of appointing women. Studying how language change can moderate the effect of appointing women on both women's treatment in organizations and organizational performance are definitely both exciting future directions.