Praising incoming female CEOs may shorten their tenure, research finds

Researchers from University Park, Pa.-based Penn State found that the way a new female CEO is introduced may have a direct effect on the length of her tenure.

When companies announce a freshly hired woman as their CEO, the language they use may put her at the receiving end of stereotypes and biases in her new role. The researchers discovered that the more companies praised their incoming female CEOs, the more likely they were to have shorter tenures in their roles, according to a June 24 news release.

Seven things to know: 

  1. The study found early endorsements that touted incoming female CEOs increased the likelihood of them being discriminated against. However, if the woman was an internal hire or if there were already several female leaders, they were less likely to experience these effects.

  2. Aparna Joshi, PhD, Arnold Family Professor of Management at Penn State, said the findings suggest that while companies may mean well when showing off their female CEOs, these gestures can be harmful and show companies need to do more to improve diversity and inclusion.

  3. "Organizations should know that focusing on the talent and the talent pipeline leading up to the top leadership roles matters more than symbolic gestures," Dr. 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."

  4. The announcements contribute to stereotyping and biases because women are perceived as sensitive and not fit for leadership roles, or are judged for not fulfilling the expectation of what women should be.

  5. Researchers examined 91 women who were hired into a CEO position between the years 1995 and 2012. The researchers analyzed the language used in the firms' succession announcements and press releases, as well as how long the women ended up staying in those roles. In a second study, researchers interviewed 31 female executives who each had about 25 years of experience.

  6. The interviews concluded the women were aware of the stereotypes and biases they were up against. Secondly, they reported symptoms of imposter syndrome, such as being anxious about being the right fit for the job.

  7. "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," Dr. 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."

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