Gender inequality has been deemed the ‘greatest human rights challenge of our time’ by the United Nations, and scholars across numerous disciplines agree that gender stereotypes represent a primary way by which this inequality is maintained. Research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that companies that have women as CEOs tend to change the way they refer to female professionals.
The study was conducted by M. Asher Lawson, assistant professor of decision science at Insead, Ashley Martin, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Imrul Hudaopen of the University of Chicago, and Sandra Matzopen of Columbia University. The team found that gender-stereotyped language decreased after firms hired women as CEOs.
Together, they analyzed 43,000 documents produced between 2009 and 2018 by 39 companies that make up the S&P 500 index. Among the companies that appointed female CEOs during that period were GM, Yahoo!, Oracle, IBM, Duke Energy, and General Dynamics.
“S&P 500 organizations invest a billion dollars each year in diversity training and trying to reduce stereotypes in people’s minds.… But by implementing a female CEO, you might be able to do that anyway.”, said Ashley Martin to the Stanford School of Business publication.
By looking at the moments before and after a company hired a woman as CEO, teams can discern how companies associated women with certain characteristics through language. The research showed that such organizations were more likely to describe women using words like “effective,” “independent,” and “determined,” and that appointing women to high-level positions also helped associate the female gender with characteristics essential to leadership success.
The study suggests that bringing female leaders into a company can lead to the hiring of more women, triggering a “virtuous cycle” that can have a positive impact on the entire culture of the organization.
“Taken together, our findings suggest that female representation is not merely an end, but also a means to systematically change insidious gender stereotypes and overcome the trade-off between women being perceived as either competent or likeable.”, the authors said.