Female leaders face significant barriers when entering into executive roles. Strong leadership is stereotypically associated with masculine traits, but females who display these traits are often penalized for defying gender expectations. In addition, research has shown that female executives are often blamed more harshly for organizational outcomes compared to males holding similar positions.
To combat these stereotypes, organizations often make public succession announcements for newly tapped female executives – these tend to endorse and highlight skills, abilities, and achievements of the new hire. However, while this practice may be well-intentioned, new research suggests that this spotlighting practice may be harmful to female executives.
ENDORSEMENTS OF FEMALE CEOS
Researchers (Dwivedi et al., 2020) examined the content of 91 female CEO succession announcements obtained from company websites among S&P 1500 and Fortune 500 firms from 1995-2012. Results indicate that increased focus on the incoming CEO’s competencies (i.e. abilities, past achievements/experiences, educational background, and awards) was associated with shorter tenure as CEO. However, this relationship was reduced when the female CEOs were inside hires or when organizations had more female executives.
The researchers conducted a follow up study to find the reason for these trends. In their second study, the researchers interviewed 31 female executives representing a variety of firms. Two overarching themes emerged from the interviews. First, female leaders were chronically aware of the gender biases associated with holding executive positions. Second, the female executives responded in a variety of ways to the stereotyping, such as feeling anxiety about being perceived as incompetent, feeling exhausted from dealing with stereotypes, and experiencing legitimacy concerns.
The results from these two studies suggest that gender bias may be driving the relationship between leadership endorsements and tenure length: First, stakeholders may form negative perceptions of these public endorsements and perpetuate gender biases, and second, female executives may experience burnout from the stress of these stereotypes.
Leadership endorsements are commonly used by firms to convey the legitimacy and competence of new executives, but this study highlights the questionable effectiveness of this approach. The authors note that firms could help female CEOs by providing more support through sponsorship, mentoring, and other activities aimed at managing stakeholder expectations. However, organizations should be cautious about implementing such practices publicly, as the increased visibility may inadvertently harm new female leaders. This is especially so if the firm’s executives are predominantly male and the female executive is an external hire.
Dwivedi, P., Misangyi, V. F., & Joshi, A. (2021) “Burnt by the spotlight”: How leadership endorsements impact the longevity of female leaders. Journal of Applied Psychology. Online first publication.