The notion of cultural gender bias is well established, and pervasive — so much so that it even follows the few women who manage to make their way to the very top of the corporate world and become chief executive officers, according to a new study.
The study, carried out by two female and three male economic department heads at the University of Alabama, the University of Memphis, the University of Missouri and Pennsylvania State University, looked at 18 years worth of Securities and Exchange Commission filings by investors who took an activist stake in the 500 largest public U.S. companies, based on revenue, and found that companies with female ceo’s were more likely to deal with one or multiple activist investors than those led by men.
The study controlled for the idea that activists only target companies that were underperforming, regardless of ceo gender, by excluding underperforming companies altogether in the analysis. Moreover, since the SD13 filings the study is based on can be filed at multiple times during a year, but ceo gender is recorded only once, the study eliminated ceo departure years.
“We found, even after controlling for the precariousness of the leadership position, that women ceo’s had a greater likelihood of being targeted by activist investors,” the authors wrote. “Stated more directly, activist investors are more likely to tell female ceo’s compared to male ceo’s how to manage the firm, even though (statistically) female-led and male-led firms are performing similarly. Thus, although more research is needed, women executives appear to encounter hurdles not faced by men: they face more public display of dissatisfaction and (unwanted) direction, at least from activist shareholders, regardless of the firm’s performance.”
This is significant not only because of the clear gender link found in the research, but also because, although women make up about 50 percent of the workforce, they only make up 4.8 percent of ceo’s among the 500 largest U.S. companies. Women also only make up 14.6 percent of all other c-suite positions and 16.9 percent of company boards, which select and approve new ceo’s.
“These findings lend more credence to the idea that women are treated differently than men when they are given leadership positions,” Daniel Turban, a University of Missouri economics chair who coauthored the study, said. “The data becomes even more worrying when you consider the challenges women face in reaching these roles in the first place. Our results suggest that gender role biases continue after they assume a leadership role, and we see they can come from external agents.”
While the obvious gender imbalance in executive roles has long been chalked up to a “pipeline” problem, with popular wisdom agreeing that women often choose to leave the workforce either altogether or for enough time to derail their career track, especially after they have children, a study of about 250 companies last year by McKinsey & Co. in partnership with LeanIn.org found that women do not leave companies at a higher rate than men and “very few” in the workforce have any plans to leave to focus on family.
Nevertheless, the study found that women are hired and promoted less, with “the biggest gender gap” being an initial promotion up to a management role. Women are 18 percent less likely than men to move up from an entry-level position.
According to the new university study, “considerable research points to the ‘liability of gender’” when it comes to women in the workforce.
“For example, consistent with gender role stereotypes, women [in previous studies] were perceived to have more family-work conflict than men, which led to lower performance and promotability ratings,” the authors wrote.
Outside of differences in hiring and promotion, part of the impetus for the new university study was the “glass cliff” theory, put forward in 2005 in a University of Exeter study, that found women are more likely to be tapped for high-profile leadership roles in business and politics during times of crisis. The Exeter study also proposed that women then face not only a tougher job of a prospective turnaround, but a higher rate of failure given the issues they’re coming into address and more intense scrutiny because of their gender.
Subsequent studies have supported the Glass Cliff theory. One of the most recent was in 2013, when the Strategic Management Journal published research showing Fortune 500 companies more often promoted women, along with men of color, to ceo after periods of company underperformance.
But less research has been done on whether women who make it to the executive leadership level indeed face more challenges than men. The authors of the new study wrote that they hope research in the area will continue, especially given their findings regarding activist investors.
“Our results are quite disconcerting,” Turban said, noting that taking an activist stake in a company is a “very public act.”
“If gender bias is present in such public actions, we have to wonder what other challenges these women are facing that are less public.”
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