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Hiring female CEOs changes how companies describe women, according to 43,000 pages of SEC filings

March 1, 2022, 2:03 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! President Biden will deliver the State of the Union tonight, Andrew Cuomo is spending big to change the narrative, and hiring female CEOs changes how an organization talks about women. Happy Women’s History Month!

– Hiring spree. After General Motors named Mary Barra CEO in 2014, an interesting trend emerged: the car manufacturer began associating leadership qualities like decisiveness and assertiveness with women throughout the organization. The same can’t be said of GM competitor Ford Motors, which has never had a woman CEO in its 119-year history.

These findings come from an analysis of 43,000 pages of corporate filings—or 1.23 billion words—published by companies in which a female CEO succeeded a male chief executive. A team of business school professors and students used natural language processing to analyze the effect of hiring women leaders, and their research was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Simply put, tapping women for leadership roles changes how an organization perceives women. Companies that elevated women to the corner office were more likely to associate women with leadership traits that are typically tied to men, like the decisiveness and assertiveness that described Barra at GM. Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, this trend toward achievement-oriented, “agentic” language doesn’t sacrifice the positive qualities—like caring and kindness—typically associated with women.

“[A search] would be more likely to autocomplete that a female CEO is determined or assertive,” explains co-author M. Asher Lawson, a PhD candidate at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, using the analogy of Google search results. “That doesn’t mean it’s less likely now that it says a female CEO is warm and caring.” That’s a crucial distinction, researchers say, because women who display traditional male qualities are often judged more harshly, viewed as difficult or aggressive, and penalized for breaking the norm. “We think of women as more competent—but we don’t like them,” says research co-author Sandra Matz, the David W. Zalaznick associate professor of business at Columbia Business School. “So we don’t promote them and we don’t give them the same opportunities.”

The change in organizational language trickles down to more junior levels. “As soon as you hire a female leader, and can break down stereotypes, the chances are that women you hire across all levels of an organization are going to be successful,” says Matz.

For now, this language processing analysis is limited to SEC filings, but researchers hope to study informal avenues of communication like emails and Glassdoor reviews. And as companies pledge to hit new gender quotas on boards and in senior leadership, researchers hope their work can communicate some of the harder-to-quantify benefits of diversifying the C-suite.

Still, for Lawson, the takeaway is simple: “Hire women.”

Emma Hinchliffe

The Broadsheet is Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women. Subscribe here.


- SOTU. President Joe Biden is expected to discuss the ongoing crisis in Ukraine at tonight's State of the Union, as well as his domestic agenda and nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will deliver the GOP response, while Rep. Rashida Tlaib will respond on behalf of the Democratic Party's progressive wing. NPR

- Ukraine updates. Finland, led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin, will send weapons to Ukraine; Finnish lawmakers will meet this week to discuss joining NATO. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU is closing its airspace to Russia and barring oligarchs' private jets. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has fought against a women-led opposition movement in Belarus, may send troops to support Russia's invasion. Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya called for sanctions against both Belarus and Russia. Cecilia Rouse, chair of the Biden administration’s Council of Economic Advisers, said Russia's invasion of Ukraine has "clouded" the economic outlook for the U.S. For a bigger-picture take: feminist movements can be a "powerful weapon against authoritarianism," this piece in Foreign Affairs argues. 

- Big day. Citigroup held its first investor day in five years, and its first since Jane Fraser took over as CEO (the event was forced to go virtual after positive COVID tests from whom? Citi leaders? investors? or attendees in general?). Investors aren't totally convinced that Fraser's strategy for the bank is working, with shares down 5% since she took over. A new wrinkle: Citi has been trying to sell off a consumer bank in Russia, part of a total $10 billion in exposure in Russia. That plan may no longer be possible because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

- Changing the narrative? Ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo has spent $369,000 to air an ad across New York state recasting himself not as a governor ousted for sexual harassment allegations, but as a victim of politically-motivated attacks. In related news, New York Magazine profiles Letitia James, the New York attorney general who investigated the harassment allegations against Cuomo and is now investigating Donald Trump and his businesses. 

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Channel Bakers promoted Marion Anderson to VP of people and culture and Carol Lai to VP of Asia Pacific. Investment Company Institute promoted Joanne Kane to chief industry operations officer. 


- Consumer confidence. GlaxoSmithKline CEO Emma Walmsley is "extremely confident" the spinoff of the British pharma giant's consumer health unit, now called Haleon, will be complete by July, despite ongoing volatility in the global markets. The deal is expected to be the largest London listing in a decade and the biggest demerger in 20 years. Guardian

- Baby steps. Baby formula has been in short supply after the FDA recalled select formulas from Similac, Alimentum and EleCare. Sens. Patty Murray and Bob Casey are seeking answers, asking formula maker Abbott for documents and communication related to contamination and consumer complaints. The recalled formulas have sickened four babies. The 19th*

- Comfort is key? A new line from Victoria's Secret is focused on comfort—a 180 turn for the lingerie business. Chief design officer Janie Schaffer says that the brand sees "innovation back in our business" after its overhaul in the wake of Jeffrey Epstein-tied L Brands founder Les Wexner's ouster. CNBC


Sen. Dianne Feinstein's husband, Richard Blum, dies Politico

How Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Dawn Davis gets it done The Cut

The new face of American gun ownership The Cut


"There is going to be another chapter. You haven't seen the last of me."

-Jeopardy! winner Amy Schneider on the end of her 40-episode run. 

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