The CEO gender gap is very gradually closing at major public companies, but the way in which the media covers female CEOs may not help speed it up.
According to a recent study by the Rockefeller Foundation, articles about female CEOs are more likely to mention gender, discuss their personal life, and place the brunt of the blame on them during times of crises.
The small study analyzed 100 news articles from 37 top-tier media outlets that covered 20 Fortune 1000 and major tech company CEOs. The reporting on these executives was observed in four scenarios: when they were hired, stepped down, retired, or were involved in a crisis. The study also utilized IBM Watson’s tone analyzer to measure the differences in language used when describing CEOs of different genders.
According to the report, 16% of the articles that covered female CEOs mentioned their personal life and discussed their family 78% of the time. When male CEOs are in the news, however, only 8% of the coverage mentions their personal life, and none discuss their children or family. The focus instead was on their background, retirement plans, or social life. Furthermore, 49% of articles written about female CEOs mention gender, compared with only 4% of articles written about male CEOs.
Although it was a small sample of media coverage, the findings are significant, because the way in which CEOs are covered often has a direct impact on their success in office. A recent study by the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University found that female CEOs are more likely to be targeted by shareholder activism, which the study's authors believe is directly impacted by the way in which they’re covered in the media.
"Historically, female CEOs garner far more media attention than their male counterparts, and not for corporate performance and policy decisions alone," wrote the Arizona State University study’s author, Christine Shropshire. "For example, as Silicon Valley’s most prominent woman in a male-dominated profession, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s appearance, pregnancy, and parenting are frequently discussed—yet these topics rarely surface for male CEOs."
As a result of this discrepancy, the public perception of a CEO will differ significantly based on gender. The Rockefeller Foundation study found that 80% of stories written about female CEOs involved in a crisis put the blame on them, compared with 31% of male CEOs. Male CEOs' responses to crises were also viewed more positively, with 25% receiving positive coverage for their responses compared with 20% of female CEOs.
The study also found that female CEOs are targeted by the press from the very beginning, with 33% of articles and press releases mentioning the search process when announcing a new female CEO, compared with only 23% that explained the search process that resulted in the hiring of a male CEO.
A similar study by Cambridge University Press found that female athletes are commonly described using words like "aged," "older," "pregnant," and "married" or "unmarried," while descriptions of male athletes more commonly use words like "fastest," "strong," "big," "real," and "great."
The Rockefeller Foundation study points to a bias that is consistent in the coverage of successful women. Other reports have indicated that such media attention has adverse affects on the public perception of female executives' compensation and their ability to maintain their position without being ousted by their boards.
When it comes to female leadership, however, studies have found that companies run by women actually achieve 35% greater returns on investment.