Surprise, surprise: Women who lead Fortune 1000 companies are perceived to be more supportive, compassionate, and warm than their male counterparts, who are considered more dominant, leaderly, and powerful. The higher the rank in Fortune’s annual survey, the more men and women CEOs tend to fit those molds, according to a recent study.
The idea for the study came to its lead author, Julianna Pillemer, when she was an undergraduate at Pomona College taking a course from co-author Deborah Burke. “We had been discussing the unique challenges women in business face,” Pillemer writes in an email, when she read a curious 2008 article examining how the facial appearances of only male Fortune 500 CEOs relates to that company’s financial success. “I wondered: Would this effect show the same pattern for the few female CEOs?” she explains. “Or would more ‘traditionally female’ traits be linked to higher financial performance?”
To find out, she joined Burke and Elizabeth Graham in a case study that paired 20 of the 25 women Fortune 1000 CEOs with male CEOs whose companies were ranked either immediately above or immediate below the woman’s. Fifty Claremont Colleges undergraduates, half men and half women, then gave their impressions of how well each CEO stacked up on traits like compassion, competence, and success in leading a company. Crucially, the students saw only the leaders’ photos and weren’t told who the people in those photos were.
Not only did perceptions of women and men differ overall, but fitting in with gender norms—men are powerful, women are compassionate—was also strongly correlated with company rank and profits. For women CEOs, ranking high on supportiveness was associated with a higher rank on the Fortune list as well as a more profitable company, and compassion and warmth rankings were associated with profits. In contrast, men’s ratings of powerfulness were solidly correlated with both ranking and profitability, while perceptions of their compassion, warmth, and supportiveness revealed nothing about company rank or profitability.
The gender of the people doing the trait ratings mattered, too. Female raters gave higher marks than males on dominance and leadership—two of the individualistic traits—to all CEOs. The researchers also found that while women gave slightly higher leadership scores to male CEOs compared to female ones, the difference was much larger for male raters, who scored men’s faces substantially higher on leadership.
Though the study design prevents the researchers from saying why these disparities exist, the results do of course suggest a gender bias. “Rather than focusing specifically on gender discrimination or bias, we sought to identify perceptions about a handful of women who were able to break through the glass ceiling,” Pillemer says. “We found that these women are perceived as possessing more traditionally ‘feminine’ characteristics, which counters the idea that a woman’s path to success is to simply emulate men.”