Leadership In Turbulent Times: Women CEOs During COVID-19

Women CEOs exhibited a different leadership style than men during the COVID-19 crisis, leaning toward empathy, adaptability, accountability, and diversity, based on our sentiment analysis of earnings call transcripts of the leaders of nearly 5,000 companies in the S&P Global Broad Market Index from March 9, 2020 to Dec. 31, 2020.

CEOs who were women exhibited a more positive communication style at the peak of the pandemic, with higher average scores for words expressing trust and anticipation. CEOs of both genders expressed negative sentiment at comparable frequency.

Women CEOs are still significantly underrepresented. Women at companies in the S&P Global BMI accounted for 5% of CEOs on Jan. 25, 2021, compared with 4.9% on Feb. 8, 2020.

Countries with a higher share of women CEOs also tend to have more gender-balanced labor force participation.

Sector and country of the company best explain stock market performance for our dataset during the pandemic; gender does not play a big role for this shareholder-focused measure over the period studied. However, women CEOs displayed a leadership style aligned with a wider range of stakeholders.

Do Women Lead Differently?

Daniela Brandazza, Senior Director and Analytical Manager, S&P Global Ratings, President of the WINS (Women’s Initiative for Networking and Success) at S&P Global


During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global press hailed the performance of women leaders. New Zealand, South Korea, and Germany were often mentioned as examples of nations, led by women, weathering the pandemic better than countries led by men, whose political style was perceived as fitting the stereotype of masculine leadership. Women in power, said the press stories, seemed to be more responsible, caring, and prudent, while men were more willing to improvise, minimize the perils, and make risky decisions.

Those questions led to this paper. As the pandemic unfolded, taking millions of lives and a massive economic toll around the globe, business leaders of every sector had to brace their companies for impact and prepare their teams to rapidly change their priorities to navigate uncharted waters. Men and women CEOs found themselves making difficult choices to enable their companies to survive the crisis and, if possible, thrive afterward.

Do men and women have different leadership approaches and styles? If so, to what extent do these differences account for the performance of the organizations they lead? Can we find the same gender effect in the corporate world as some see in government?

This paper sheds light on how women and men CEOs exhibited different leadership styles. Our research found that women CEOs communicated more positively than men CEOs, based on sentiment analysis to examine the language of earnings call transcripts of the leaders of close to 8,500 companies from the S&P Global Broad Market Index. Women CEOs also used comparatively more words expressing emotions related to trust and anticipation. CEOs of both genders communicated negatively at comparable frequency.


The paper also offers some insights about the numbers of women in CEO positions across markets and sectors. We found that women CEOs leading companies included in the S&P Global BMI accounted for 5% of total CEOs on Jan. 25, 2021, compared with 4.9% on Feb. 8, 2020. We also found that countries with a relatively higher share of women CEOs also tend to have more gender-balanced labor force participation. At the same time, our research indicates that CEO gender was not related to a company’s stock market success. Instead economic sector and geographic location best explained company performance during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, companies led by CEOs with more experience in their current job performed better during the crisis. Yet, younger CEOs also performed better, perhaps because they led companies with a higher degree of digitalization, which performed well during the crisis.

A Literature Review

Dr. Gabriel Morin, Associate Professor of Leadership Development for the LARGEPA Research Laboratory in Management Sciences at Paris 2 Pantheon-Assas University

While the topic of women leadership has been widely discussed in the literature on gender and leadership (Eagly & Johnson 1990), it has been at the top of the leadership research agenda for the past decade or so (Chin 2014; Avolio et al. 2009) and is explored by the “new leadership research paradigm,” which studies how leaders develop (Morin 2016).

The current context of the pandemic crisis has reinforced this trend (Zenger & Folkman 2020; Chamorro-Premuzic & Wittenberg-Cox 2020). However, these studies focus less on women leaders as such and more on women's representation in the management bodies or even in the organizations explored (Bell 2020). They implicitly underline the fact that occupying a very high leadership position for a woman is still perceived as an anomaly (Glass & Cook 2016; Chin 2014).

Other studies are based on qualitative empirical analyses concentrated on limited sample sizes (Zenger & Folkman 2020), both in terms of the number of companies, women, countries, or sectors involved. This makes it difficult to gain a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon of women's leadership.

With respect to the question of whether women leaders perform better than men, existing research is inconclusive, pointing instead to ambivalence on this issue (Sandberg 2019; Eagly & Carli 2003; Foels et al. 2000).

Existing literature is ambivalent about differences in terms of leadership style between women and men (Saint-Michel 2011; 2010; Fine 2007; Eagly & Johnson 1990). Regarding the specificities of leadership by women, previous research highlights a more interpersonally oriented, transformational, and communication-oriented style, whereas leadership by men is more task-oriented, transactional, and participative (Eagly et al. 2003; Eagly & Johnson 1990).

Similarly, psychological studies on gender show a differentiated use of communication with women being more inclusive and men being more results-oriented (Wood 2001; Mason 1991), which is confirmed by the literature on women leadership (Fine 2007).


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