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When male analysts question female CEOs they were 7.9 percentage points more aggressive than when questioning male CEOs

Verbal aggression towards women CEOs a result of ‘out of group’ gender bias

Female CEOs face more aggressive questioning from male analysts during earnings conference calls, a new study reveals.

Researchers including from the University of Exeter Business School analysed recordings of 39,209 earnings conference calls with US firms between 2005 and 2018 including the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Facebook.

Earnings conference calls – quarterly events in which companies relay information about their financial performance to investors, analysts and other interested parties – include a Q&A in which the CEO is taken to task by one or more analysts.

The study found that when male analysts question female CEOs they were 7.9 percentage points more aggressive than when questioning male CEOs.

The researchers also found male analysts’ questions to be more aggressive than those of female analysts by a score of 10 percentage points.

The study examined verbal aggressiveness through four measures:

-          The frequency of follow-up questions, which imply that the questioner does not accept the initial response.

-          The use of preface statements, which allows the questioner introduce a new context, paving the way for a more challenging question.

-          The number of direct questions used (questions that do not start with self-referential phrases such as ‘can I’, ‘could I’, ‘will you’, which are considered deferential.

-          Aggressive questions that are close to assertions beginning with phrases such as ‘isn’t it’ or ‘aren’t you’.

Verbal aggressiveness was also found to be linked to career advancement, with female analysts who ask aggressive questions more likely to be selected as a top-three analyst on Institutional Investor’s annual list of best analysts.

The researchers investigated a sample of nearly 40,000 earnings conference calls, of which 92% of CEOs and 88% of analysts were male.

The results reveal evidence of a gender-based ‘out-of-group’ bias, the tendency to give preferential treatment to members of one’s ‘own group’ over others.

Previous research on gender bias in analysts’ interactions with management in earnings conference calls found male analysts make lower earnings forecasts for firms with female CEOs, and that women are perceived as less knowledgeable than men.

Dr Sebastian Tideman, a Lecturer in Finance and Accounting at the University of Exeter Business School and co-author of the study, said differences in linguistic styles can have real consequences.

“Differences in male and female linguistic styles have potential implications for who gets credit for work and for judgements of confidence and competence.

“Linguistic styles also affect how men and women are viewed in the power hierarchy and how criticism is perceived.

“Given our findings, sell-side firms might want to ensure that their managers are aware of the differences between the linguistic styles of men and women.

“And similarly, differences in male and female linguistic styles could be considered by voters for Institutional Investor’s All-American analyst awards.”

“The role of gender in the aggressive questioning of CEOs during earnings conference calls”, co-authored by Dr Sebastian Tideman from the University of Exeter Business School, Professor Joseph Comprix from Syracuse University and Professor Kerstin Lopatta from the University of Hamburg, is published in The Accounting Review.

Date: 30 March 2022

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