Opinion: As women are generally believed to be more risk-averse than men, female CEOs are assumed to choose a less risky — and therefore less innovative — strategy for their companies.
Reality: Gender, alongside other characteristics, seems to have a different effect on CEO risk-taking practices in Russia and in Western Europe. Female executives in Russia are at least as likely as men — and in some areas even more likely — to engage in new R&D or to launch new products on the market.
A group of HSE and University of Calabria (Italy) researchers conducted a large-scale comparative study to examine the effect of CEO characteristics such as owner-manager status, age and gender on innovation by SMEs and large businesses in Russia and six European countries. The findings reveal that CEO characteristics have a markedly different effect on innovative performance in Russian and European companies. In particular, firms with female CEOs in Europe tend to be less innovative, while the opposite is true in Russia. The authors explain these findings by reference to historical patterns of economic development, such as relatively lower gender discrimination in employment in the Soviet era and a larger proportion of women in Russia with an educational background in engineering and natural sciences. A preprint of the paper is available at the HSE website.
In developed economies, innovation is valued as a key driver of competitiveness and consistent economic growth. Both theoretical and empirical studies demonstrate a relationship between innovation and characteristics such as the quality of human resources, R&D spending and international activity. The authors note, however, that there has been little research into the role of CEOs, even though they are the ones who make the strategic choice to pursue innovation and who oversee its implementation.
Even less is known on how Russian CEOs differ from their Western counterparts in terms of gender, age, education, tenure and owner-manager status, and how such characteristics influence company performance, including innovation.
Certain differences are obvious: CEO-owners are common in Europe but only beginning to emerge in Russia. Studies reveal both positive and negative aspects of combining ownership and control of a company. In terms of company performance and entrepreneurial orientation, founding owners make better CEOs than their successors.
Research also confirms a correlation with age: older CEOs tend to be more conservative and risk-averse, while younger ones' recent degrees and technical skills make them more open to cutting-edge, innovative concepts.
On the other hand, older CEOs often benefit from longstanding social and political connections with partner companies, banks, business associations, and government. A study conducted in 2014 of more than 15,000 S&P-rated firms demonstrates that well-connected CEOs tend to invest more in R&D and to encourage patentable innovations.
According to the authors of the HSE study, in transitional economies, the effects of CEO characteristics on innovation may be different. Older executives may in fact be at an advantage. Many of them managed state-owned enterprises in Soviet times, which they later acquired as part of the post-Soviet privatisation and led all the way to success in a new market economy, often by being flexible and open to innovation.
Similarly, a CEO's gender may have a different effect on innovation-related performance in Russia and in Europe due to several factors. OECD ranking places Russia among the top countries by the share of women with complete secondary and tertiary education. Traditionally, Russia has a high proportion of female students in construction and engineering. During the Soviet era, women faced less discrimination in the labour market, and by the late 1980s, nearly 90% of working-age women were employed outside of the home.
In Eastern Europe, including Russia, 36% of senior corporate roles are held by women. In Russia, the proportion is even higher at 41%, while in the EU it stands at 27%, according to a Grant Thornton study.
In the USSR, senior roles reserved for women often included 'not-so-prestigious' positions in planning and finance; this expertise became highly relevant and valued in the 1990s, helping these women’s advancement to СEOs.
The proportion of women among senior executives in small and medium-sized companies in Russia increased from 24.2% in 1994 to 45.06% in 2002.
The new study used two databases: EU-EFIGE/Bruegel-UniCredit containing data on more than 14,000 manufacturing firms in seven European economies (Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain, and the UK), and RUFIGE from HSE's Russian Firms in the Global Economy project with data on 2000 manufacturing firms in Russia.
The data for European countries was collected in 2010, covering the three-year period from 2007 to 2009, and the data for Russia was collected in 2014, also covering three years between 2011 and 2013.
Econometric models were constructed that captured both product and process innovation. Companies which pursued these types of innovation represented 30% and 28% respectively of all firms surveyed in Russia and Europe.
Product innovation refers to changing an existing product or creating a new (for the company but not necessarily for the market) one. Process innovation refers to changes in the process of production, including the adoption of a new (for the company) process.
Being a CEO-owner was found to be positively associated with innovation both in Russia and in Europe, with the strongest association for product and process innovation in SMEs and traditional industries.
The authors also note that in Russia, CEO-owners are better at dealing with an unfavourable business environment; SMEs led by their owners tend to be more successful in process innovation, while larger companies with CEO-owners focus more on product innovation.
The study confirmed the original assumption concerning age: while European companies run by older CEOs were found to be less active in product innovation, no such effect was observed in Russia. However, the hypothesis that older managers in Russia would perform significantly better in terms of innovation due to connections and self-selection was not confirmed for the manufacturing industry, larger firms or SMEs.
The original assumptions concerning the effect of gender were also confirmed. While in Europe, women-led companies tend to be less innovative, female CEOs in Russia innovate as much as men and even outperform their male counterparts in this respect in traditional industries.
The study’s findings question some of the myths concerning age- and gender-based discrimination in the labour market. Russia’s distinctive path of economic development over the past 30 years appears to be reflected in how CEO characteristics such as age and gender impact company performance. The assumption that women, due to their lower appetite for risk, are less likely to innovate being CEOs, may be true for European countries, but not for Russia.
Similarly, older age is not an obstacle to innovation for Russian CEOs. Both in Europe and in Russia, a CEO who owns the company or belongs to the owner's family is more likely to foster innovation (mainly product innovation in Europe and process innovation in Russia).