Joe Comprix, professor of accounting and chair of the Joseph I. Lubin School of Accounting, and two colleagues—Kerstin Lopatta, chair of accounting, auditing, and sustainability at the University of Hamburg, and Sebastian Tideman, assistant professor of accounting—decided to investigate this question after noticing certain patterns in transcripts in the heavily male-dominated setting (about 95 percent of CEOs and 90 percent of analysts are men). They lay out the results in their forthcoming article, “The role of gender in the aggressive questioning of CEOs during earnings conference calls,” in The Accounting Review.
The researchers homed in on differences between male and female questioners’ verbal aggressiveness, a measure of how challenging questions are. For example, follow-up or negative questions may come across as more forceful, while a preface statement might create additional pressure as it frees the questioner from the prior context. “The concept of verbal aggressiveness is used in other research fields such as political science, for example, for presidential press conferences,” Comprix explained. “There are some similarities to our research setting, namely earnings conference calls, with both having highly accomplished people, high pressure, and real consequences—so that’s where we picked up the theory.”
The co-authors also drew on research on gender differences in communication, some of which can be explained by how people are raised. “We weren’t sure if we would find the same kinds of behaviors in our setting that we might see in a general setting like a classroom,” Comprix said. “It’s not your average person who wants to go into that kind of high-pressure situation.”
Reviewing 144,000 analyst firm-quarter observations in earnings conference call transcripts of U.S. companies from 2005 to 2018, Comprix and his colleagues found that there were indeed differences in how male and female analysts posed questions. Male analysts not only displayed more verbal aggressiveness overall, but they directed it more strongly towards female than male CEOs.
These disparities have real consequences. Female analysts who ask questions in a more aggressive manner were more likely to have been voted to Institutional Investor’s All-America Research Team. “It’s like a popularity poll and a big deal for analysts,” Comprix said. Male analysts who were more verbally aggressive, on the other hand, were not more likely to have been named All-Star Analysts.
Anyone evaluating sell-side analysts may want to keep these differences between male and female communication styles in mind, as they can affect perceptions of analysts’ performance, the researchers advise. “The things that we learned as kids show up for the rest of our lives,” Comprix said. “Even in places where there’s so much competition that you think it might not happen, it’s still something we have to know about.”
Comprix, J., Lopatta, K. and Tideman, S.A. (2022). The role of gender in the aggressive questioning of CEOs during earnings conference calls, The Accounting Review, forthcoming.