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CEOs as agents of change and continuity

Elisabeth K. Kelan (Essex Business School, University of Essex, Colchester, UK)
Patricia Wratil (Alliance 90/The Greens Parliamentary Group, Bundestag, Berlin, Germany)

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

ISSN: 2040-7149

Article publication date: 5 January 2021

Issue publication date: 8 June 2021




Chief executive officers (CEOs) are increasingly seen as change agents for gender equality, which means that CEOs have to lead others to achieve gender equality. Much of this leadership is going to happen through talk, which raises the question as to how CEOs talk about gender equality to act as change agents. The purpose of this paper is to understand the arguments of CEOs deploy.


Drawing on interviews with global CEOs, who have publicly supported gender equality work, the article draws on discourse analysis to understand the arguments of CEOs deploy.


The analysis shows that CEOs deploy three arguments. First, CEOs argue that women bring special skills to the workplace, which contributes to a female advantage. Second, CEOs argue that the best person for the job is hired. Third, CEOs talk about how biases and privilege permeate the workplace. The analysis shows that CEOs are often invested in essentialised views of gender while holding onto ideals of meritocracy.


The article suggests that how leaders talk about gender equality leads to continuity, rather than change in regard to gender equality.



The authors would like to thank Dr Helena Liu and the anonymous reviewers for their guidance in developing the article. The research has been supported by the Innovation Fund of the Department of Management at King's College London, the Women's Empowerment Principles, a joint initiative of UN Women and the UN Global Compact, and KPMG. The writing of the article was facilitated by Elisabeth K. Kelan's British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship [MD130085]. The final revision was supported by Elisabeth K. Kelan's Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship [MRF-2019-069]. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this paper are those of the authors. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance 90/The Greens Parliamentary Group in the Bundestag. Due to the ethically sensitive nature of the research, no participants consented to their data being retained or shared.


Kelan, E.K. and Wratil, P. (2021), "CEOs as agents of change and continuity", Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 40 No. 5, pp. 493-509.



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