Here’s how two people described their experiences of applying for top positions and failing to get them. The first is a senior partner in a consulting firm. “You’re not going to win every competition, but it’s about treating you with respect and dignity, making you feel you’re appreciated as a senior leader within the industry,” he said. “When that does not happen, it doesn’t leave a good taste in your mouth.”
The second said, “Life’s too short to repeat unpleasant experiences. I just wouldn’t waste time with [an executive search consultant] who is poor at human relationships and human interactions.”
No-one likes being rejected. But it’s what happens next that interested Raina Brands, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, Adecco Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship. Specifically, they set out to explore whether men and women might be reacting differently to rejection and whether that might go some way to explaining why fewer women end up in coveted leadership roles.
Dr Brands and Dr Fernandez-Mateo carried out a study of 10,000 senior executives who were competing for high-level managerial posts in the UK, focusing specifically on how willing individuals are to consider another role with a firm that previously rejected them.
Gender equality used to be seen as a women’s issue. Now it’s regarded as an economic one. A recent McKinsey Global Institute report stated that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. If current trends continue, however, according to Accenture, the gender pay gap in western markets won’t close until 2168. Yes, you did read that right.
A large part of the pay gap is due to women working in different jobs from men, and particularly due to their not reaching the highest rungs of the corporate ladder. Do women want less for themselves? Or does something happen between the start of a woman’s career – when her ambitions are just as high as those of her male counterparts – and the point where, all too often, she doesn’t even apply for that top job? That’s a wasted opportunity – both for her as an individual and for the company that missed out on her leadership. What’s going on here?
Why are women less likely to put themselves forward for leadership roles?
Park for a moment the explicit discrimination that hasn’t completely died out and the promotion processes that may subtly favour men. More puzzling, according to our two LBS experts, is the fact that women are less likely than men to put themselves forward for leadership roles – the promotions, job transfers and high-profile assignments that accumulate to get a person to the top.
Their findings throw new light on a thorny issue. “Women don’t scale back their goals and shy away from competing for the top jobs because, as has often been assumed, they are risk-averse or lacking in confidence,” explains Dr Brands. “Nor is it that they want different things out of a career from men. What we found was that women were less likely to apply for these jobs if they had previously been rejected for a similar job.” Men were also less likely to reapply following rejection, but crucially, the effect was more than 1.5 times as strong in women.
This may not sound like a huge disparity until you consider that rejection is routine in corporate life. Any executive is frequently rejected for promotions, transfers and important assignments, Dr Brands points out. “For anyone to get to a top-level job, they need to keep playing the game. This inevitably means they’ll experience a series of disappointments. So differences in how men and women respond to rejection that might be small, viewed individually, could add up cumulatively over time to a significant difference.
“Executive selection processes are sequential in nature, so rejection-driven differences in how willing women are to compete in any given round affects the proportion of women available in subsequent selection rounds. It’s not hard to see how, over time, this could contribute to gender inequality.”
When Dr Brands and Dr Fernandez-Mateo spoke to women about their recruitment experiences, they found a common theme: dissatisfaction and frustration with how the recruitment processes were handled. Experimental data confirmed their suspicion: female managers didn’t drop out because they were risk-averse or because their confidence had taken a knock. It wasn’t that they couldn’t handle rejection. What put them off was that they perceived unfairness in the process. They withdrew from the race because their experience of the recruitment process led them to believe that this wasn’t an organisation that would value them in a highest-level role.
It seems women place more emphasis than men on fairness in recruitment and selection. If you think the process has been fair, you’re more likely to try again – even if you didn’t get that particular role: you feel the company would be prepared to hire someone like you. At the C-suite level, women still have to fight harder to be perceived as legitimate leaders. They are a negatively stereotyped minority. Men have rarely been subject to negative stereotypes about leadership and they are therefore less likely to take rejection as a signal that they don’t belong. No wonder men are more willing to apply again.
Writing in Administrative Science Quarterly, Dr Brands and Dr Fernandez-Mateo conclude that, “recommendations advising that women ‘lean in’ to executive leadership may miss the mark.” Such advice assumes that women make their choices simply on the basis of what they think they might achieve by taking a particular action in the future. “In contrast, our work calls attention to women’s past experiences with gender inequality as a determinant of their decision to lean out.”
How to attract women to the C-suite
So what should companies that really do want women at the highest levels of their organisation take away from all of this? First, stresses Dr Brands, they need to understand that when women “lean out” they aren’t necessarily rejecting the role itself. Their behaviour may have more to do with what they’ve concluded from their previous experiences.
What can companies do, then, to attract women to apply for the most senior positions? The researchers identify three areas worth looking at if there is to be any real improvement any time soon.
1. Don’t assume that your recruitment processes appear fair to interview candidates. Do you have the right procedures in place to manage rejection?
Do you provide useful feedback? What signals do you send to both men and women whom you reject?
2. Don’t overlook underrepresented groups. Do you engender a real sense of belonging in your organisation?
3. Don’t just invite more women to throw their hat into the ring. That by itself won’t address the underlying issue. In fact, it could backfire if it means your company ends up rejecting more women.
None of this is going to be solved overnight. But any company wanting to genuinely benefit from diversity at every level needs to ask itself some hard questions.