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By Raina Brands and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo
Although women make up 40% of the global workforce, they hold only 24% of senior management roles around the world — a figure that has not changed significantly over the past decade. Of chief executive officers of S&P 500 firms, only about 5% are women. Why aren’t more talented women moving up? Researchers have pointed to an array of reasons, from explicit discrimination to promotion processes that quietly favor men, but one of the most perplexing is that women themselves aren’t as likely as men to put themselves forward for leadership roles through promotions, job transfers, and high-profile assignments.
Women begin their careers with ambitions that are just as high as their male peers, but before long they scale back their goals and shy away from competing for these jobs. The reason, many assume, is because women are risk averse or lack confidence, or maybe because they have different career preferences than their male colleagues do. But our research suggests another reason.
We recently conducted a study of more than 10,000 senior executives who were competing for top management jobs in the UK. We found that women were indeed less likely than men to apply for these jobs, but here’s the interesting part: We found that women were much less likely to apply for a job if they had been rejected for a similar job in the past. Of course, men were also less likely to apply if they had been rejected, but the effect was much stronger for women — more than 1.5 times as strong.
The implications here are not trivial, because rejection is a routine part of corporate life. Employees regularly get rejected for promotions, job transfers, important project assignments, and so on. To reach the top of the organization, people need to keep playing the game, over and over again, even after repeated disappointments. So even small differences between how men and women respond to rejection could lead to big differences over time.
To investigate this effect further, we interviewed top women executives about their experiences in recruitment processes and found a common complaint: dissatisfaction and frustration with how those processes were managed. For example, the CFO of a biotech company recalled that she had been considered for a CEO position. After failing to get the job after many rounds of interviews, she had been left with the impression that she was asked to apply merely because she was female and the firm needed a woman on the shortlist — not because the company was serious about hiring her. This may or may not have been true, but that’s the impression she had, and as a result she said she would be unlikely to put herself through a similar process in the future.
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