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Women who have faced rejection are less likely to apply for executive roles, study finds

February 8, 2017

Women occupy just 24 percent of senior management roles in the United States, a meager proportion that has not grown at all since 2007. Studies have found that women don’t put themselves forward for top positions as frequently as men — and a new paper published in Administrative Science Quarterly suggests why that might be the case.

The study surveyed 10,000 female executives in the U.K., Raina Brands and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, co-authors of the paper, explain in the Harvard Business Review. Researchers found that these executives were less likely than men to compete for management positions — not because they lacked confidence, but because they had previously been rejected from similar jobs. Men were also less likely to apply for top jobs after they had experienced rejection, but the effect was “1.5 times as strong” among women.

This reaction, Brands and Fernandez-Mateo write, should not be dismissed as simply a defeated response to failure. Women executives who participated in the study repeatedly expressed the impression that they were asked to apply to top management positions because their firms wanted more women in the candidate pools, and not because their companies had any serious intention of hiring them.

“It’s not that they didn’t think they were good enough; they were withdrawing from the corporate race because of concerns that they would not be valued or truly accepted at the highest levels in the organization,” Brands and Fernandez-Mateo explain. “Often that feeling was a result of the way hiring and promotion processes were being managed (or mismanaged), sending women subtle (and sometimes overt) signals that the highest rungs of the corporate ladder were intended only for men.”

To combat this problem, the study’s authors recommend that companies scale back on encouraging women to apply for positions, simply for the sake of having more women on the shortlist for a given job. “In fact, issuing blanket encouragements to women to apply for leadership positions could even backfire if it means the company ends up rejecting more women,” they write.

Assessing recruitment policies to ensure that candidates are given respectful and constructive feedback can also help female employees feel as though a hiring process is more equitable. But to truly dismantle workplace cultures that prompt women to feel underappreciated and marginalized, Brands and Fernandez-Mateo argue that companies “need to look beyond recruitment and promotion and ask themselves whether they foster a sense of belonging and how they can ensure that underrepresented groups don’t feel overlooked or slighted.”

Read the full story at Harvard Business Review.


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