Male and Female Executives Differ in Their Reactions to Rejection, Study Says

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 21, 2017

Women are less likely than men to apply for a senior position with a company that has rejected them in the past, according to a study of more than 10,000 senior executives in the United Kingdom.

That's because women are more likely than men to think that they didn't land the position because they weren't a good fit and that the search or hiring firm treated them unfairly, according to research by Raina A. Brands and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo, professors at the London Business School.

"Women place more weight on how fairly they were treated than men when deciding whether to apply again," Brands told SHRM Online in an e-mail interview. 

Their research for the paper, "Leaning Out: How Negative Recruitment Experiences Shape Women's Decisions to Compete for Executive Roles," published September 2016 in Administrative Science Quarterly, consisted of:

  • A field study using records of a U.K.-based executive search firm working with job candidates who applied for positions between 2005 and 2009.

  • A survey of 45 men and 54 women about their experiences with recruitment rejections. Respondents were employed full time and earned more than $150,000 in executive roles, with an average age of 45. They were asked to describe their most recent experience of being rejected after having advanced beyond the application stage and having had some contact with the prospective employer.

  • An experiment with 65 men and 63 women employed in senior executive roles. The average age of participants was 39.

Women are underrepresented on all rungs of the corporate ladder, making up roughly 20 percent of executives, according to Mercer's 2016 When Women Thrive report that SHRM Online reported on in October 2016. Those findings were based on data from 42 countries. Women's representation in the corporate world declines precipitously as career levels rise, Mercer found.

And Catalyst Inc., a nonprofit organization specializing in diversity, has data showing that less than 5 percent of women are CEOs and less than 20 percent sit on the boards of S&P 500 companies. The data from Catalyst's Pyramid: Women in S&P 500 Companies, reflects findings from leading U.S. companies.

"Women are underrepresented and negatively stereotyped in leadership," Brands pointed out. "Our data show that this means women are sensitive to signals that they may be similarly devalued by prospective employers."

A Question of Belonging

While men's sense of belonging is not typically affected by a search firm's or employer's rejection, a prior rejection make women question whether an organization will accept them as a leader, Brands and Fernandez-Mateo noted in their report.

Everyone cares about belonging, but perceptions of being fairly treated are likely to be more relevant for people who are members of groups "that are negatively stereotyped in an academic or professional domain," the researchers noted in their paper.

"It makes sense," Brands said, "that a woman would not pursue positions in organizations where she has questions about the extent to which she would be valued and accepted as a leader."

It's impossible to list all the ways selection or recruiting might be seen as unfair, but Brands cited examples such as having the interview cut short or having some interviewers on a panel not make themselves available to certain candidates.

One female executive with an IT background who wanted to work in a non-IT role was told she was overqualified and should showcase her talents elsewhere.

"I felt discriminated against because, although I had the experience and was well-qualified and the best candidate, I was older and 'overqualified,' " the woman told the London researchers.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Recruiting Internally and Externally

Perception of Fair Treatment

Women's negative experiences with executive search firms have repercussions for organizations looking to put more women in leadership roles. 

While most senior managers have been considered and rejected during internal and external recruitment processes for reasons that range from skills gaps to lack of cultural fit to personality clashes, for women there is also the suspicion that they were rejected on the basis of gender, according to the report.

"[This] triggers uncertainty about the extent to which they belong in executive realms," whether it's a firm to which they just applied, a past employer or professional association, the report noted. The percentage of female candidates drops quickly after a few rounds of the selection process, and women are less likely to reapply to an organization that did not hire them for a past role. 

"It's not that [the women] 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 wrote in a 2017 article for Harvard Business Review

That can mean the number of women applicants "will gradually but continuously decline, as will the number of women hired for senior roles"—contributing to the underrepresentation of women in organizations' upper echelons, the report said.

However, women in this study were likely to reapply to an organization after being rejected if they thought they had been treated fairly the first time, Brands said. 

She offered the following advice for organizations looking to include more women in their upper ranks:

  • Follow practices that contribute to increased representation of women at the executive level. For example, actively recruit qualified female applicants instead of relying on candidates to apply for those positions.

  • Provide appropriate feedback to candidates who have been rejected to help them make sense of the organization's decision. There is evidence, according to Brands, that women may receive different types of feedback than men—they may be more likely to receive comments about personality or style, for instance, rather than skills and abilities.

  • Formalize the feedback given in the selection process so the proper procedures are in place to manage how rejection is delivered to all candidates during the recruitment and promotion process.

  • Standardize selection procedures and be transparent about the procedures with candidates. For example, explain how and why various procedures are applied. 

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