Negotiation Research You Can Use: When women “lean out” of leadership roles

By on / Leadership Skills

Women are underrepresented in leadership roles in the workplace, holding only about 16% of executive positions in Fortune 500 companies. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and others have urged women to “lean in” by competing for high-level managerial jobs and negotiating for better pay and greater responsibility. Yet substantial evidence shows that many women who try to lean in face biased hiring and promotion processes that favor men. In new research, London Business School professors Raina A. Brands and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo show that women’s perceptions of being unfairly rejected create a vicious cycle that perpetuates their underrepresentation in top management.

Perceptions of unfair treatment

Brands and Fernandez-Mateo theorized that men and women may respond differently to being rejected for a leadership position with a firm. Women may be more likely than men to perceive that they were rejected unjustly due to a prevailing sense that they do not belong in the ranks of upper management. Consequently, women may be less likely than men to apply for other jobs with firms that reject them. This trend could perpetuate the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles.

The researchers confirmed their theory in three experiments. First, in a field study using hiring data from a U.K.-based executive search firm, they found evidence that women are less willing than men to consider a job opportunity with a firm that rejected them in the past.

In a second experiment, the researchers surveyed high-earning U.S. residents who had been rejected for a job in the past three years. The participants were asked to describe the rejection in detail and then to imagine that the same firm approached them about applying for another job appropriate for their career level. Women were more likely than men to report that the firm had treated them unfairly and were less willing than men to apply for a job with the same firm.

In a third experiment, the researchers asked executives to read a scenario describing someone of their gender being rejected for an executive position. Female participants were more likely to believe that the person they read about had been treated unfairly and would feel a lack of belonging in the executive community; women, relative to men, also said they’d be less likely to apply for a job with the same firm in the future.

If, at first, you don’t succeed…

For women, the findings can be taken as a challenge to “try, try again” with a firm after a rejection, as the firm’s decision making may be less biased than they perceive it to be.

At the same time, research shows that when job applicants receive feedback on their rejection, women are more likely than men to be critiqued based on their personality and style rather than their abilities and skills. Organizations may be able to attract more female candidates to leadership roles by providing all rejected applicants with more formalized, standardized feedback that focuses on qualities most pertinent to the job.

Source: “Leaning Out: How Negative Recruitment Experiences Shape Women’s Decisions to Compete for Executive Roles,” by Raina A. Brands and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo. Administrative Science Quarterly, 2017.

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