I loathe admitting this, but it’s true: Women take rejection harder than men. Rather than bouncing back from a botched job interview or a less-than-stellar review, women are more apt to lick their wounds and think twice about placing themselves in the firing line next time.
That reaction is one reason women are underrepresented at the top, according to a recent study. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Raina Brands and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo of London Business School report that women are less likely to apply for a job if they had been rejected for a similar position in the past. Their study, which involved more than 10,000 senior executives competing for management jobs in the United Kingdom, finds that women took themselves out of the running 1.5 times more than men who had been rejected.
There’s ample evidence that women can be their own harshest critics. A 2014 internal Hewlett Packard report found that women won’t apply for a job unless they think they are 100 percent qualified. Men will gun for it when they meet only 60 percent of the criteria. Arguably, it’s this perfectionism that stokes women’s fear of failure.
But here’s the twist in the LBS study: Women aren’t lacking in self-confidence; rather, they’re not confident about the system. They have a hard time recovering from rejection because they see it as a symptom of systemic unfairness. “It’s not that they didn’t think they were good enough,” Brands and Fernandez-Mateo write. “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.”
The authors add that the manner in which hiring processes were managed often sent “women subtle (and sometimes overt) signals that the highest rungs of the corporate ladder were intended only for men.”
If women are blaming the system rather than their own ability or ambition, I’d argue that it’s a healthy development. That said, the result is the same: a dearth of women in top positions.
The findings in the study hit home with women in the legal profession. “I’ve heard of plenty of examples of women getting to the final round in a high-level job interview—where they are one of two candidates left—to find that the male gets the job,” says law firm consultant Melissa McClenaghan Martin. “And if it happens more than once, they definitely start to believe they are passed over because they are a woman.”
Firms have to establish a baseline of fairness. It’s critical that “people believe that their persistence and resiliency, in the face of initial rejection, are likely to pay off,” says career coach Karen Kaplowitz, a former big-firm lawyer. If women “perceive the system to be unfair, they don’t want to compete,” she says.
But getting women to push ahead goes beyond this fairness issue, Martin says. She says firms need to face the fact that “women, more than men, need recognition and affirmation to stoke ambition.” At most firms, though, Martin says, women (and men) don’t get much encouragement beyond the annual review. For many lawyers, Martin says, “the only time they knew they had a future at the firm was when they were ready to leave.”
And yes, women also need to be more resilient, Kaplowitz says: “This study strongly supports the idea that it is important not to take rejection personally and to be able to see rejection as part of a process.” Thomas Edison, she adds, was asked how many times he failed before he invented the light bulb. “He reportedly said that he had never failed,” she says. “It was just a 2,000-step process.”
It’s not always the brightest who gets the top job. More often it’s the one who stubbornly keeps going at it.