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What Keeps Women Out of Upper Management?

by Katie Moritz
September 22, 2017 | Work

We hear the statistics regularly: Though women make up half the world's population and nearly 40 percent of its workforce, only 24 percent of the world's senior managers are women, according to United Nations data.

Once you get into the competitive world of S&P 500 companies—the country's most powerful businesses—only 5 percent are headed up by female CEOs.

Upper Management pbs rewire

What's with the disconnect? If there are so many women in the workforce, why aren't they rising to the top?

There are lots of reasons, researchers have found, but new findings suggest women aren't putting themselves out there for leadership roles as regularly as men are.

Raina Brands and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo of the London Business School studied more than 10,000 executives competing for top jobs in the U.K. While women start their careers with goals that match their male peers', they tend to temper their expectations once they've had some time in the working world. They stop competing for high-powered jobs.

Brands and Fernandez-Mateo believe this has a lot to do with rejection.

Women are less likely to apply for an executive job if they had been rejected for a similar job in the past, the researchers found. And while this effect was true for male applicants, too, it was more than 1.5 times as strong for women.

Fairness matters

This has everything to do with how women perceive hiring practices, the researchers wrote for Harvard Business Review. They interviewed female executive candidates about their job search experiences, including this CFO of a biotech company.

"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," the researchers wrote. "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."

They heard similar stories over and over—the women they talked to were distrustful of the system. They were more likely to see rejection as a symptom of a systemic issue and an indication that they wouldn't have been a valued member of the team or seen as an equal.

They were pulling out of the running not because of a lack of confidence in themselves, but a lack of confidence in the organizations.

These findings matter "because rejection is a routine part of corporate life,"  Brands and Fernandez-Mateo wrote. "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."

Upper Management pbs rewire

The researchers also learned that women tend to place more value than men do on the fairness of the hiring process, "because fair treatment is interpreted by female managers as a signal that they belong and are accepted in the executive community."

What's causing distrust?

Subtle or not-so-subtle questioning of women's ability in the workplace and in hiring processes are to blame for women's hesitance to put themselves in the executive sphere.

This applies to any minority group whose members have had their leadership abilities regularly questioned, according to Brands and Fernandez-Mateo.

"We would expect that men would behave in the same way in contexts where they were seen as illegitimate or outsiders," they wrote.

What can workplaces do?

To overcome insidious feelings of mistrust in the hiring process, workplaces need to foster encouraging and equal work environments where underrepresented groups are made to feel that they belong. Doing that will help these folks feel supported as they move forward in their careers.

Companies should avoid simply encouraging more women to apply for top jobs, the researchers suggest. That might backfire as it could lead to more rejections and perpetuate the cycle. And it doesn't address potential underlying feelings that women aren't welcome in the upper rungs of the company.

Companies should also examine their hiring practices. Even if they are fair, do they appear to be fair? The researchers suggested asking these questions of the hiring process: "Does the company have the right procedures in place to manage rejection in recruitment and promotion processes? For example, does it give appropriate feedback to candidates who are rejected? What signals is it sending to both men and women who are rejected?"

If you don't have a say in hiring practices at your company, you can still make a difference. Brands shared a couple tips for more junior employees who want to shift workplace gender inequality:

1. "Confront bias and stereotyping in the moment when it occurs. Confronting bias reduces the likelihood it will occur again. Men who confront gender bias are particularly effective, in part because this signals that bias is something everyone in the organization cares about, rather than 'a woman issue.'"

2. "Fundamentally, belonging is feeling like you are accepted and valued within your organization. By definition, then, belonging is about the quality of your relationships within a workplace. Sense of belonging is conferred via informal relationships, such as friendship or advice giving and receiving. Often, however, women are excluded from these informal networks because we tend to prefer relationships with those who are similar to us (i.e., birds of a feather flock together). Individuals who wish to foster a culture of inclusion should form ties with individuals who are different to them in terms of gender, race, age, etc."

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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