Why Are Fewer Women Applying For Executive Jobs?

by Georgina Lawton

By now, it's common knowledge there aren't enough women in executive-level positions; what's more, although some companies might make token diversity efforts, they often end up just that — token. And now recent news that fewer women apply for executive-level positions than men do has come to light, it may seem as if the odds are perpetually stacked against us. The research offers some interesting insight into why fewer women apply for jobs. too; apparently it has to do with how women handle rejection — but it's not as simple as just that. None of this is happening in a vacuum; it's happening in a patriarchal society. And that might be the key to combatting the problem of too few women in our boardrooms and in leadership positions.

When applying for jobs, people of all genders have to deal with those unsightly "after careful consideration..." letters on a regular basis, and no, it's not fun for anyone. (However, another study into gender-blind job applications shows that women are more likely to receive a call-back when they only use their initials to apply for positions, so we know it's initially harder for us to even get our foot in the door, too.) But this recent research out of Johnson Cornell University, which examined data on over 10,000 real-life executives obtained from a UK recruitment firm, found that women are less likely than men to apply for top-level roles — if they had been rejected from a similar job, or a job in the same company.

Interesting, no?

The researchers termed it the "lean-out effect": The phenomenon where women are less likely than men to apply for an executive job if they had been rejected from a similar role in the past, or to re-apply to a firm that had rejected them previously. It's worth noting, as Forbes reports, that male applicants were also less likely to re-apply if they had suffered a rejection from the same firm; however, the effect was 1.5 times stronger in women, which isn't insignificant.

But again, remember that this isn't happening in a vacuum. It's not that men are inherently better able to handle rejection, or that women are inherently more sensitive; as Forbes notes, the reasons women are more anxious than men when it comes to applying or re-applying for these roles are complex. Part of it is undoubtedly that women are socialized to accept that inequality as part and parcel of simply being a woman. Past and numerous experiences with rejection and gender inequality contribute to the development of a cautious attitude later on in life, including in the workplace. "It reinforces the notion that the odds are stacked against women, especially when it comes to senior positions. A man, on the other hand, certainly wouldn’t interpret a rejection as a signal that men generally aren’t seen as qualified for a senior position," Forbes notes.

This is conjecture on my part, but I also suspect that the perceived "confidence gap" between men and women might be contributing to this phenomenon as well. A 2015 study found that men in 48 countries had higher self-esteem than women; what's more, other research has proved that women fail to apply for jobs unless they feel 100 percent qualified, whereas men are more likely to adopt a chance-it-and-see attitude. Research has also shown that women undervalue themselves when working with men — and imposter syndrome remains an issue for many women in the workplace, suggesting a good deal of us feel we have to prove ourselves in ways that men simply do not.

Indeed, living within a patriarchal society means that many of us hold implicit biases and beliefs about how women innately behave and act, often without even knowing it. One 2008 study, for example, found that displays of emotion at work are perceived differently depending on whether they were shown by a man or woman: Anger is nearly always seen as positive in men, but of course it's typically viewed unfavorably in women.

And then of course, there's the intense scrutiny women are placed under: If they are the only woman in the workplace, if they have kids and return to work "too soon" or "not soon enough," if they opt to become the main breadwinner, if they wear "too much" makeup... the list goes on. Not to mention the fact that the not only does a gender pay gap exist, but that it's showing no sign of going anywhere; the American Association of University Women reported last year that the pay gap has barely moved in the past decade, while the the National Committee on Pay Equity notes rather depressingly that the pay gap only closed two points between 2004 and 2014 — from 76.6 percent to 78.6 percent. Wow.

There are, clearly, a lot of factors contributing to the difference in how men and women deal with rejection at work, and how their job application strategies differ as a result. Of course, leaning in can help — but so can a paradigm shift in our entire culture that ensures that women are not only treated equally in the workplace, but also that they don't become victims of sexism once they finally get their foot through the door.

I'll be honest: I'm not holding my breath. But maybe — maybe — one day, we'll get there. Because we're better than this. Right? Right.