Women Are Less Likely to Apply for Executive Roles If They’ve Been Rejected Before

Although women make up 40% of the global workforce, they hold only 24% of senior management roles around the world — a figure that has not changed significantly over the past decade. Of chief executive officers of S&P 500 firms, only about 5% are women. Why aren’t more talented women moving up? Researchers have pointed to an array of reasons, from explicit discrimination to promotion processes that quietly favor men, but one of the most perplexing is that women themselves aren’t as likely as men to put themselves forward for leadership roles through promotions, job transfers, and high-profile assignments.

Women begin their careers with ambitions that are just as high as their male peers, but before long they scale back their goals and shy away from competing for these jobs. The reason, many assume, is because women are risk averse or lack confidence, or maybe because they have different career preferences than their male colleagues do. But our research suggests another reason.

We recently conducted a study of more than 10,000 senior executives who were competing for top management jobs in the UK. We found that women were indeed less likely than men to apply for these jobs, but here’s the interesting part: We found that women were much less likely to apply for a job if they had been rejected for a similar job in the past. Of course, men were also less likely to apply if they had been rejected, but the effect was much stronger for women — more than 1.5 times as strong.

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