I loathe admitting this, but we've all seen this: Women take criticism much harder than men. Rather than bouncing back from a job rejection or less than stellar review, women are more apt to lick their wounds and think twice about placing themselves in the firing line.
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 School of Economics, 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 over 10,000 senior executives competing for management jobs in the U.K., finds that women took themselves out of running 1.5 times more than men who had been rejected.
It's not shocking that women take rejection so hard since there's ample evidence that women are so hard on themselves. Indeed, a 2014 Hewlett Packard report finds that women won't apply for a job unless they think they are 100 percent qualified, whereas men will gun for it when they meet only 60 percent of the criteria. Arguably, it's this cult of perfectionism that stokes women's fear of failure while eroding their confidence.
But here's the twist in the LSE study: Women aren't lacking in self-confidence; rather, they're not confident about the system. Write the authors:
It’s not that they didn’t think they were good enough; 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. Often that feeling was a result of the way hiring and promotion processes were being managed (or mismanaged), sending 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 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 too. "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 Kapolowitz, a former big firm lawyer. If women "perceive the system to be unfair, they don’t want to compete."
But getting women to stick it out go beyond this fairness issue, says Martin. She says firms need to face the fact that "women, more than men, need recognition and affirmation to stoke ambition." At most firms, though, says Martin, women (and men) don't get much encouragement beyond the annual review. And that kind of feedback occurs too little, too late. "The only time they knew they had a future at the firm was when they were ready to leave," says Martin, adding, "that's what happened to me," alluding to her own decision to leave Fried Frank as a senior associate.
Firms need to do more to get women to stay, but women also need to be more resilient, says Kaplowitz: "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. It was just a 2000 step process."
As anyone who's been around the block knows, it's not always the brightest light bulb who gets to the top job. More often than not, it's the one who stubbornly keeps going who prevails. All you have to do is look at the guys at the top.