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Women remain significantly underrepresented in leadership positions, holding just 16% of senior executive roles in Fortune 500 companies and only 5% of CEO positions. While many explanations for this disparity center on the choices women make, considerable evidence points to employers’ practices–e.g. unconscious bias, stereotyping, and promotion barriers–as the real reason. This paper examines how employers’ recruiting practices may influence a woman’s willingness to consider roles in the same organization in the future. The research shows that women are less likely than men to consider another job at an employer who has previously rejected them–they “lean out” of competition for future jobs. This is not because they subsequently lack confidence but because–when they are in a minority status–women (or any minorities) may interpret the rejection as a sign that they do not belong.


For both men and women, rejection is an undesirable but normal part of the process of rising to the top of organizations. It is not unusual to get rejected for promotions, key assignments, or moves. Indeed, rejection is a sign that executives have put their hats in the ring.

However, for women in a minority status–rejection prompts them to consider whether they belong in the group that rejected them. They begin to wonder if their contributions would be valued in that company. In business, because individuals must apply for many positions and promotions over the course of their careers, this has significant implications for the advancement of women to senior levels because it reduces the number of applicants for key jobs. The researchers examined three sources of data: (1) an archival data set of more than 10,000 people from an executive search firm, (2) a survey, and (3) a lab experiment.

The first study used data from a UK-based executive search firm and was restricted to individuals who had considered multiple jobs through the search firm. The authors were able to determine whether an individual had been rejected by a company in the past and look at their decisions about whether they accepted an interview at the same company again. They found that women are less willing than men to consider a job opportunity if they were rejected by the firm in the past.

Women are less willing than men to consider a job opportunity if they were rejected by the firm in the past.

The authors then used a survey to look at why this rejection might reduce the likelihood that a woman would apply to the same company in the future. This survey asked a number of questions about a time when the respondent had been rejected for a job that they wanted and had interviewed for. In particular, the respondents were asked about their perception of fair or unfair treatment by the company. All of the respondents who indicated that they would not be interested in applying to the same company again signalled that this was due to unfair treatment or an unfair decision-making process. However, this perception of unfair treatment more strongly affected women’s (versus men’s) decision on whether to apply for a position in this company again.

The authors then tested the influence that this “belonging uncertainty” and “perceived procedural injustice” had on executives in an experimental setting. The participants were assigned a job applicant’s profile and told they were either accepted or rejected for the position. They were then asked a series of questions to assess how the rejection or acceptance influenced their sense of belonging or injustice.

The results indicated that for women, rejection triggers “belonging uncertainty,” priming them to perceive less fair treatment and thus making them unwilling to apply to the same firm again.

The conclusion is that firms may want to focus less on women “leaning in” and more on preventing them from “leaning out.”


  • Examine the recruitment process – While there has been increasing attention paid to gender bias in hiring practices, companies should also consider the long-term implications of an unfair recruitment process. For companies seeking to increase the number of women in executive management, their hiring practices at every level of the organization could impact their ability to attract and retain top talent at the executive level. They would do well to communicate very clearly to applicants about the process and how the decisions were made.
  • Deciphering between a “demand” problem and a “supply” problem – The gender gap at executive levels in corporations has often been attributed to individual’s behavior or preferences, resulting in the so-called “supply” or “pipeline” problem (not enough women seeking these kinds of roles). There is mounting evidence that points to a demand-side problem instead: companies are contributing to the gender disparity in executive management through their recruiting behaviors that do not signal a welcoming culture.


Leaning Out: How Negative Recruitment Experiences Shape Women’s Decisions to Compete for Executive Roles


Raina A. Brands and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo


London Business School


Administrative Science Quarterly


December 2016


Research brief prepared by

Celeste Jalbert