None of us likes to hear “no,” or that we don’t make the cut, or that we don’t belong. Rejection hurts. But do women internalize rejection more easily than men? Are we hard-wired to feel rejection more intensely?
If you seek answers to these questions, you’re likely to find literature-a-plenty on the subject of sexual rejection, which we know can pack a powerful punch regardless of your gender. However, generally speaking, sexual rejection does not affect your livelihood.
We can’t say the same for other sorts of rejection.
Thus my curiosity when Harvard Business Review reported that women are less likely to apply to executive positions if previously rejected. That premise had me mulling over obstacles I encountered both in my corporate career and the years since, working independently.
Crippled by “Losing”
I wondered what data backed up the article’s claim, which initially surprised me. I would have thought that women vying for top spots, having already battled their way to high-level positions, had tougher hides than the rest of us. So what’s going on? Why so susceptible to this type of “failure?”
Pop culture frequently reminds us that we all fail sometimes, and before we succeed, we may fail repeatedly. But negative emotions possess a steelier grip on the human mind than positive emotions, and negativity bias causes the psychological impacts of loss to stay with us.
Lose once? Sure, we lick our wounds then try again. Lose two or three times? We get back on that horse! But four, five, six, a dozen? We had better have enough wins to out-muscle those losses, not to mention a very vocal cheering section. Otherwise, among other things, we can kiss our confidence goodbye and find ourselves crippled by losing.
This isn’t to say that a childhood that nurtured our self-esteem won’t help, or that one lacking in self-esteem won’t compound compromised self-assurance. And this isn’t to say that rejection doesn’t also serve a purpose; we often cull our best lessons from painful defeats — precisely because they are so searing. With a bit of self-awareness (and luck), the resulting changes we make steer us in more suitable (and successful) directions.
Still, rejection remains a potent deterrent, whereas success is motivating.
And the Survey Says…
Now, for some relevant details on women in leadership, consider this from the HBR column I mention, noting the percentage of female CEOs in the US:
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.
5%. What an abysmal statistic. That women don’t put themselves forward for these positions? I see obvious reasons for that, especially in dual career families with kids. Yet I never considered the role that rejection might play — practically speaking or psychologically.
Using a recent study of more than “10,000 senior executives who were competing for top management jobs in the UK,” HBR elaborates on the impact of rejection. Certainly, men suffer from the effects of rejection as well. However:
… 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.
The article also points out the cumulative effects of this difference in persisting beyond rejection.
Are All Women Odd (Wo)man Out?
The link between confidence and performance isn’t rocket science. We get it; confidence is critical in nearly any competitive situation, from dating to job searching. But considering the woman whose “valued goal” is recognized leadership in her field, are we dealing in conditioning? In learning… and not undermined confidence that results from rejection? Is ceasing to compete where we won’t be accepted “caving” or common sense?
Highlighting a number of potentially relevant differences in rejection responses between men and women, including an expectation of fairness and a sense of belonging, the HBR article’s authors suggest that employers consider the implications of their “diversity” initiatives. In other words, to overcome gender inequality, the workplace environment as a whole is at issue. When associates feel like odd man out, or in this case, odd woman out, additional stress is inevitable, and just as inevitable — eventual impact on attitude, risk-taking, and performance.
So, if the way we handle rejection interferes with our livelihoods, wouldn’t it be helpful to understand it better? With this goal in mind, I searched for research in the area of women and rejection, and not of the sexual kind. I found relatively little on the subject, but this caught my eye: Rejection Sensitivity and Depressive Symptoms in Women (2001)*. It speaks to “rejection sensitivity” (in romantic relationships) and, in particular, the notions of loss and rejection that are associated with a “valued goal.” And that piqued my interest.
Since we typically evaluate female success by relationships — our hierarchy of marital status is one illustration of that — isn’t relationship success always a “valued goal” for women? Might we start considering career success as a valued goal and study that?
Are we lacking sufficient numbers of women going for achievement-oriented, money-making, non-support roles to address gender-based “rejection sensitivity” in these areas — and not just at the executive level?
Or are we lacking the mandate and the funding to study what’s really happening?
Gender differences in the way our brains operate? Sure, I buy it. But let’s not get carried away. Success breeding success? Disappointment as deterrent? I buy those, too. Does anything I’ve read to date lead me to think that women may, in fact, be hard-wired to feel rejection more intensely than men?
To me, the jury is still out.
That women face continuing resistance in leadership positions seems more likely. That women face continuing bias in any position other than mother or help-mate seems more likely. That our role models are few, also a factor. That family responsibilities disproportionately fall on our shoulders, yet another. That we choose not to keep beating our heads against a brick wall, equally so. That we seek other paths — our own ventures, for example — isn’t solving the root problem directly, but perhaps indirectly, it’s a significant assist.
Whether we’re talking about academia, scientific research, filmmaking, finance, government, business… Pushing for diversity in the workplace seems like an obvious but essential step toward normalizing women at the top and the middle. We are far too accustomed to the bottom, thank you very much. And women supporting each other in our various projects and causes, including funding ventures in which diversity is inclusive, likewise.
And here’s one more gem from a lifetime of knowing myself, my preoccupations, my sources of confidence — not so different from those of millions of women (and certainly those I’ve known): When we devote so much importance and energy to appearance, when we invest more money in new clothes than new skills, when we allow looksism to go unchecked — recent remarks about these female politicians come to mind — we lessen the significance of our competence. While confidence and attitude surely strengthen our capacity to battle for success, it is competence that ultimately gets the job done.
*Note: This study relied on college-age women. Hardly a representative age group, in my opinion.
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