We have by now learnt a lot about how women’s careers are held back by unfair evaluation and promotion procedures, and it gets worse at higher levels in the organization. The glass ceiling exists at some point before the executive suite, unless we are talking about the more symbolic executive offices that are seen as good women placeholders. Women know this too. A centerpiece in the discussion about women’s careers is the book “Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” by Cheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, which offers career advice for women to get ahead. Many women took the recipe-like advice as a way to behave more like men, in order to the get ahead the way men do. Others asked whether title “the Will to Lead” and its focus on women’s behaviors was a way of blaming the victims of a system set up to make them fail.
It is fair to say that the discussion of that book is a sideshow for most women with careers. They care about the hiring and promotion decisions that they are exposed to, and they doubt that these are fair. That makes sense: why should they be any different from the others? Chances are that they have been hit by unfair promotion criteria at some point in their career.
Now research by Raina Brands and Isabel Fernandez-Mateo in Administrative Science Quarterly has revealed a cruel twist on this story. In turns out that people adapt their behaviors to the fairness of the system they are in. If they are treated fairly, they will reach for opportunities. If they are given signals that they belong in a group, they seek to join it. And once you think about those two mechanisms, it is obvious what happens to women seeking executive positions. They are not treated fairly and felt to belong, and the rejections from positions that they (often) should have gained discourages them from reaching for new opportunities. After all, who plays a losing hand? Naturally this accumulates over time, because more experience means more rejections, so exactly the women best placed to become executives are most likely to think they cannot reach that level.
This is not just a story about women. Unfair treatment can hold back a group in the short run. In the longer run it creates discouragement and resentment, and the members of the group starts holding themselves back. They are leaning out of the unfairsystem, looking for better places to work. The labor market gets split as they avoid the career paths with unfair treatment, and organizations need to fill their positions from an increasingly narrow and less talented pool of applicants. The firm that shows through its hiring that it has a problem with female, black, Muslim, and Hispanic job applicants will learn the long-term consequences of narrow hiring.
Brands, R. A., & Fernandez-Mateo, I. 2016. Leaning Out: How Negative Recruitment Experiences Shape Women’s Decisions to Compete for Executive Roles. Administrative Science Quarterly: forthcoming.