At last, an explanation for why women continue to progress more slowly at work — women volunteer for tasks that don’t lead to promotions.
Research conducted by economists Babcock, Recalde, Vesterlund & Weingart, confirms that women are disproportionately saddled with ‘non-promotable’ work that has little visibility or impact.
Although neither men nor women really want to volunteer for thankless tasks, women do volunteer more, are asked to volunteer more, and accept requests to volunteer more than men. This is due to a shared expectation that women will volunteer more than men and not due to gender differences.
In fact women received 44 percent more requests to volunteer than men in mixed-sex groups. A request to volunteer was accepted by women 76 percent of the time, versus men who accepted 51 percent of the time.
Based on my experience in running a number of industry associations and committees this research finding rings true. As a general rule it’s the women who volunteer to do things. I could always count on the women who are prepared, organised and actually complete tasks. Generally (don’t hate me for saying this) the men talk more, and do less — of course there are exceptions. When men do help, they are more likely to do so in public, while women help more behind the scenes, such as assisting and mentoring others[i].
Who does the ‘office housework”?
Think about who manages the office ‘housework”, like organising social functions and team meetings, or take minutes in your workplace? It’s most likely a woman. While they don’t require much skill these ‘non-promotable’ tasks contribute to the social cohesion and help out colleagues but because they’re not tied to revenue or KPIs, they are not recognised in performance evaluations or lead to career advancement.
That’s not true for men, according to an earlier study by psychologist Madeline Heilman, where men were rated 14 percent more favourably than a women for staying late and helping colleagues prepare for an important meeting. When both declined, a woman was rated 12 percent lower than a man. So men are significantly more likely to be recommended for promotions, important projects, raises and bonuses because they help. But not women.
What’s even more concerning is the productivity impact of doing non-promotable tasks. According to the research, when women do more of the volunteer tasks, they are seen as less productive as they have less time to spend on their real work. Management may feel justified in the name of efficiency to keep allocating less-promotable tasks to the seemingly ‘less-productive’ women. In addition, those tasks may generate lower job satisfaction and in turn reduce women’s investment in her job.
Sharing the load
So what can women do? The research suggests that management could counteract the unfair load on women, by allocating assignments equally to both male and female employees. Organisations could encourage men to volunteer more themselves, and to empower women to demand fairer treatment and to show their full potential and talent.
Worryingly, the researchers recommend that women do not say No directly to doing volunteer tasks according to Heilman [ii]. However another way for women to say No to unreasonable requests would be to emphasise the impact on the whole team, and position her No as protecting others[iii].
Better still, women could be more active with their careers, by hunting out promotable tasks that contribute to revenue generation or reducing costs, take on higher profile projects and committees, and work on their personal brand.
[i] Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg, article in the New York Times: “Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee”, February 6 2015.
[ii] Heilman, M. E., & Chen, J. J. (2005). Same Behavior, Different Consequences: Reactions to Men’s and Women’s Altruistic Citizenship Behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(3), 431–441.
[iii] Adam Grant, (2013) Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success., New York: Viking