Women raise their hands more often than men for ‘non-promotable’ tasks that won’t advance their careers, according to recent research.
Women are going the extra mile — with no medal in sight.
Women raise their hands for “non-promotable” work tasks that help the company but won’t necessarily advance their careers — e.g., so-called office “housework” like party-planning, low-skill but routine tasks, or sitting on low-ranking committees — more often than men, according to research recently highlighted in the Harvard Business Review. Women are asked to shoulder these burdens more often, the study found — and they’re more likely to agree when asked.
In their study, authors Linda Babcock, Maria Recalde, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart examined “the allocation of a task that everyone prefers be completed by someone else.” Women were 48% more likely to volunteer than men, according to their report. In coed groups, women received 44% more requests than men to volunteer for these tasks, regardless of the manager’s gender. And while men accepted the request to volunteer 51% of the time, women said yes 76% of the time.
“Beliefs that women, more than men, say yes to tasks with low promotability appear as an important driver of these differences,” they wrote. “If women hold tasks that are less promotable than those held by men, then women will progress more slowly in organizations.”
What’s more, women of all races perform more office housework, and women of all races and men of color receive less access to “glamour work” that can lead to a promotion, according to recent research co-authored by Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law and founding director of the school’s Center for WorkLife Law. And due to “prescriptive stereotypes” around how people think a group should behave, she explained, they receive social pressure to sign onto these tasks — and risk being perceived negatively if they say no.
Williams divides this work into four categories: literal housework, like planning parties; administrative work, like finding times and rooms for people to meet; “emotion work,” like consoling an upset colleague; and “undervalued work” that’s important, but not the glamorous stuff that gets you noticed. And these invisible tasks aren’t always menial, pointed out negotiation and leadership expert Deborah Kolb, author of “Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains” — they can be a flattering but time-consuming offer.
“If you’re the more junior person … you’re going to get stuck with more of the administrative work; you’re not going to get as much access to the glamour work. And that is entirely appropriate,” Williams added. “What happens is that often men and women start out doing it, and then men very soon graduate out of doing it. But the women find it extraordinarily difficult to shut it off.”
Inclusion strategist Ruchika Tulshyan, author of “The Diversity Advantage,” recounted working in a content marketing role at a tech company and being asked, alongside many other women, to set up for a conference. “The way it was positioned was, ‘Oh, it’s all hands on deck,’” she said. “But I couldn’t help noticing that all the hands on deck were women.” Men in similar or even junior roles weren’t asked or expected to do the same, she added.
And Williams recalled saying no to sitting on an admissions committee decades ago, at an institution she preferred not to name. The work would’ve been “very, very time-consuming,” she said, and the committee wasn’t very high-status. “I just realized it was a way of basically giving women the choice of either having to work twice as hard … or else not have time to (publish) and so not get tenure,” she told Moneyish. Her refusal, she added, marked the beginning of her “political problems” at that institution.
“It’s kind of damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Williams said. “If you do it, you’re going to spend your time doing things that are undervalued, and your career will not thrive. If you say no, then often you tend to be disliked and seen as someone who’s a prima donna and not a team player.”
It’s important to note that “this definitely isn’t women’s issue to solve,” Tulshyan said — rather, companies need to strategize how to ensure that women, particularly women of color, are “treated equally and equitably” with respect to the gender wage gap, promotions and even office housework. “But in that absence of that, or while we’re waiting for that to happen, I think arming women with tips probably is useful,” she added. If you find yourself saddled with these non-promotable tasks, here are some possible ways to handle it:
Set up a rotation. “If you’re asked persistently to do something, like take notes, for example … the best thing to do is to do it once, do it graciously, and then work behind the scenes to set up a rotation so that it’s passed around among people at a certain level,” Williams said.
Try a “strategic no.” If you’re getting a steady diet of undervalued work, Williams said, go out and get some of the glamour work — and then the next time you’re given “the dazzling opportunity to serve on the paper-clips committee,” you can say you’d love to help out, but you’re working with Tim on this major strategic initiative that needs your full attention. “Then suggest somebody else who might be a good match for it, because it would be a good step for them in their careers — preferably a man,” she added.
Have a “watertight refusal.” Tulshyan, reflecting on her own experience, says she could’ve responded with an argument like, “I was hired to do marketing, and setting up tables for hours on end will take away time from the job that I was actually hired to do.”
Make the housework work for you. You might choose one or two housework tasks that offer the potential to advance your career, Williams said, such as the ability to expand your network and get to know somebody higher up. For example, she said, “‘I’ll be glad to chair that committee if I can co-chair it with X’ — X being someone who could be really helpful to you if they knew your work better.”
Negotiate. Kolb recommends a “yes-and” strategy: “Yes, I’ll do it — and here’s what I need to do it.” “Think about what you want; what would it take to make you say yes; what do you need?” Kolb said. “I’m willing to do it if I can get this — and the implication is, if I can’t, I can’t do this.”
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