Stop Volunteering For Thankless Tasks At Work If You're A Woman

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Psst, women reading this: Have you ever suspected that you, and other female co-workers, end up doing a lot of thankless, annoying tasks around the office because no one else will? Well, you do, and you should stop.

Anecdotal evidence has fuelled my suspicion that women get saddled with boring work they’ll get no credit for, but now there’s an actual study from researchers Linda Babcock, Maria P. Recalde, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart, shared in the Harvard Business Review. The study explored how men and women accepted or volunteered for jobs with “low promotability”.

The simple definition of low promotability is any piece of work that won’t generate anything for you, but which still needs to be done by someone. Tasks such as organising the office holiday party, agreeing to train new employees, or helping to clean out the supply closet.

There’s obviously a wide array of what these sorts of things could be depending on your industry, but basically anything that improves your work environment without necessarily leading to more money or a better work review.

The researchers devised a test, in which groups of three were offered the option to “volunteer” on a computer screen by clicking a button within a limited time frame. If no one clicked, each group member would receive a dollar. If someone did, the volunteer got $1.25, and the other group members got $2.

Guess who always volunteered?

While 84% of groups succeeded in finding a volunteer, it typically did not happen until the final seconds of the 2-minute round. Importantly, the rate of volunteering was not the same for men and women. Averaging across the 10 rounds, we found that women were 48% more likely to volunteer than men, and we saw this difference in every one of the 10 rounds.

What’s interesting is that in further tests, the scientists did not find that women were somehow more altruistic; this act of stepping up to volunteer only happened in mixed-gender groups, as though the woman thought, “Ugh, these dudes aren’t gonna do it.” When paired with other women, the ladies were no more likely to volunteer than the men.

The Problem With That

Constantly offering to do stuff that doesn’t actually benefit your career can tank it.

The researchers referenced another study that laid out how different promotion trajectories are for men and women. It cites a 2017 census of Fortune 500 companies which found that women hold only 19.9 per cent of corporate board seats and make up only 5.8 per cent of CEO positions within those companies. This is just in the corporate sector.

There are a lot of reasons for this (coughsexismcough), but getting their time wasted is definitely one of them!

And yes, this post is titled with a direct suggestion to women to Just. Stop. Volunteering. But it’s a deeply embedded cultural problem that women are simply expected to do so. Without some mutual awareness, a woman who refuses to volunteer could easily be seen as difficult to work with or face other repercussions.

The study also tested managers to see who they chose as “volunteers”, and if you’re guessing women, you’re right.

Again, the motivation was money. Managers were shown photos of potential volunteers. If they asked one of them to volunteer via the click of a button, and they accepted, everyone got more money, except the volunteer:

Women received 44% more requests to volunteer than men in mixed-sex groups. Intriguingly, the gender of the manager did not make a difference: Both male and female managers were more likely to ask a woman to volunteer than a man. This was apparently a wise decision: Women were also more likely to say yes. A request to volunteer was accepted by men 51% of the time and by women 76% of the time.

People in charge are leaning into this bias, and making it harder for women to refuse this track to nowhere. Both male and female managers had the same tendencies when selecting their volunteers — it’s something we all have to work on.

The Solution

One option offered by our researchers is for managers to rotate these sorts of tasks. Never organised a birthday party in the office kitchen before? Congrats — you’re gonna learn today. In the end, companies benefit, because it allows people who would otherwise be the go-to volunteers the time to develop their actual skill set.

But it’s also important to self-regulate. If you’re a man who never volunteers, think about why, and push yourself to do it more. Step up when it comes to things such as organising, collecting money for events, and following up on details.

And if it feels like a drag and as though you aren’t getting any credit, well, welcome to the club.


Comments

    Whenever there was a birthday party in the office, it was the women who organised it. Why? Because it was the women WHO WANTED THE PARTY. Men actually go to work to, surprise, work for the company. Not sit around socialising and organising birthdays, morning teas, cup-of-tea mornings, pancake breakfasts, and so on. If the women want to do it - then fine. But don't expect (or demand) the men to do if they're not interested.

      Exactly!
      Where I work I have not once heard a male ask if we all want birthday cake surprises, BBQ breakfasts, morning tea get togethers etc. The girls always organise them and they seem genuinely happy and excited to do it. I am happy to do my job and go home.

    I'd suggest that the "don't volunteer" advice is good for both sexes. At my old workplace it was less about sex and more about seniority. It was usually the junior staff who did the coffee runs, or cleaned the break room or whatnot. And yeah, it was usually thankless and in some cases outright detrimental ("where were you", "Cleaning the break room", That's not your job" *chewing out follows*).

    That said, I did see some of the shit jobs that were good networking opportunities. If you included the Manager/Director in your coffee run it meant they knew your face and gave you a small foot in the door.

    I also saw some of the people doing those shit jobs because they actively wanted them. It gave them some sense of satisfaction, or feeling of power, or hell maybe they just liked the excuse to bitch about stuff.

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