Why do women always volunteer for the jobs no one else wants at work?

Posted by
Moya Crockett
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New research shows women are more likely to put ourselves forward for undesirable tasks at work – and it could be harming our careers. 

There’s a scene in the Zooey Deschanel sitcom New Girl that I think about often. In the series, Deschanel plays Jess, a middle school teacher who hopes to be promoted to vice-principal. But she doesn’t actually ask for the promotion, or even arrange a conversation with her boss, the eccentric Dr Foster, to discuss her future.

Instead, she simply works harder and harder, taking on more and more tasks around the school that are increasingly irrelevant to her actual job. She fixes her colleagues’ computers. She mows the school lawn. She mops graffiti off walls. “I’m just hoping in a few years, I’ll have enough experience that Dr Foster will consider me for vice-principal,” she tells a male friend. Baffled, he suggests she just ask for the job. “You can’t just ask for a promotion,” she replies, confidently. “You have to earn the promotion with years of good work.” He laughs.

I thought about that scene again this week, when I read a study – published in the Harvard Business Review – that explores why women tend to volunteer for tasks that don’t lead to promotion. After conducting extensive research across field and laboratory studies, economics professors Linda Babcock, Maria P Recalde and Lise Vesterlund found that women are much more likely than men to volunteer for “non-promotable” tasks. 

“I mean, I guess I could do it…”

Non-promotable tasks, according to the researchers, are “those that benefit the organisation but likely don’t contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement”. They’re the dull, unglamorous jobs that no one else wants to take on: covering for a colleague, taking on extra work that you know won’t make much of an impact, or serving on a low-level committee.

Another subset of non-promotable tasks are those that can be summed up as office “housework”: the little jobs that rarely receive attention or praise, but which nonetheless keep a workplace ticking over and other employees happy. (Think of Jess in New Girl, scrubbing the graffiti off the walls.)

Arranging food for a meeting, organising the company party or sorting out the office’s filing cabinets are all examples of office housework. It’s the graft that takes up time and energy but carries little prestige, and previous research – tellingly – has shown that women of colour are most likely to be called on to carry it out. 

“I can’t believe I got roped into doing this presentation”

In this new study, Babcock, Recalde and Vesterlund found that not only are women more likely to volunteer for non-promotable tasks, they are also more frequently asked directly to take them on – and when asked, they’re more likely to say yes.

“This can have serious consequences for women,” they write. “If they are disproportionately saddled with work that has little visibility or impact, it will take them much longer to advance in their careers.”

Crucially, the study shows that what counts as a non-promotable task varies from sector to sector. If you work for a business, focusing on profit-generating tasks is more likely to get you a promotion than carrying out jobs that don’t make money. (Brutal, but true.) If you work in academia, research-related tasks tend to be more promotable than ‘service’ tasks, such as sitting on a committee.

Apologising at work stops you from fully collaborating with your ideas

So why do women volunteer for these jobs more often than men? Are we simply better people – more nurturing, more caring, more fundamentally decent? Er, no. The most significant factor influencing women’s decision to volunteer for non-promotable tasks is the fact that we know we’re expected to.

Over a series of experiments, the researchers asked women and men to take on dull or undesirable jobs. The women didn’t leap at the chance; they were reluctant, just as the men were. But when they were in a mixed-sex group, they would eventually give in and put themselves forward before the men did.

There was no correlation between women’s levels of altruism and agreeableness and this marked gender difference. And when women were in a group with other women, they suddenly became no more likely than men to volunteer for a non-promotable task. This suggests that women take on these jobs because they understand that they, not men, are ultimately expected to. 

“One of the guys could be doing this…”

So what’s to be done? According to the researchers, ambitious women shouldn’t start refusing to carry out these kind of jobs if they’ve been directly asked (although if it’s always you that makes the tea for your boss, you could suggest that one of your male colleagues puts the kettle on for once). Frustratingly, declining a task they’ve been asked to do can also have a negative effect on women’s careers and how they’re viewed in the workplace.

Instead, Babcock, Recalde and Vesterlund say that managers need to start paying more attention to who they’re asking to carry out non-promotable tasks, and why.

“Rather than asking for volunteers or asking women to volunteer because they are likely to say yes, managers could consider rotating assignments across employees, for example,” they write.

Men should also be alerted to the fact that women often end up volunteering simply because men are so reluctant to do so, they note. This should “lead men to volunteer more themselves and should empower women to demand fairer treatment”.

So if you feel like you’re constantly getting stuck doing the jobs no one else wants, consider sticking this article up in the office kitchen. And next time your manager asks for a volunteer, try hanging back and waiting to see what happens. One of the men might cave – eventually.

Images: Getty Images / Unsplash