Here is an excerpt from an article written by Linda Babcock, Maria P. Recalde, and Lise Vesterlund for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
Credit: Helen King/Getty Images
* * *
Here’s a work scenario many of us know too well: You are in a meeting and your manager brings up a project that needs to be assigned. It’s not particularly challenging work, but it’s time-consuming, unlikely to drive revenue, and probably won’t be recognized or included in your performance evaluation. As your manager describes the project and asks for a volunteer, you and your colleagues become silent and uneasy, everyone hoping that someone else will raise their hand. The wait becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Then, finally, someone speaks up: “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Our research suggests that this reluctant volunteer is more likely to be female than male. Across field and laboratory studies, we found that women volunteer for these “non-promotable” tasks more than men; that women are more frequently asked to take such tasks on; and that when asked, they are more likely to say yes.
This can have serious consequences for women. If they are disproportionately saddled with work that has little visibility or impact, it will take them much longer to advance in their careers. Our work helps explain why these gender differences occur and what managers can do to distribute this work more equitably.
What Are Non-promotable Tasks?
Non-promotable tasks are those that benefit the organization but likely don’t contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement. These tasks include traditional office “housework,” such as organizing a holiday party, as well as a much wider set of tasks, such as filling in for a colleague, serving on a low-ranking committee, or taking on routine work that doesn’t require much skill or produce much impact.
What is non-promotable varies across fields and careers. For example, in industry, revenue-generating tasks are more promotable than non-revenue-generating tasks; in academia, research-related tasks are more promotable than service-related tasks; and for individuals, a task may be promotable for junior employees but non-promotable for senior-ranking managers.
Studies of industry and academia (by Irene De Pater and colleagues; Sara Mitchell and Vicki Hesli; and Joya Misra and colleagues, as well as many others) have shown systematic gender differences in how work is allocated, with women spending relatively more time than men on non-promotable tasks and less time on promotable ones. These differences matter because they help explain why, despite women’s significant educational and general workplace advances, we continue to find vastly different promotion trajectories for men and women. Women will continue to progress more slowly than men if they hold a portfolio of tasks that are less promotable.
Although what makes something non-promotable varies across occupations, there is typically agreement within an occupation about what tasks are non-promotable versus promotable. For example, in a survey of 48 Carnegie Mellon faculty, we found that 90% agreed that an assistant professor has a higher chance of promotion if they allocate spare time to research rather than to committee work (like being on the faculty senate). Separately, looking at data from a large public U.S. university, we found that when all 3,271 faculty were asked to volunteer for a faculty senate committee, only 3.7% chose to do so — but 7% of women volunteered, compared with 2.6% of men.
There are of course many reasons why women volunteer more than men. It may be that women are better at these tasks or enjoy them more than their male colleagues. To test these explanations we conducted a series of lab experiments at the Pittsburgh Experimental Economics Laboratory (PEEL). A total of 696 University of Pittsburgh undergraduates participated in the studies.
* * *
Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Linda Babcock is the James M. Walton Professor of Economics and Department Head of the Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University.
Maria P. Recalde is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Department of Economics at the University of Melbourne.
Lise Vesterlund is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Economics and Chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh. She is also a Research Associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research.