INVOLUNTARY ACTS Sexism at work forces women to be wary of volunteering

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AUDREY LOCKWOOD DOESN’T MINCE WORDS. “Women need to be saying ‘NO’ to just about any volunteer work in the office that does not lead to increased salaries and promotions, and the minute someone asks you to volunteer, hit back immediately with ‘It'll cost you—what pay raise will I get out of this?’”

Audrey’s response may seem a tad excessive to some but there is fresh research to back her up.

A recent study led by Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University found that women get hit with a double whammy when it comes to volunteering at work: first, they are expected to volunteer; second, when they do, they get no credit for it—in fact, it may hold them back.

Research also shows that, when it comes to non-promotable tasks in the workplace, women volunteer more than men. But this is no surprise given that women are more often asked to do these tasks, and when they’re asked, they’re more likely to say yes.

The Carnegie Mellon study notes: “Studies 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.”

The Carnegie Mellon study set out to find out why women are volunteering more than men, and why managers are asking them to volunteer more often for non-promotable tasks like office “housework” such as making the coffee, organizing a retirement party, or other tasks like filling in for an absent colleague or virtually anything that “doesn’t require much skill or produce much impact.”

Their first question was to ask: Do women volunteer for these tasks more often because they’re better at them than men or because they enjoy them more?

To test this hypothesis they set up an experiment in which participants were required to click a button on a computer screen which ruled out both the possibility that the task was something that women excelled at over men, or something that they truly enjoyed. Yet the responses they got showed more women volunteering than men, every single time they repeated it.  

We expect women to volunteer
The researchers wondered whether it could be that women were just more altruistic than men, or maybe they were simply more risk adverse. To test this, they divided participants into women-only and men-only groups. And here they found something interesting.

In single-sex groups, women were just as likely to hold back from volunteering and to refuse when asked to volunteer as men had been in the mixed-sex study. Men, on the other hand, stepped in to volunteer when there were no women present.

This appears to show that women volunteer, and men hold back from volunteering, because of a societal expectation that women will volunteer more than men.

To further test this hypothesis, the researchers added a manager to the study for a mixed-sex group. The manager could see pictures of the employees and could ask whoever they wanted to volunteer. Each manager was rewarded when the people they picked agreed to volunteer. And guess what?

Managers were much more likely to choose a woman over a man (44% more likely) and they were well rewarded for their choice.
Women accepted the request to volunteer much more often: 76% of the time for women; just 51% of the time for men.
It didn’t matter whether the manager was a woman or a man. They both targeted women with the expectation that they would be more likely to agree to volunteer.
What women think is going on
We asked several women about their own experiences at work and the conclusions they’ve reached as to why women are more likely to say yes.

Geri Henze believes that women are more accustomed to volunteering. As she says, “[women] volunteer their labour at home, volunteer for unpleasant tasks at work… Many of us don’t value our time, intelligence, and skills highly enough.”

This idea is backed up by a recent article in the New York Times that confirms that these attitudes start early in life with girls doing more chores than boys for a lower allowance. The expectation that women will step in and pick up the unpleasant tasks without it leading to better pay is something that both girls and boys are being taught as children without anyone ever saying a single word.

Emily Bordeau thinks that women feel pressure to volunteer so that they can “be seen as team players, or because we are assumed to be more self-sacrificing and caring, and because our work isn’t valued as much… Women who volunteer when they don’t really want to may buy into some of these ideas.”

We know that this has negative repercussions, not only for the individual women who get promoted far more slowly than their male counterparts, but also for the institutions and businesses that employ them.   If you’re not utilizing your talent to their full potential, you’re putting your organization at a disadvantage.

So how do we change this?
Bordeau stated that she has refused to accept these tasks because she knew “that would be double the responsibility for zero increase in pay or time allotted to carry out my job requirements” but she understands that this is not a choice every woman can make.

“I do think that women should refuse to accept unequal treatment at work if they are at all in a position to do so.  Ideally, we would be prepared to articulate why we are refusing or objecting to unequal treatment both so that structural issues can be brought up and so that it isn’t simply seen as a personal issue or character flaw one woman has.”

But ultimately, she says, the onus should be on the employer to change the picture. “Employers need to be aware of their own biases. It shouldn’t be assumed that women should do the less glamorous work. Women shouldn’t be viewed more harshly than men for refusing to volunteer. Volunteering also shouldn’t be more expected from workers in lower-paying and lower-status (i.e., “less important”) positions, which are disproportionately held by women.”

The study’s researchers agree: “The solution is not for women to decline more work requests… but instead for management to find ways to distribute tasks more equitably. Rather than asking for volunteers or asking women to volunteer because they are likely to say yes, managers could consider rotating assignments across employees.”

They also expect men to step up. “Understanding that women volunteer more simply because men are reluctant to do so should also lead men to volunteer more themselves.”

Lockwood isn’t so sure that either employers or male colleagues will step in to fill the gap. “Any time anyone asks you to do anything, make sure you say ‘what’s in it for me.’ Men do this all the time.”

Ultimately, to succeed in changing this dynamic, it will need action on the part of employers, male employees, and women themselves. It requires a change in actions but it also requires a change in attitudes.

As Henz points out, “I’m wondering why I volunteered to answer these questions. Patriarchy teaches us well!”


This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.  

Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.