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Helen Broadbridge discusses how and who volunteers for the non-profit ‘extra work’ which is needed in every office.

There is no single organisational policy change that would suddenly propel us to roughly 50% female representation in decision-making bodies. But, as they say, every little helps. In this blog, I will look at research which proposes how one area of policy could be tweaked to make it easier for organisations to progress competent women.

Some organisations use multi-layered management structures to control workflow. By contrasts, many lean organisations like law firms keep formal management to a minimum in order to free workers up for fee-charging tasks. This model relies on a holistic approach to work allocation - work may arrive in a partner’s inbox on an ad hoc basis, the partner emails a mailing list to ask who is free - the presumption being that the individuals are the ones who know best if they are free or not, so why not save time by asking them all at once - and then gives the work to the person who responds first. It avoids the accusation of favouritism and is less pressurised than asking a group publicly at a meeting. However, research by economist and social scientist Professor Linda Babcock and her team at Carnegie Mellon University suggests that the voluntary aspect of this model may be producing gendered outcomes - especially when it comes to lower-profile and non-chargeable tasks.

Babcock calls these tasks ‘non-promotable work’, which she describes as: “those that benefit the organisation but don’t contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement. These tasks include traditional office ‘housework’, such as organising 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.” Some argue that women are simply better at these tasks or enjoy them more, so Babcock conducted a series of experiments on almost 700 undergraduates to find out more.

● Mixed groups of three had to secure a volunteer to click a button within two minutes. If no-one volunteered, each group member received $1. If someone volunteered, that person received $1.25, while the two other group members received $2. This ruled out the possibility that women were better at the task or enjoyed it more. Overall, a volunteer was found 84% of the time, but participants were reluctant to volunteer - typically not clicking the button until the final seconds. Averaging across many rounds, the study found that women were 48% more likely to volunteer than men.

● Repeating the experiment with same sex groups, the study found the same rate of finding a volunteer. However, in the women’s groups, the volunteering was shared equally across the rounds whereas, in men’s groups, volunteering tended to fall on the same men each time.

● The final version introduced a fourth person, a manager, who had to ask for a volunteer - they were shown pictures of the group and had to click the photo of the person they wanted to ask. The manager got $2 if someone volunteered and $1 if no-one volunteered. (The group received the same rates as set out above.) The study found that women received 44% more requests to volunteer than men in mixed-sex groups regardless of the sex of the manager. Men accepted the request to volunteer 51% of the time, whereas women accepted 76% of the time.

So what does this tell us? No-one really wants to volunteer for thankless tasks, but women tend to be asked more, accept more and volunteer more, which may feed a cycle. Instead of the onus being on women to decline these requests (which would have clear negative repercussions for them) the onus should be on managers to find fairer ways of distributing work - for example, rotating assignments, especially non-promotable ones, across all workers. If there are genuine issues of availability, perhaps the next person on the rota could be added in addition to, not to the exclusion of the first person. If this does not seem feasible in an organisation, managers could consider how best to let workers know that saying no truly is an option.

Helen Broadbridge, Tax Solicitor  – Helen Broadbridge | LinkedIn

Views expressed are those of the author.

April 2021

Photo Credit: Leon on Unsplash