Women: The reluctant volunteers in the workplace

3 minute read

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People who spend more time on thankless tasks at work are held back from demonstrating their full potential.

Performing tasks at work that don’t lead to personal gain may hinder career advancement. Research shows that women are more likely than men to volunteer to do these tasks.


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Many jobs in the workplace need to be done by someone, but they don’t necessarily lead to career advancement. This includes training new employees, serving on low-ranking committees, and taking notes in a meeting.

Understanding the differences between how often men and women are asked to perform these tasks, how they respond, and who is more likely to volunteer without being asked could help to explain gender inequality in the workplace.

A research team, including Dr Maria Recalde at the Department of Economics, University of Melbourne, used observational field data and a series of experiments to study these differences. The research began when Dr Recalde was at the University of Pittsburgh, and involved colleagues there and at Carnegie Mellon University.

Using field data from a public research university in the United States, the researchers showed that gender differences in volunteering for ‘non-promotable tasks’ exist even when people with similar qualifications and positions receive the same request to volunteer.

To study why men and women volunteer at different rates, they conducted a series of experiments using a ‘payoff’ structure based on models used in game theory. One example is the Volunteer’s Dilemma, where players decide to make a small sacrifice to benefit a group or wait to benefit from another player’s sacrifice. In this research, participants were asked to make a financial decision. This action was designed to mimic the act of volunteering for a task.

In a first experiment, men and women interacted anonymously in mixed-gender groups of three. Participants took part in a computer task in which they had the choice to volunteer within a set time. The composition of the groups changed after each of 10 rounds.

Before the task, participants were told that if no one volunteered, each person would receive a payment of $1. If someone volunteered, that person received $1.25, while the two other people each received $2. This meant that the group benefited from someone volunteering, but the volunteer received less.

The results showed that women were nearly 50 per cent more likely to volunteer than men, even though it meant receiving less money than their teammates. This is the experimental equivalent of taking on tasks that do not help with promotion, according to the researchers.

To see if the difference was due to preferences or personality traits that make women more likely to volunteer, the researchers repeated the experiment using single-gender groups.

Volunteering rates were the same in single-sex groups of men and women, suggesting that women do not have a stronger preference for volunteering.

One explanation for these findings is that in mixed-gender groups, people assume that the women will volunteer to complete the task. But in men-only groups, men know they need to step forward if the task is to be completed.

To further test the idea that people expect women to volunteer more, researchers conducted a third experiment. Using the same task and payment system, they added a manager to each group and asked them to select someone to volunteer. Managers made their choice by selecting from photographs of the other group members. Managers could not volunteer themselves, but benefited from the same payment structure as their teammates.

In mixed-gender groups, women were 44 percent more likely to be asked to volunteer than men. Both male and female managers were more likely to ask a woman to volunteer. Women were also nearly 50 percent more likely to comply with requests to volunteer.

Next steps

In 2019, Dr Recalde began a three-year project to understand the causes of these gender differences and their effects on labour market outcomes, such as employment, wages and career trajectories.

Funding

ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award

Women, Task Allocation, and Advancement in the Labor Market (DE190100585)

Publication

Babcock L, Recalde MP, Vesterlund L, Weingart L (2017) Gender differences in accepting and receiving requests for tasks with low promotability. American Economic Review 107(3): 714–747. doi: 10.1257/aer.20141734

Image: UN Women (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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