Men ask for deadline extensions at twice the rate of women

Women in the workplace often don’t feel they can ask for an extension on deadlines, worrying that it makes them look incapable or unprofessional.

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If you’re female, you may find yourself burning the midnight oil unnecessarily, trying to meet a deadline when you could have asked for an extension. Chances are, your male colleague already did.
Women in the workplace often don’t feel they can ask for an extension on deadlines, according to Harvard Business Review research, worrying that it makes them look incapable or unprofessional.

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Yet, it turns out that bosses don’t mind when employees ask for extensions on deadlines, as long as they’re done appropriately. HBR conducted 10 experiments and a survey with almost 10,000 employees and managers in the U.S. Across occupations, they found that asking for more time to work on an assignment was generally seen as a good thing by managers – it meant that their employees were less stressed and performed better. In fact, managers saw both male and female employees who asked for more time as more driven. The only time asking for a deadline dinged them was if the time period was just too tight.
However, employees of both sexes aren’t really in the habit of asking for extensions, and in one survey, only 1 in 10 employees said that they’d ask for one, even “in a scenario where they felt highly time-pressed under a tight yet adjustable deadline.” Perhaps this is due to a canon of business advice that advises both sexes to “hit every deadline,” however, that advice is out-of-place in the real world.

Women, men, and deadlines

To break down the tendency to ask for an extension on a deadline by gender, HBT conducted a survey of 600 employers in the United States across 22 industries and asked them to think about this question:
“Imagine your manager assigned you to work on a task that was due at the end of the week. How likely would you be to ask for an extension?”
Male employees were found to be twice as likely to ask for the extension as female employees. Women were more reluctant because they were worried their manager would think about them poorly.
HBR conducted another experiment on that very thought, this one with 800 managers evaluating both male and female employees who asked for extra time to complete an assignment. The results? The managers did not evaluate females more harshly than males.
Of course, HBR notes that while managers may react positively to a single deadline extension request from a female employee, women may be more sensitive because such requests over time could “confirm manager’s beliefs that women are on average more family oriented and less committed to their jobs.” And it’s true – if a female employee already has an accommodation about, say, leaving early one day a week for childcare reasons in place, she may be reluctant to ask for one more accommodation.

Women should ask for performance’s sake

The quality of work may depend on getting extra time in certain cases. In yet another experiment, HBR gave 103 business school students a writing assignment with a flexible due date. If they needed more time to complete it, they only needed to email the instructor to ask for an extension. Again, the male students were twice as likely as the female students to ask for the extension. And when the instructor read the papers (without knowing who wrote them), it was found that the students who had asked for an extension wrote better essays and got higher grades.

If that doesn’t motivate you to ask for an extension on a deadline when you next need one, we don’t know what will.


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Sheila McClear|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at smcclear@theladders.com.