If there is a thankless task that needs to be done at the office, it’s likely that a woman is the one to answer the call. In new research highlighted by Harvard Business Review, authors Linda Babcock, Maria Recalde, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart found that women are more likely than men to be asked to volunteer for a “task that everyone prefers be completed by someone else,” and they are more likely to agree to do it.
These tasks included “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,” the researchers said. They found that women were 48% more likely to volunteer than men for these kinds of tasks “with low promotability.” When men and women are both in the room, men will agree to do it half of the time, while women will go above and beyond, saying yes 76% of the time.
Women and men both know that women are more likely to do office housework
Why are women doing tasks that no one in the room wants to do? It’s not because they are inherently more altruistic than men or that they love helping more. The researchers found that social expectations may be driving women to reluctantly do these thankless tasks. When men and women are both in the room, women are more likely to be asked directly to fulfill these tasks and to volunteer to complete them. But these gender differences disappear when the room is no longer co-ed. Men and women volunteer equally in single-sex groups.
“These results instead suggest that the real driver was a shared understanding or expectation that women would volunteer more than men,” the researchers wrote in HBR. “Understanding that women volunteer more simply because men are reluctant to do so should also lead men to volunteer more themselves and should empower women to demand fairer treatment.”
Office housework is still seen as women’s work. One 2005 study found that women are punished if they do it, punished if they do not do it. When women do it, it is time-consuming work in addition to their actual jobs. When they do not do it, they get rated less favorably than men in performance reviews. For women to advance to the corner office, there needs to be a new shared understanding of how the distribution of these thankless tasks should get done between all capable coworkers.
“If this burden falls disproportionately on women, not only is their advancement stymied, but also corporations miss out on capturing valuable talent,” the researchers concluded.