Despite women being the most educated gender, they are still less likely to be promoted than men. And there are many theories that seek to explain this discrepancy, advocating for "leaning in", not leaning in, and everything in between. But a new study may shed light on why this inequality occurs. As it turns out, leaning in works to a certain extent, but can backfire in other situations.
According to new research, women are more likely to volunteer for "non-promotable" tasks than men, meaning they spend more time and energy getting selfless things done rather than focusing on getting new positions.
These "non-promotable" tasks vary from profession to profession, but could include organizing parties, running errands, or serving on low-ranking committees. For example, in academia, dedicating time to serve on faculty senate is less-likely to lead an assistant professor to earn a promotion than dedicating time to research will. The study examined discovered that when 3,271 faculty members at a public university were asked to volunteer for a faculty senate committee, 2.6% of men volunteered compared to 7% of women. This indicated that more women are likely to take on a responsibility that will not lead to promotion than men.
Another study conducted an experiment to examine to role gender plays in volunteering. In one experiment, male and female participants in a computer lab were split into groups of three and were told one person per group would have to volunteer to click a button. Each group member received $1 if no one volunteered, but if someone did the volunteer would receive $1.25 while the non-volunteers would receive $2. The set-up mimicked the way volunteering tends to impact the workplace, as the entire team benefits because of the volunteer’s sacrifice, but the volunteer can get shortchanged in comparison with everyone else.
84% of groups in the experiment found a volunteer, and women were 48% more likely to volunteer than men. This suggests that women who choose to volunteer in the workplace do not do so because they necessarily enjoy the assigned task more than men do, but because women are more likely to feel that volunteering is expected of them.
Action can be taken to correct this problem at every level. Men who truly believe in gender equality should volunteer more, and those in supervisor positions should allocate tasks more evenly. Rather than waiting for employees to volunteer (or worse—outright assigning volunteer positions to women), supervisors should rotate responsibilities between all employees or rely on random assignment like pulling names from a hat. Correcting this bias should be a primary goal for any workplace that wants to create an environment in which everyone has an equal opportunity to flourish.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.