Women @ Work

Why Women Take More Time to Advance in their Careers than Men

April, 2019

Remember the popular American sitcom - The Office? In an episode titled ‘The Alliance’, Michael comes up with an idea of organizing a birthday party for Meredith, even though her birthday is a month away. While the whole situation has a rather comical spin to it, what didn’t seem funny was the distribution of work - the women were, without being explicitly asked, in-charge of the party planning, while the men went about their day as usual. 

The show is over a decade old today, and yet, this phenomenon holds partially, if not completely true, even today. It is safe to say then that there is still a systematic gender difference in the way work is distributed amongst employees. Collaborative activities, taking notes, report making, and other such tasks that do not require any specific skill set are a part of every department in any given organization, and it falls upon the managers to delegate these tasks appropriately. However, more often than not, these tasks, also called the office housework, are assigned to women or taken up by women voluntarily.

An extensive field and lab research study by Harvard Business Review confirms that women are more likely to volunteer for ‘non-promotable tasks’ - tasks that benefit the organization but do not really add any value during their performance evaluation or career development. Moreover, women are more likely to be asked to take on such tasks, and when asked, they are more likely to agree. In a series of lab experiments, they found that women were 48% more likely to volunteer for a task that is collectively beneficial to the team but puts them at a disadvantage. And a request to volunteer was accepted 76% of the time by women as compared to only 51% of the time by men. 

A considerable amount of this altruistic behavior can be attributed to two factors – a) the traditional conditioning and b) the motivating factor at play. Speaking of conditioning and keeping in mind the traditional distribution of work, women were inherently expected to take up menial tasks. This shared understanding of expectation is also what contributes to women volunteering for non-promotable tasks more than men. As for the motivating factor, another body of research suggests that men emphasize more on the need for higher wages and career advancement opportunities, whereas women focus on the need for appreciation, communication and respect. It’s but obvious then why women volunteer for tasks that don’t really benefit them professionally, but gains them personal appreciation.

While I strongly advocate for women to say ‘YES’ to new opportunities, saying yes to office housework often is actually doing a disservice to their career development. Women need to learn to say ‘NO’ sometimes, especially to tasks that do not serve them any real purpose. Hive found that women work 10% more than men, and yet on average, both men and women achieve 66% of their work completion. The extra 10% then accounts for the time women spend in performing the office housework. Can you even imagine what women can achieve if they redirect that additional 10% effort to their core KRA functions, instead of focusing on tasks that hinder their overall progress? My best bet would be that they’d surpass their male counterparts in no time at all.

Changing the work allocation dynamic must be a priority for any organization because workers who spend more time performing non-promotable tasks are robbed of the opportunity to exhibit their full potential in their core KRA functions. The solution to overcome this, I believe, is not for women to stop volunteering for work, but for managers to delegate work more effectively. Owing to generations of practice and maybe genetics, women are inherently good at collaborating, planning and organizing. However, their varied skill sets go far beyond these qualities; women are capable of leadership, analytical reasoning, decision-making, effective strategizing, and execution. Instead of asking women to take up non-promotable tasks simply because they are more likely to agree, managers must devise systems in a way that every team member has enough time to take up both core function tasks and the extra volunteer work. 

Women have come a long way from being seen simply as homemakers to becoming successful, multitasking professionals. Having come so far, it would be ironic if women are not advancing in their careers because of some extra ‘housework’, don’t you think?