Agata Slota l Palladium - Mar 08 2021
Who Organises the Next Office Party? How Low-Promotability Tasks are Hindering Women's Careers

Credit: Arlington Research

A few months into my working life in London, I noticed a pattern. Following an office lunch meeting, it was almost always the women who would clean up – taking the plates back to the kitchen, gathering the left-over sandwiches, wiping the tables, and so on. It felt as if there was an unspoken rule that it was the women’s job to take care of this.

Ten years later, I’ve started seeing this a bit less frequently, but it certainly hasn’t disappeared. And it turns out that cleaning up after meetings isn’t the only ‘thankless’ office task that women are much more likely to do than their male colleagues. In fact, across workplaces, women are more likely to take on many so-called ‘low-promotability’ tasks, and in doing so, inadvertently reinforce already damaging social norms that further enable gender inequality.

Low-promotability tasks are those that benefit an organisation, but are not used in performance evaluations because there often are no performance indicators set against them. What these tasks are varies by industry and company, but they often include things such as organising office parties, sitting on low-ranking committees, taking notes during a meeting, scheduling conference calls, and even mentoring others.

On the other end of the spectrum are the ‘high-promotability’ tasks – the ones that get employees noticed, and that normally get used for promotions and salary raises. These include things like presentations to clients and writing proposals or grant funds.

When women spend relatively more time than men on low-promotability tasks, they inevitably have less time for high-promotability tasks. In many workplaces, women advance less quickly than men, and taking on such tasks may be contributing to their slower career advancement. But even when it doesn’t, it negatively affects work satisfaction amongst women.

Why It Happens

Professor Linda Babock and her colleagues identified three reasons why women take on more of these tasks. First, in mixed-gender groups, women volunteer more often for low-promotability tasks. This can’t be explained by women enjoying the particular tasks more, nor by other characteristics, such as different levels of altruism between women and men.

Indeed, the willingness to volunteer isn’t fixed – it depends on the composition of the group that people are in. When a group is of one gender (all male or all female), and the same task needs to be taken on by someone in the group, men and women volunteer nearly the same amount to take on the task. In all male groups, men know that they have to step forward if they want to find a volunteer because there are no women around. And in all female groups, women expect other women to volunteer, making them less compelled to do so themselves. In short, volunteering for such tasks results from the shared belief by both men and women that women are more likely to volunteer than men. Volunteering is driven by a social norm.

The second reason women do more of these tasks, Babock and her team found, is that women are also more likely to be asked to do them. A manager who needs someone to take notes during a meeting, for example, is more likely to ask a woman than a man.

Third, once asked to take on such a task, women are more likely to say yes. In Babock’s study, a request to volunteer for a mundane task was accepted by men 51 per cent of the time and by women 76 per cent of the time.

The fact of the matter is that women don’t want to take on these tasks more than men do, but they are more likely to be asked to do so, and they are more likely to accept. And we know that doing so can slow career advancement and affect women’s satisfaction in the workplace.

But the solution isn’t to eliminate low-promotability tasks – they exist for a reason and they benefit organisations and employees. Imagine if people stopped organising conference calls, planning office parties, or mentoring others, for example, because the effort wasn’t captured in a performance review. Nor is the solution for women to decline these tasks, as they may be penalised for doing so.

Instead, it is possible to do three things:

1. Re-assign value to tasks.

Managers can look at common tasks they assign and re-evaluate if these should be used for performance reviews or not, including whether there should be performance indicators assigned to them. This might require taking a more long-term perspective on the organisation, and considering the value that various tasks create over time.

2. Assess if any groups are taking on more of such tasks.

Even if a re-assignment of value isn’t possible, an exercise is useful to make organisations more aware of the tasks that need to be assigned, which of these are low-promotability tasks, and to check if women, or any particular groups, are taking on more than their fair share.

3. Assign tasks more fairly.

This is the case for both low-promotability and high-promotability tasks. Rather than ask for volunteers for low-promotability tasks, managers can use other methods such as rotating the allocation of tasks or assigning tasks randomly. While this won’t quite work for assigning high-promotability tasks, for the more desirable assignments managers should consider all eligible employees, not just those who come to mind first or who volunteer. As a simple step, supervisors can write a list of all employees with the skills necessary for the job and use that as the pool of potential staff.

It may even be possible to establish a rotation system for such tasks out of this pool of skilled team members. Finally, supervisors need to hold everyone accountable for the tasks assigned, including the small ones – writing incoherent meeting notes should not go unnoticed, lest anyone thinks shirking responsibility here means they won’t be asked to take such assignments on again.

These relatively low-cost steps can make a big difference in making workplaces fairer, increasing women’s job satisfaction, and even supporting women’s career advancement. It would be worth it for all supervisors to choose to challenge their everyday ways of working, making a seemingly small change to seemingly small tasks, which in fact, hold a big potential for change.

And in adjusting their behaviours, managers may also start shifting the damaging social norms that drive them – making a positive impact on gender equality that’s much bigger than reducing archaic conduct in lunchtime meetings.

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