Running a faculty event, writing a report, sitting on a sub-committee: all jobs that need doing, but they come low on most priority lists.
The heart-sinking moment when an appeal is made for a volunteer to take on a necessary but unrewarding task is all too familiar – and the clock ticks away until someone finally gives in and steps up. But what may seem a short-term inconvenience for the reluctant volunteer might well be part of a wider issue with serious consequences for the future of the HE sector.
Tasks break down into two broad categories:
- Activities which increase an individual’s visibility, reputation and – ultimately – promotion prospects.
- Essential but unrecognised jobs that benefit an organisation but don’t boost a career.
Given the time limits of a working day, a person who consistently takes on the tasks that no one else wants has correspondingly less time for research or teaching. Put bluntly, as the portfolio of their role changes, so does their opportunity for advancement.
A University of Amherst study shows that one sub-group of faculty members spent 7.5 hours fewer per week on research than their peers and 4.6 more hours on university service committees. Perhaps predictably, that split fell along gender lines – and the members of the sub-group in question were women.
Research now demonstrates what experience has long suggested – that women are more likely than men to volunteer for a non-promotable task, to be asked outright to do it, and to be the one who agrees to take it on when no one else will. While this imbalance may seem frustrating but essentially harmless, its consequences may, in fact, be pernicious.
A notable gender gap exists in senior higher education roles. Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) figures reveal that while women make up 45 per cent of the academic workforce in the UK, they hold less than a quarter of professorships. The reasons for this are complex and interconnected and include factors such as female academics’ greater reluctance to negotiate or compete, unconscious bias in recruitment, and gendered language that makes women feel like they don’t belong.
But another, less-recognised, dynamic may also be at work, one that researchers Lise Vesterlund from the University of Pittsburgh, and Linda Babcock and Laurie Weingart from Carnegie Mellon University decided to put to the test.
War of attrition
In an attempt to determine whether men decline requests for non-promotable tasks more than women, mixed-gender groups of three people were assigned a task – clicking a button to make an investment – that only one person could carry out. If they failed to act within two minutes, each member earned $1. But if one member invested, they received $1.25, and the others $2 each. This weighting meant that the scenario functioned like a war of attrition, with investment only being made by someone if no one else was willing.
Their findings revealed that, in mixed-sex environments, women volunteered twice as often as their male peers to take on a non-promotable task.
That the gender disparity disappeared when the experiment was re-run in single-sex groups suggests that this behaviour is not fixed, but belief based. The study’s authors observed: ‘”If a woman believes that others expect her to invest and that they will not invest in her absence then it is in her best interest to invest, likewise, if a man believes the investment is secured without him then it is in his interest to abstain.” In short, in a mixed group, the differential was consistent with women being pessimistic and men being optimistic that other members of the group would invest.
Checking their findings against a real-life situation, the researchers analysed the response of academic staff to an institution-wide invitation to sit on a university committee – and found that women were more than 2.7 times as likely as men to agree to take on the task.
This behaviour is superficially beneficial for the collective, but it can seriously hamper the progress of the individual. By regularly saying “yes” to non-promotable tasks, women have reduced time to spend on key work such as research, leading to an eventual loss of career momentum. Taking on unappealing tasks is also likely to reduce job satisfaction and erode aspiration, dissuading women from taking on new career challenges, and perhaps contributing to decisions to leave academia
However, although the fact that the behaviour is belief-based makes it more marked in male-dominated environments, it also offers genuine hope for change. So how best can this be achieved?
One immediate response may be to advocate for women to start turning these tasks down. But without a wider strategy, this is likely to prove counterproductive. Turning a discussion about who will write up a report or host an event into a combative stand-off won’t help anyone.
A joined-up approach to addressing underlying beliefs and challenging accepted practices may well prove more effective in the long term:
- Encouraging senior leaders to be proactive in ensuring equal allocation of tasks across a staff body will address imbalance and promote a fundamental shift in attitude.
- Breaking the silence around these patterns of behaviour will raise awareness so that men and women can make informed, purposeful choices when considering taking on non-promotable tasks.
Let’s hope that, in time, these changes will lead to many more women saying “yes” to promotion to top positions in HE.
Jo Michell is a writer and editor who contributes regular articles for our partners at Global Academy Jobs.