This article is more than 5 years old

Women who volunteer still don’t get the credit

Experience and research show that women in HE end up taking on tasks that benefit the organisation but not themselves. Jo Mitchell looks at the research and suggests some ways forward.
This article is more than 5 years old

Jo Mitchell is a writer and editor.

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:

  1. Activities which increase an individual’s visibility, reputation and – ultimately – promotion prospects.
  2. Essential but unrecognised jobs that benefit an organisation but don’t boost a career.

Stalling momentum

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

Fundamental shift

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.

7 responses to “Women who volunteer still don’t get the credit

  1. But recent research suggests women do seek promotion and ask for more money but don’t get it. Volunteering for visible task may be a way to seek visibility and to show enthusiasm in a misguided belief this might help and also out of enhanced collegiality/ a sense of duty. But the answer is not for women to stop volunteering, the answer is for more men to step up to the mark

  2. I think you’re right that volunteering may be motivated by a desire to engage and seek visibility, which makes the irony that it serves to hold women back even worse. Hopefully getting the dynamic known and discussed can help change behaviour – and, yes, I agree that the answer is not for women to hold back from volunteering, but for men to proactively redress the imbalance.

  3. Surely if promotion and pay rises were linked – in part – to these very tasks, reframed as “contribution” rather than presented as they are here as menial or lesser work, it would create a fairer system? And by perpetuating the idea that these are indeed unappealing tasks, this article just reproduces the tired logic used by men to evade pulling their weight in the contribution they might be expected to make to their organisation.

  4. It may be worth thinking about visibility in a more nuanced way – external/beyond your own institution as more likely to lead to promotion even within the institution or job change which tends to bring promotion if you can get it. Challenging service roles that do not have rewards attached such as sabbatical leave deals after terms of office is important as there is often discrepancy as to which roles are beiong rewarded. Status and gender are a factor in which roles and responsibilities tend to be done by women in HE. Women can also seek flexibility due to needing work-life balance and this tends to come with slightly more ‘hidden’ (but essential) service work. Say no, women, if you do not get promoted after years and years of such visible and enthusiastic role-bearing.

  5. I think the part of the experiment in which they tested mixed-sex groups vs. single-sex groups is fascinating. Women see this in our personal lives, too. Spouses, male friends, etc will hang back and let the women do the unexciting/necessary stuff in child-rearing, household, and social event planning if they think they can get away with it. It is a behavior from childhood onward. Like most hard problems, systemic and pervasive.

  6. Maybe women volunteer for these tasks because it helps the team as a whole? Not everyone has to be in-your-face or go-getting, or desperate for promotion and more money. Every team needs a range of different types to work well. If women (or indeed people..) want to contribute to do stuff they enjoy (even though it might look unappealing to others), or for the good of the team, why should they not? They may not be fast tracked for promotion but maybe they prefer helping others, gaining respect and friendship? If they are volunteering for these tasks for self-promotion then that’s a bit needy. If, on the other hand, they are volunteering for things they don’t really want to do at all, then they should man up a bit and just say no. Its up to women. We have legal equality, its up to us what we do with it.

  7. “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”

    This assumes that senior leaders are aware of this issue and see the detriment it could cause to women with the institution. However as the majority of senior leadership roles are filled by men in HE this could be a further barrier to redressing the disparity.

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