Gender Differences in Accepting and Receiving Requests for Tasks with Low Promotability.

Babcock, Linda, Maria P. Recalde, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart. 2017. American Economic Review 107(3):714–47.

Topics: Workplace equality, Gender Differences, Promotion

Year: 2017

Country: United-States


The authors of the study examine the allocation of a task that everyone prefers to be completed by someone else (writing a report, serving on a committee, organizing an event, etc.). They find that “women, more than men, volunteer, are asked to volunteer, and accept requests to volunteer for such tasks”. 

Key takeaways: 

  1. The gender differences in volunteering for tasks with low-promotability contribute to gender differences in career advancement because women spend less time on more promotable-tasks.
  2. Women can progress more rapidly in organizations when assigned tasks that are more promotable. 
  3. Managers can change the mechanisms to assign such tasks and help improve the advancement of women.


To better understand gender differences in the labor market, researchers examine the differences in tasks men and women spend time on, and whether women were more likely to spend less time on high-promotability tasks (“likely to influence their performance evaluations”) and more time on low-promotability tasks (“less likely to affect their evaluation and career advancement”). The present study aims to examine the “allocation of tasks with low promotability” by studying whether men and women respond differently to requests to perform such tasks and the factors behind these differences. They discuss the differences in both the demand and supply of less-promotable tasks by gender. 

On the supply side, they examine field data, studying the response to requests to perform low-promotability tasks using a probit model for the probability of volunteering. The data suggest that women are more likely to accept such requests than men. The authors then conduct multiple laboratory experiments to study these gender differences and their determinants. In the first experiment, the participants (both men and women) are presented with “a task that only one person can undertake” if no one else is willing to do it. The results from the first lab experiment show that “women volunteer 50 percent more than men”. Second, “to assess the role of preferences and beliefs”, they conduct a second experiment where all the participants are of the same sex. The results from this same-sex experiment show that “men and women are equally likely to volunteer” which reveals that the belief that women are more likely to volunteer is probably the driver behind the gender gap. 

On the demand side, they further explore the role of beliefs, by adding an outside person charged with asking one of the members to volunteer. They find that women were asked more frequently than men to volunteer by the requestors, and women agreed more than men to volunteer when asked, which confirms the role of beliefs. Without the request, “the investment rate does not differ by gender”. Additional experiments show that “the gender difference is not driven by women being more altruistic than men”. 

While the results point to gender differences in volunteering, the decision to perform such tasks by women can be individually rational if no one else is willing to do it. From the organization’s perspective, awareness of these differences can improve the allocation of tasks. Managers can change the mechanisms used to assign such tasks (rather than ask for volunteers) which might help “improve the advancement of women”. Finally, while the setting of the experiment can mirror the allocation of low-promotability tasks, future research can extend the analysis to larger group sizes. 

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