I've been there. The boss needs someone to organize the holiday party or launch a new community outreach initiative and asks for volunteers. You're a great planner! You would do a great job recruiting and organizing and promoting and all the other gazillion tiny tasks needed to make these events and programs perfect.. But, according to recent research, all that work may mean the company has a stellar holiday party (and could even be fun), but it is not helping your path upward.
According to research by professors Linda Babcock, Maria P. Recalde, and Lise Vesterlund, women typically volunteer, or are asked to volunteer, for tasks that businesses need, but are less impactful to the core business. They suggest that all that volunteering can hurt a woman's opportunity for career advancement.
You can read the article to understand the three core experiments they conducted to identify gender-specific trends around workplace "volunteering."
In the initial study, the team measured when people stepped up to volunteer to complete a task. Each member of the group receives more if someone volunteers, but the volunteer receives less than other members of the group. (So the volunteer takes a hit for the good of the group). In mixed groups of men and women, women stepped up 48% more often than men to volunteer.
Interestingly, in all women's groups, volunteering was shared equally across the group, but in the all male groups, volunteerism tended to fall on the same men each time. Further, if asked directly by a manager to volunteer for the same basic task described above, 76% of women said yes, while only 51% of men agreed to take the task when asked.
Sure this data is interesting, but why is it important? Because in the corporate game of who gets the next promotion, these activities consume precious time, but are highly unlikely to be considered as valuable to the organization as tasks more closely correlated to the core business of the business. As the researchers state: "If they [women] are disproportionately saddled with work that has little visibility or impact, it will take them much longer to advance in their careers."
Perhaps one of the most valuable insights from the article is this: "These differences [in volunteering] do not appear to result from gender differences in preferences, but rather from a shared understanding that women will volunteer more than men."
So what is a woman to do? (I like organizing the food drive each year!) Their answer is not "stop volunteering" and I strongly agree. After all, companies still need holiday parties and community outreach programs. Rather, they recommend that companies create ways to more evenly distribute the work. They are encouraging companies to take on more of the ownership of spreading around the less business-forward work.
I agree with this advice and recommend you take it one step further: Consider the Return on Investment (ROI). The next time there is a project up for grabs, and it is clearly more in the realm of less business-impactful, evaluate the costs and benefits. Determine if there is an ROI that helps you with your broader career goals. Ask yourself:
What do I gain by taking on this project? (Visibility in the company, improved networking, or simple joy in my heart)
How much time will this task really take?
Do the benefits clearly outweigh the time investment? (If it is unclear, you probably need to pass)
So even if you boss "really, really thinks you would be great" at this new project, check out the ROI. You are the driver of your own career path and it is imperative that you keep your hands on the wheel.
Need help setting boundaries or getting noticed? Are you seeing trends that are holding you back from being your best, most successful self? Reach out. I work with existing and emerging women leaders, their teams and the companies that employ them to help leaders THRIVE and find their own ideal balance/integration of work and life.