Print Friendly, PDF & Email


There is widespread evidence that gender equality in the workforce has not been achieved. One of the reasons given for this is vertical job segregation, where men advance to higher paying positions more often than women within the same occupation. This study examines one reason men are more likely to be promoted to high-status positions: they dedicate more time to tasks that help their promotability, while women spend more time completing tasks that hinder their promotability.


This study tests the theory that women are held back more often in job promotions compared to men because they are more likely to perform low-status tasks. Examples of low-status tasks include event planning, committee work, cleaning out the office fridge, making coffee, re-organizing filing cabinets, or other non-revenue-generating activities. Such tasks benefit the workplace, but they may hinder women’s advancement because they take time away from the pursuit of highly valued job tasks that matter for job appraisals and performance reviews.

The authors find that women were more likely than men to take on job tasks with low promotability, and further undertook a series of lab experiments to determine the underlying cause. Participants in a group were presented with a task that only one person could volunteer to undertake. In addition, the volunteer benefited less than the others from taking on the task. The experiment design captured the incentives that group members face when asked to volunteer for a task that each member prefers someone else to complete. In other words, all group members want the task to be completed, but the person who volunteers to undertake the task is put at a relative disadvantage.

The authors found that women were asked to volunteer for low-status tasks more often than men. When given the option of asking either a man or a woman to take on the low-status task, both men and women chose to ask a woman 39 percent of the time. By contrast, men chose to ask a man 29 percent of the time, and women chose to ask a man 26 percent of the time. In addition, while men accepted requests to perform low status tasks 51 percent of the time, women accepted such requests 76 percent of the time

While men accepted requests to perform low status tasks 51 percent of the time, women accepted such requests 76 percent of the time.

The group experiments also revealed that in mixed-gender groups, women were 50 percent more likely to volunteer for low status tasks. But when placed in all-female and all-male groups respectively, women were not more likely to volunteer for low-status tasks than the men were. The authors suggest that in all-female groups, individual women see their decision to volunteer as less critical, which in turn decreases their probability of volunteering. Put differently, the findings suggest that both men and women believed that greater female representation meant it was more likely that other women would agree to perform the disadvantageous task, thereby pardoning them of responsibility.

The authors conclude that gendered differences in volunteering for tasks with low job promotability are not driven by individual preferences or altruism. Instead, they are driven by the belief that women are more likely than men to volunteer for such tasks.

This study suggests that women’s greater tendency to perform low-status tasks is perpetuated by stereotypical gender beliefs.  In particular, it is reinforced by the belief that women are more likely to sacrifice for the greater good and perform tasks from which they do not benefit. The stereotypical beliefs fueling gendered task allocations, in turn, create barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace.


  • Avoid subconscious stereotypes – Stereotypical beliefs about gender are often subconscious and held by both men and women. Managers can adopt explicit practices to overcome subconscious stereotypes and ensure that women are not disadvantaged by the allocation of low-status tasks. For example, one way to promote the even distribution of low-status tasks is to assign them, rather than rely on volunteers.
  • Attach rewards for undertaking low-status tasks – Such tasks could be allotted some form of acknowledgement in annual performance reviews. Attaching rewards to low-status tasks may help to destigmatize such work, and increase buy-in from both men and women.


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


Linda Babcock,
Maria P. Recalde,
Lise Vesterlund,
Laurie Weingart


Carnegie Mellon University,
International Food Policy
Research Institute Markets,
University of Pittsburgh,
Carnegie Mellon University


American Economic Review


March 2017