Could Volunteering Constrain your Growth?

Saturday morning for me usually means soccer mum – I get a good run around the pitch while my son plays. Yesterday was a little different. I volunteered for TEDx London and went to attend the orientation session. As we finished introductions, it dawned on me that the room was full of women, there were only very few men. I often speak at conferences across Europe where men outnumber women and so this reversal in proportions really stood out.

Only too aware of conversations about glass ceilings, gender pay gap and lack of women in leadership roles, something just wasn’t adding up. While sipping coffee, I looked around the room and wondered if women were in fact more willing to help and if the answer is yes, could it be that this willingness to help was getting in the way of their success?

First, I had to validate my hypothesis and check if this was exception, norm or even selection bias.

I chatted with a few participants.

One of them looked around room and said, ‘you know what, you are SO right! I attend a few events of this sort and I’m so used to this that I just don’t notice anymore. This could be your TED talk!’ she exclaimed.

The organisers said that this wasn’t selection bias. ‘Not many men apply’, he said. It didn’t seem to bother him the least bit because, ‘that’s just how it works’, he said.

Later, I looked up Google and found a really interesting article on Harvard Business Review*. Titled Why Women Volunteer for Tasks That Don’t Lead to Promotions, it shows studies suggesting that women are 48% more likely to volunteer for ‘non-promotable’ tasks. It seems they do so simply out of niceness.

Next, I wondered if women’s willingness to volunteer was actually getting in the way of their growth?

Sadly, the article seems to suggest that this too is true.

The article goes far enough to say, ‘Women will continue to progress more slowly than men if they hold a portfolio of tasks that are less promotable.

Gathering from my 20 odd years of corporate experience and endless conversations, I would go even further.

Not only that benevolence and likability might not translate into growth, these factors may in fact constrain growth in scenarios where managers prefer a single-minded task focus or if your popularity provokes their insecurity. James Altucher covers this extensively in his book called Choose Yourself.

And that’s not all.

As per the article, as leaders and managers, we could be contributing to the problem, although only sub-consciously.

Studies suggest that when managers were asked to find volunteers for a task, they were more likely to ask the women because 25% women more likely to say yes than the men!

That brings me to my key question.

So what?

So…I do think this needs to be addressed and keeping up with the TED spirit, here are a few ideas to spread and actions to take.

  1. Seek Balance If you are an organisation, use this information to aim for more equitable distributions if possible.
  2. Assign more than lip service & thank you notes to ‘non-promotable’ tasks Another option could be to think about is how ‘non-promotable’ tasks could be considered more seriously when making growth decisions.
  3. Team Think Perhaps share the article with the team and see what they think.
  4. Prioritise

Whatever be your genders, when considering volunteering, train your mind to make more informed choices so you can walk into it with eyes wide open.

Finally, all I will say is that it may be perfectly possible to find a sweet spot where what gives you purpose could also contribute to your growth. At other times, you might need to make choices.

Whatever you choose, stay authentic. Remember, not everyone with a title is a leader and not all leaders have titles. 

*Link to the HBR article: Why Women Volunteer for Tasks that Don’t Lead to Promotions

Link to James Altucher’s talk at TEDxSanDiego

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