In any profession, there are tasks that everyone would rather someone else took care of. Teaching is no different. Whether it’s clearing out the staffroom fridge, collecting tickets at the school fete or handing out the photocopies on Inset day, education has its share of tasks that are essential but not likely to help towards a possible promotion.
But who do these tasks fall to? According to recent research from the US, more often than not, women are the ones who volunteer for them. And that can have real implications, not just for their individual career progression but also for the overall balance of power – and pay – between the genders in a workplace. Surely, that makes this something that school leaders should be taking heed of?
Linda Babcock, professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, certainly thinks so. She was inspired to research this issue after spotting the pattern in her own working life. She has an office across the corridor from a male colleague at a similar professional level but noticed a disparity in the way their days were structured.
“He is always focused on his research, which is what we in academia get rewarded for,” she says. “I’m going to meetings all day, I’ve constantly got people in my office talking about the curriculum and other governance things that the university needs to get done. But none of it counts for how I am evaluated.”
And so she and three female colleagues decided to explore if and why women were more likely to volunteer for such tasks, which they refer to as having “low promotability”.
Their 2017 study found that female participants were 48 per cent more likely to volunteer for tasks with low promotability than male ones. But this wasn’t down to a greater sense of altruism. Instead, Babcock found that women were simply expected to volunteer. During one of their experiments, a manager asked participants to volunteer; the women received 44 per cent more requests than the men, regardless of whether the manager was male or female. Male participants accepted the request 51 per cent of the time while women accepted 76 per cent of the time.
“If you need to get something done, you’re going to ask a woman because she’s going to say ‘yes’,” Babcock says. “There are a lot of norms for women against saying ‘no’ to things like that. Research shows that women get penalised when they say ‘no’, so they’re constrained in a way that men are not.”
What women should do, she says, is work out where tasks fall on a continuum of promotability and only volunteer for the ones likely to bring career advantages.
But how applicable is this rule to female teachers? Former headteacher Jill Berry says the benefits of a task may not be immediately obvious. “I can’t easily think of jobs in schools that are high and low promotability in the same way,” she says. “If you go over and above what you need to do as a teacher, it can be useful in terms of building skills and also your enjoyment of the job.”
She says she started taking on extracurricular roles – such as running the bar at PTA events and helping with Duke of Edinburgh trips – from early in her career, but wasn’t motivated by the urge to boost to her professional profile. “All those things were definitely useful in building relationships, confidence and experience, and it was nice to be able to talk about them when I applied for jobs, but I did them because I enjoyed them,” she continues.
“Life’s too short to spend a lot of time doing things that you really don’t want to do. If you’re looking to build your skills or your profile, find things that you’re good at and that you enjoy.”
But Jarlath O’Brien, executive headteacher at a north London special school academy chain, argues that education is rife with low-promotability tasks. He says that leaders should recognise and reward those who take them on. “It is a core feature of teachers, teaching assistants, site managers and admin staff that we are magnets for these tasks and, what’s more, we don’t normally have to be asked,” he says. “Leaders and managers should regard such tasks as contributing positively to someone’s performance evaluation and career enhancement. I positively want to work with such people; they make the world go around.”
O’Brien also references the gender breakdown in teaching: 74 per cent of England’s teachers are female, which is likely to have an impact on the distribution of these tasks. This, too, he says, is something that leaders have a “duty to be aware of”.
But, what should leaders do about the problem? Babcock agrees that recognising imbalances is the critical first step in redressing them. “It’s important for leaders to realise that just letting things be the way that they have always been is hurting women,” she says. “Men don’t want to be doing this to their female colleagues, and they aren’t doing it consciously. Awareness matters a lot.”
Berry says that she has often urged women to say “no” to tasks they don’t have the time or energy for. “I have advised women who feel as if they are taken advantage of because people know they will agree to things,” she says. “I tell them to say ‘not yet’ or ‘not now’, or to ask which of their other tasks will be taken away to make space.” She advises fellow leaders to rethink the way they distribute work.
Responsibility to spot potential
Rather than waiting for people to volunteer, she says, good leaders should offer staff specific opportunities that present the best potential for growth and professional development. “Leaders have a responsibility to spot potential and recognise when people have the capacity to do something well,” she says.
Babcock praises an approach adopted by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. To combat discrepancies in how tasks were distributed, leaders developed a points system. “You get points for doing things and everybody has to get a certain number,” she says. “If you don’t do one thing, you have to teach more or do something else.”
Ultimately, she says, it’s about fairness. “It is fundamentally unfair if women are picking up more of the slack,” she says. “Leaders can help by not going to the same women over and over...and instead go to men. To be presiding over this unfairness is something most leaders will want to change.”
Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer