Breaking the Glass Ceiling with “No”: Gender Differences in Declining Requests for Non‐Promotable Tasks

In mixed-sex environments, women are more likely than men to perform tasks that do not lead to promotion.     


Despite significant advances in women’s educational achievement, there has been a persistent gap in women’s leadership in business and academia. Many factors contribute to the gap including implicit discrimination, competition aversion, and job preferences, but there also could be a role for behavioral norms. In particular, accepting rather than declining a “non-promotable tasks,” one that is not relevant to advancing in an organization. If women spend more of their time on tasks that are less likely to lead to promotions (like writing a report, serving on a committee, organizing an event), then they may be promoted more slowly than men. This study utilized a laboratory experiment to determine whether men decline requests for non-promotable tasks more than women.


In mixed-sex environments when an undesirable task is presented, women volunteer twice as often as men, but only do so once it’s clear that no one else will. In same-sex environments, the gender gap disappears and men volunteer to perform undesirable tasks at the same rate as women.

  • In one experiment that required a group of men and women to volunteer to earn less so that their group members could earn more (the volunteer only receives $1.25, while the other group members receive $2; if no one volunteers everyone earns $1), women were 14 percentage points more likely to volunteer than men.
  • When men and women know they are grouped only with members of their same sex, the gender gap disappears and they are equally likely to volunteer for non-promotable tasks.
  • Only 3.7% of faculty at a large university volunteered to participate on a faculty senate committee, which is a non-promotable task. However, female faculty are 2.7 times more likely than male faculty to volunteer to be on a committee.
  • Women are more likely to feel pressure to do non-promotable tasks and are more worried than men about the negative repercussions of declining such requests.

In mixed-sex environments, women are more likely than men to accept tasks that do not lead to promotion. Gender differences in the propensity to say ‘no’ to non-promotable tasks may create barriers for the advancement of women in organizations.


The researchers conducted two pilot surveys to determine whether men and women differ in their perceptions of undesirable requests. Respondents were asked to describe work-related requests that they would have preferred to decline but nonetheless agreed to do. They were asked to report the factors that affected their decision to accept the request and the emotions they felt while making the decision. One survey used a small sample of 47 MBA students and asked them to describe one such request. A second survey used a larger sample of 212 U.S.-based participants and asked participants to recall five work-related requests.

The first laboratory experiment was conducted at the Pittsburgh Experimental Economics Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh. Participants included 82 male and 68 female undergraduate students. In each of ten rounds, participants were randomly and anonymously assigned to groups of 3. Members of the group were then given 2 minutes to make an investment decision. Individual earnings were $1 in the event that no one invested before the end of 2 minutes. If one group member made the investment, the round ended, and the individual making the investment secured a payment of $1.25, while the other two group members each received $2.

The methodology of the second experiment was identical to the first, except the participants knew that their groups were all the same gender. Participants included 117 undergraduate students from the University of Pittsburgh.

The researchers also analyzed data on volunteering for committees at a large public university. The university sends an email each year to all faculty members asking them to serve on a university committee, which is a non-promotable task. The email was sent from the Chair of the Faculty Senate to 3,271 faculty members. The researchers analyzed which faculty agreed to serve on committees.

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