It’s a case of being your own worst enemy: New research shows that women are more reluctant to ask for deadline extensions at work than their male colleagues are, in part because they worry about being seen as incompetent.
In a series of studies, researchers found that overall, women were less likely than men to ask for extra time to complete a work or school task. And that reluctance seemed to stem from two concerns: Women often believed they’d be judged harshly, and they also worried about burdening their coworkers if they failed to meet a deadline.
Researchers said the findings are no shock. For one, past studies have found that women are less likely than men to ask their employer for a raise.
“Money is one important resource, but time is another one,” said lead researcher Ashley Whillans, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School in Boston.
And based on this study, she said, it’s yet another one that female employees are more hesitant to seek out.
That’s despite the fact that women frequently lack time, Whillans pointed out.
Research shows that working women can face a particularly tough time crunch, for various reasons: Those in marriages still bear the lion’s share of child care and household chores. And at work, women are more likely than men to take on tasks outside of their job description.
“Women have internalized this belief that they need to go above and beyond their male colleagues,” said Whillans.
The findings rang true for Dr. Ludmila De Faria, who chairs the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Women’s Mental Health.
She said that working women often feel pressure to prove they are highly competent while also being seen as “nice.”
So their anxieties around deadline extensions makes sense, said De Faria, who was not part of the study.
The findings, published Nov. 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, come from a series of nine studies. They included more than 5,700 working adults and college students overall.
In a few studies, participants were asked about their comfort level with asking for deadline extensions, and how they felt their supervisor and colleagues would react. And clear gender differences emerged.
Next, the researchers tried to gauge how likely it was that women would, in fact, be judged harshly for needing more time. They asked participants to imagine themselves in the role of supervisor, and found no evidence that people were apt to judge women as incompetent for requesting a deadline extension.
However, that needs to be interpreted with a grain of salt, Whillans said.
“We are not saying women are wrong in believing they’ll be judged,” she stressed. “Their beliefs are coming from somewhere.”
Plus, workplaces vary, Whillans noted, and employees generally know the dynamics of their particular situation.
The researchers did come upon one potential solution to the issue: setting a formal policy on requesting deadline extensions.
In one set of studies, male college students were more likely than their female counterparts to ask for extra time to finish a paper: 36% did, versus 15%. But when students were explicitly told they could ask for an extension, and given a process for doing so, women were just as likely as men to request more time.
De Faria said she thinks that’s the most important point from the research. Having a policy on deadline extensions assures employees it’s “normal” to ask for one, she said.
It should not all be up to individuals to manage their time stress, De Faria noted. “There are things in the system that need to be addressed,” she said.
And in the end, De Faria added, employers are likely to benefit.
“When employees are healthy, mentally and physically, they are more productive,” she said.
Whillans agreed that formal policies may take the guesswork, and accompanying anxiety, out of requests for deadline extensions.
“If it is OK to ask for time, organizations should make that clear to employees,” she said.
And for working women who are prone to self-criticism, it’s important to discern which tasks really can wait, according to Whillans.
“Not everything needs to be done on time, every time,” she said. “You don’t need to be perfect.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine has advice on coping with work stress.
SOURCES: Ashley V. Whillans, PhD, assistant professor, negotiations, organizations and markets, Harvard Business School, Boston; Ludmila De Faria, MD, chair, Committee on Women’s Mental Health, American Psychiatric Association, Washington, D.C., and associate professor, psychiatry, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nov. 1, 2021, online
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