Women less likely to ask for deadline extensions, which may cause burnout

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Deadlines on projects and presentations at the office can add an extra layer of stress to our already busy lives outside the workplace. When life gets in the way of our jobs, sometimes there’s just no other choice than to ask for some extra time to finish a task. However, new research shows that might be easier for men than women. According to one study, women are less likely to ask for a deadline extension than than male colleagues.

In comparison to men, researchers found that women are more concerned that they would be “burdening others” by asking for an extension and that people would view them as incompetent if they did so. Women who don’t feel comfortable asking their supervisors for extra time may suffer emotionally and professionally, according to a team from The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

“Women understandably feel like they have too many things to do and not enough time to do them. We found that not asking for more time to complete tasks undermines women’s well-being and also their performance,” says study co-author Grant Donnelly, an assistant professor of marketing, in a university release. “But we also found a possible solution: Women were as likely to ask for deadline extensions as men when organizations had formal policies on making deadline extension requests.”

Not asking for help can be harmful

Prof. Donnelly conducted the research with a team of three others: Ashley Whillans, Jaewon Yoon, and Aurora Turek from Harvard Business School. To reach their conclusion, the researchers analyzed data from nine different studies with more than 5,000 participants, including online panels of working adults and undergraduate students.

Prof. Donnelly feels one of the most compelling of the nine studies took place in his own class. He assigned an essay that was worth 20 percent of the grade to 103 students in an undergrad business course. All students had one week to submit the essay and knew they could email Prof. Donnelly to request an extension if they needed it. On reflection of this study, the researchers found that male students were more than twice as likely as female students to request an extension for the task.

A teaching assistant, who was unaware of the study, graded the essays. Without bias, they awarded those who had asked for an extension higher scores than those who had not. According to Prof. Donnelly, those who did not ask for an extension were at risk of hurting themselves.

“What we found is that when students requested an extension, they made good use of that time and performed better on the task. Women may hurt themselves by not requesting additional time,” Prof. Donnelly explains.

An extension can help avoid burnout

Several others of the nine studies conducted by the research team involved working adults. The findings showed that female employees tend to focus on other people and their needs played a big role in why they found it difficult to ask for deadline extensions.

During these studies, the participants imagined that they had to submit a proposal for an upcoming event due the next day. In order to do the best job possible however, they needed extra time. In the scenario, they were allowed to ask for an extension from their supervisor.

The participants then answered a series of questions about how asking for an extension might affect themselves, their team, and how it might affect how others viewed them. The results showed that the female workers believed they would be seen as “less competent” if they asked for an extension. But that wasn’t the main reason that women were reluctant to request more time.

“It was their concern about burdening their team and manager with more work that most strongly predicted women’s discomfort with asking for more time on adjustable deadlines. Perceived burden and emotions like shame, embarrassment, and guilt explained why women experienced more discomfort with asking for extensions than men did,” Prof. Donnelly adds.

For many, these feelings have real-life implications. These studies were consistent with previous research that showed that women reported feeling more pressed for time and were more likely to experience burnout than their male counterparts.

The findings weren’t all doom and gloom, however. They suggested that organizations have the power to level the playing field by creating a formal process to request deadline extensions.

Making deadline extensions more publicly acceptable helps women

In one study, the researchers analyzed data from an online university that had a formal policy for extension requests — all students were entitled to four 24-hour extensions per term, which could be requested using an online form. In this case, female students were as likely to submit at least one request during the term as men (24% of women vs. 25% of men). That finding was later replicated in another of the nine studies.

Prof. Donnelly notes that he believes companies and other organizations should create formal avenues for requesting deadline extensions.

“It’s a structural issue. When organizations have formal policies about deadlines, it creates the opportunity for men and women to have equal experiences for requesting additional time. And we found evidence that allowing deadline extensions, when possible, can result in better work. That’s helpful for employers and employees.”

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

South West News Service writer Georgia Lambert contributed to this report.