In a conversation on Twitter, someone posed the question: what do you wish you'd known about bias when you started working in tech? One of my replies was "that assigning work by asking for volunteers is unfair." Another person was curious about my response and asked if there was something he could read about it, which is a good question. I couldn't think of one and I wanted it to exist, so here we are.

Rather than just explain my opinions, I thought I'd share some of the stories that shaped those opinions. These are all real stories that actually happened, some to me and some to my friends and loved ones. Can you spot the problems with assigning work by relying on volunteering from these stories?

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I split up the teams in my advanced physics class. I explain the first lab assignment, explain the equipment they'll use, and then say "go ahead and get started."

The boys on each team jump up and race over to the exciting new equipment. The girls wait quietly at their tables for the boys to return.

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A team at a venture-backed startup did a week's retreat offsite. The three women on the team did literally all of the menu planning, cooking, and cleaning up. After a few days of this, the women got frustrated.

When they asked the men directly to clean up the dishes, since they had not cooked, one man got up. He did dishes for a few minutes, and then sat down again.

No other man stood up.

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A venture-backed startup was throwing a party for employees and their partners. The party was about to start and partners about to arrive but the tables and refreshments had not been set up yet. The women in the company, including a male employee's wife, started moving tables around.

They tried to get some of the male employees to help. After being asked several times, the men moved one table into the wrong place and then went back to chatting with each other.

The women, not wanting the company to look totally dumb when everyone arrived, finished setting up the party.

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A freelance team was working with a woman on the client's team. They talked to her about using some of her time to get more accomplished in the time allotted, and she agreed. The only work they could realistically delegate ended up being work that was a notch below her current position.

When they met to hand off the work, she professionally and firmly declined. The men on the freelance team interpreted her response as mean, and one of them called her "bitchy."

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A man consistently leaves behind office supplies, food, or trash when he leaves a company shared space. It is in everyone's way, but none of the men in the office clean up his stuff or address it with him.

It's unclear what they think will happen to it, or whether they've ever thought about it consciously. Perhaps that someone else will take care of it, maybe the office manager or the cleaner, both women.

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A female grad student is on a committee with two male grad students and a man who runs the program. They split up work, like running workshops, and someone takes meeting minutes and posts them. Last year, the only woman grad student in the group had those secretarial duties.

This year, when it came time to figure out who would do what duties, the program leader asked for a volunteer to do the secretarial work. The men looked at their hands and were silent. The woman was so uncomfortable with the long silence that she finally said she'd do it.

She thought there would be additional extra duties to split up, but this was the only one. So she had the same duties as the men, plus the secretarial work for the whole year. There was no reduction in her other committee work, her teaching, or her research, so these duties cut into that time and energy.

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Asking for volunteers (or implicitly relying on volunteers) is one of many structures companies can choose to allocate work. Like many other minimally-structured structures, it tends to reinforce and amplify larger cultural inequities. See The Tyranny of Structurelessness for more on this idea.

Can you spot the problems with assigning work by relying on volunteering from these stories? Some questions to get you thinking:

  • How does volunteering allow people to get out of work that is unpleasant or undervalued?
  • How does volunteering allow some people to grab work that is especially exciting, rewarded, or valuable?
  • Who is expected to take care of people and spaces?
  • Who is disproportionately penalized when they turn down work?
  • Why might it be very scary for some people to call on non-participants to pitch in?
  • Who is socialized from an early age to have stronger feelings of responsibility to help out their group?
  • Who is socialized from an early age to be less confident in their abilities, to take fewer risks, and to only take on assignments they already know how to do?
  • How does volunteering for group duties impact the core work, time, and energy of the volunteer?
  • How do these effects compound over time? For example, in a group of junior staff, if one person grabs a high-status high-value assignment and another takes a low-status assignment, who is more likely to get the next plum assignment? How does this impact their career trajectory?
  • Most of these examples were about gender. How might race, class, and sexual orientation or presentation play out?
  • Extra credit: what sorts of work is not valued and why? There are many books written about this question and it is important, but out of scope for this post.

In your company, what roles are currently assigned by asking for volunteers? What tasks aren't assigned at all, and eventually get done by someone? Who takes on what sorts of work? Once you look you might be surprised at what you see.