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Women give more help to co-workers than men do but get less credit for it, new research reveals

August 1, 2005

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

The help that women give to co-workers on the job tends to be significantly underappreciated, according to a new study.

And all the more so if the female good Samaritans are pleasant and agreeable.

These disheartening findings emerge from a research paper on favor exchange in the workplace to be presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management, scheduled for Honolulu from August 7th to 10th. The report is one of several thousand research papers that will be presented at the meeting on issues related to the workplace and other management topics.

"These findings," concludes the report's author, Frank Flynn of Columbia University, "suggest a plausible explanation for the frustration that many female employees experience -- others do not fully appreciate their helpful contributions and subsequently provide less in return. Ironically, those women who are most earnest in helping others (i.e., those who are highly agreeable) may bear the brunt of this injustice."

During the past several years, Prof. Flynn has made important contributions to the study of favors in the workplace, finding that a "frequent pattern of favor exchange" is good for workers and companies alike. But his new research suggests that women are making a disproportionately large contribution to the cause and getting a disproportionately small benefit in return.

In the study for the forthcoming Academy of Management meeting, he reports that "co-workers requested favors more often from women than from men, but that women would not receive as many favors in return."

And, when the professor analyzed the reactions of individual workers to favors, he uncovered a startling fact: when men do favors on the job, co-workers tend to feel slightly more indebted to those who have agreeable personalities than to those who are less accommodating; but, when women do favors, co-workers tend to feel much less indebted to those with sunny dispositions than to those without.

Not just slightly less indebted but markedly so.

Prof. Flynn concedes that the findings have put him in something of a quandary. "I certainly wouldn't want to discourage workers from doing favors on the job," he says. "And even less would I want to discourage women from being nice. Hopefully, this research will bring home to female workers the benefits of an even-handed approach to favor exchange, of at least being aware that some-co-workers may be taking advantage of their willingness to help."

The findings derive from two field studies by Prof. Flynn on favor exchanges -- one dealing with on interactions within work teams over a period of time and the second focusing on a single favor between pairs of workers.

The first study involved 161 engineers, 40 of them women, constituting eight teams at the headquarters of a large telecommunications firm. Each team, consisting of between 16 and 41 members, handled technical problems that arose in a specific geographic area where the company operated. Tasks were assigned to individual engineers, but often more than one individual contributed to completing it, so that helping behavior among employees was common. Typical favors included providing technical advice, offering a second opinion, or lending a hand to a co-worker who was swamped.

In a confidential survey, workers were asked to rate each of their fellow team members on who helped whom relatively more, rated from 1 ("I have received far more than I have given") to 7 ("I have given far more than I have received.") Each worker was also asked to rate himself or herself on nine personality items related to agreeableness, such as "has a forgiving nature," "is generally trusting," and "is sometimes rude to others."

In addition, respondents were asked to report the five most recent episodes of helping behavior they had experienced, including the name of the other employee, the type of favor, and who did the favor for whom.

The study revealed that employees were more likely to request favors from female colleagues than from male colleagues and that female colleagues were likely to perform more favors than they received in return. But survey respondents did not indicate that they owed either more or less to women than men.

Suspecting that this lack of indebtedness to women reflected a tendency to discount women's help, the professor devised a second study to gauge indebtedness in a single episode. In this study, 46 employees in the information-technology division of a biotechnology company were instructed to ask another employee, picked at random, to perform a favor -- in this case, to spend 20 minutes filling out a questionnaire. Thirty of those asked were men, and 16 were women, and all were asked to rate themselves in terms of personality, using the same questionnaire employed in the study involving engineering teams.

Those receiving the favors were asked to report their indebtedness and obligation to reciprocate on a scale of 1 ("not at all") to 7 ("to a great extent"). Receivers reported feeling significantly more indebted (and obligated to reciprocate) when a favor was performed by a male employee than by a female employee.

In addition, women who were more agreeable elicited considerably weaker feelings of indebtedness than women who were less agreeable. In contrast, agreeableness seemed to bring a slightly increased indebtedness toward men who did favors.

Surmising that help from female employees is discounted because it is easier to
ask help from women than from men, Prof. Flynn asked respondents to rate their level of comfort in making their requests. Workers reported feeling more comfortable and less awkward requesting a favor from a female employee than from a male employee, and this perceived ease of the request predicted less indebtedness.

The Academy of Management, founded in 1936, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has about 16,000 members in 90 countries, including some 10,000 in the United States. The academy's 2005 annual meeting will draw more than 6,000 scholars and practitioners to Honolulu for more than 1,000 sessions on a host of issues relating to corporate organization and investment, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related subjects.

Media Coverage:
Marketplace Morning Report. August 15, 2005. What goes around doesn't always come around. (Monday, August 15, 2005).

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