A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that in academic and professional settings, women are less likely than men to ask for more time when working under arbitrary deadlines, or deadlines for relatively independent projects that are not especially time-sensitive. This difference predicts time stress (the feeling of having too much to do and too little time) and burnout, controlling for a variety of factors, according to the study. The authors found no evidence that women who do ask for more time are judged more harshly than are men. Nevertheless, for a variety of social reasons, women are less likely to ask for extensions because they more strongly believe that they’ll be judged negatively or otherwise penalized for such requests.
The authors recommend that institutions adopt formal processes for requesting deadline extensions, to reduce gender differences in asking for more time. “As related to deadline extension requests, in ambiguous situations where there are no clear norms or explicit policies, it is unclear whether asking for an extension on an adjustable deadline at work is an acceptable behavior,” the paper states.
The authors had hoped to study deadline extension requests by gender among faculty members, such as extension requests by academics to journals, but these data were unavailable. Instead, the authors’ discussion of deadline extension requests in academe involves studies of undergraduate students, in several real and hypothetical classroom settings. The paper therefore has implications for some of the ongoing faculty conversations about how flexible to be with students impacted by COVID-19.
Lead author Ashley V. Whillans, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard University, said the study also has significant implications for faculty deadlines, not only during the pandemic -- the gendered effects of which on women in academe are well documented -- but beyond. “Given that women are experiencing greater time stress on average than men, especially working moms, we should actually hope to see women engaging with extension requests at a higher rate” than men, she said. “Our studies eliminated gender differences by institutionalizing policies that allow women to feel more comfortable asking for more time.” Policy ideas include having extension requests be written and then submitted to someone other than the requester’s direct supervisor for approval.
One experiment included in the new paper analyzed the performance of 103 students at an unnamed U.S. university working on a project with an adjustable deadline (the professor had told students to ask for an extension without penalty if they needed it). Male students in the class were more than twice as likely as female students to request an extension for the assignment (15 percent of female versus 36 percent of male students). Students who asked for more time ended up performing better on the assignment, by about eight percentage points, as rated by a teaching assistant who wasn’t aware of the study’s purpose and based on their expected performance, controlling for their grades in the class prior to the assignment.
In contexts “without a formal policy about requesting a deadline extension, female students were 32 percent more likely to forgo the opportunity to request an extension on an adjustable task deadline than male students, which compromised their performance,” the study says, underscoring the topic’s import.