New Harvard Study’s Lesson to Women: Ask for Deadline Extensions More (Men Certainly Do)

You have a deadline fast approaching, and with all the other tasks on your plate it’s clear there’s no way you can complete it without superhuman effort. What do you do? 

A. clear your calendar, brew another pot of coffee, and put in those superhuman hours to get it done, or  

B. ask for extension of the deadline 

The answer to this question depends on the situation and your personal character, but according to new research out of Harvard it is also influenced by your gender. Women, it turns out, are a whole lot more likely to answer A than men are. 

Ladies, stop killing yourselves to meet arbitrary deadlines. 

As Harvard’s Ashley Williams explained on HBR, a series of studies she recently carried out with colleagues demonstrated that all workers worry excessively they will be judged negatively for asking for more time (even if they were explicitly told that quality of output mattered more than hitting the deadline). But women, the reseachers found, are much more worried about how they’ll be perceived if they request a deadline extension. 

“Women are less likely than men to negotiate for more time on adjustable deadlines at work. Regardless of job status or years of experience, women reported feeling less comfortable asking for such extensions than men,” she writes along with her co-author Grant Donnelly in a Wall Street Journal article focused on the gender aspects of the research specifically. 

Why are women more worried about asking for more time on projects? “We found that women are more concerned than men about appearing incompetent and burdening other people with their requests. These concerns increased feelings of guilt and undermined women’s willingness to ask for more time to complete projects and assignments,” they write, which I am sure surprises absolutely no women reading this. 

The result of this guilt and fear is that way more women than men choose option A in the real world equivalent of the hypothetical above, canceling personal activities, staying up to insane hours, engaging in brain-scrambling multitasking, and generally making themselves much more prone to burnout. 

Fixing the problem isn’t hard. 

The solution for women is simple. Ladies, ask for more extensions. Not every project can be pushed, but a whole lot more of them are more flexible than you think. Appearing flawless and superhuman is not worth your sanity or long-term productivity. 

But Williams and her colleagues stress that this is also an issue for bosses, especially given the ongoing ‘Great Resignation’ and companies’ struggles to retain talent. If your best female employees are killing themselves to meet arbitrary deadlines, that’s bad management. Bosses can take simple steps to let all employees (but especially women) know that it’s OK to ask for more time when they need it. 

First, specify which deadlines are firm and which have some leeway. If the timeline can be adjusted with little or no cost to the final product, then let your employees know that from the outset, Williams and Donnelly suggest. 

Second, tell your team straight out that you won’t judge them for asking for more time. After all, the quality of that memo generally matters a whole lot more than whether you get it on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday lunchtime. Many of your female employees will probably turn in less-than-their best to make deadlines if you don’t discourage this behavior. 

These simple changes can even be formalized in a set workplace policy on deadlines. “In our research, formal policies that make clear employees can request extensions without penalty eliminated gender differences in extension requests and appeared to improve the performance of women,” Williams and Donnelly report. 

If you want the women on your team to offer you the best work and also to stick around for awhile, then the solution is simple. Let them know asking for a deadline extension is OK. You’ll not only save their sanity, but also likely save yourself from losing good employees to unnecessary burnout. 

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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