This morning, I finally had the chance to read an article in last Monday’s WSJ about Women, Men, and Deadlines. As background, this article states that during the pandemic, working women completed an additional five hours a week of childcare and chores compared to men, and as a result, 23% of women with children are considering leaving the workforce compared to 13% of employed men with children.
The article then shares that one reason women are so stressed is that they tend to not ask for extensions on projects that have flexible deadlines at work. Why? The study found that women are more concerned about appearing incompetent and burdening other people with their requests, as well as feelings of guilt.
The article wraps up with three recommendations: for leaders to let people know when a deadline is flexible, to reinforce that asking for an extension is not a sign of incompetence but a sign of high quality work, and to have a formal company policy to request project extensions.
I’ve never considered this phenomenon; however, as I’ve become busier with children, a home, and work, I’ve also quite simply had less time to dedicate to work and I have to do a better job prioritizing and communicating with others. It is amazing how much work and time is required, and yes, women do tend to take on more of this work whether by default, intentionally, or for other reasons.
While I appreciate the article and the broad set of recommendations, when it comes to enacting change most efficiently and effectively, I think that best starts with the individual. That means that I think women will be most successful if they focus on how they approach deadlines and requesting more time. That isn’t to let other people off the hook, and I know that I’m putting the burden back on women, but hear me out - the person who most cares about you is...you. And, further building the communication, logical reasoning, and negotiation skills involved with asking for deadline extensions are transferable skills that can be used in many other situations that will ultimately make women more successful. I think it also gives women the opportunity to set the example that making a logical request to adjust a deadline, and then following through with top quality work by the new deadline, is an opportunity to build or reinforce trust with others.
Here’s a recent example I had related to this topic. I was asked to find what initially seemed like a simple metric or measurement and to use that as a benchmark to measure performance of a business unit over the past five years. What seemed simple at first turned into something quite complicated and full of industry-specific calibrations. And, what started as a 15 minute exercise was taking much longer. I decided to step back and get back to the crux of the goal of the request - what was the correct question that needed to be answered and how could I best respond to it in a way that truly told the correct story in a reasonable amount of time? When I communicated that message concisely and logically back to the person who made the request, he agreed and we’re moving forward with this approach.
Sometimes, people do not always know the details/complexity of what they are asking for in a request. Other times, they aren’t aware of other projects and priorities you have going on at the same time. I learned this lesson the hard way in my first full-time job, and I never forgot how painful it was to let my team down because I wasn’t willing to share that I was struggling with the work and ended up putting everyone in a bind toward the end of the project. I learned that being honest and transparent at work were important skills that not only helped the team and the project, but also built trust with people over time.
Every workplace and person is different, and the cultural or leadership support to adjust deadlines will differ. I’m not saying this is easy, but I have seen many people do this effectively by telling a brief, solid story and then following through on the new expectation they have set. I think it can be uncomfortable sometimes to put expectations out there or to be concerned about “asking” for too much. That said, time and time again I have either seen positive responses from others to this sort of approach or a direct and impersonal disagreement from the other person, followed by either a compromise or maintaining the original date. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t easy, but I think focusing on what we can do to each improve our own situations has the best short and long-term impact for this trend impacting women in the workplace.