What is non-promotable work, and why are women doing most of it?

Oct 10, 2022

5 mins

What is non-promotable work, and why are women doing most of it?
Vivian Song

Toronto expat and Paris-based journalist

In their book The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work, authors Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Laurie Weingart and Lise Vesterlund challenge women in the workplace to do something that typically runs counter to their wiring: to say no. Because as their research suggests, organizing the office holiday party and mentoring new hires—assignments they define as non-promotable work— are disproportionately given to women over men. What if these assignments were distributed more equally? Could the gender gap in the workplace, which includes pay inequity, greater burnout and fewer advancements among women, shrink? In an interview with Welcome to the Jungle, co-author Vesterlund offers a compelling argument on how the simple redistribution of office housework could be the key to unlocking gender parity in the workplace.

Lise Vesterlund remembers the conversation that started it all.

It happened 12 years ago, on a flight with her colleague and seatmate Linda Babcock. On the short flight home from Boston to Pittsburgh, the two women began commiserating about how unhappy they were in their professional lives. Both were overloaded with assignments that had little to do with their skills and expertise as researchers and professors in behavioral economics and both felt like they had reached a professional impasse.

As it turned out, Babcock had had similar conversations with several other female friends and colleagues, and decided something had to be done. So, after sending out an email invitation, five women, each successful in their own careers, met at a Pittsburgh restaurant bar where they pledged to put their foot down and say no to dead-end assignments that were holding them back from advancing in their careers. Once a month “The No Club” met to review the different types of extra-curricular, non-promotable tasks they were taking on that had little to do with their actual jobs—writing reference letters, writing minutes from a meeting, serving on committees—and discussed how to decline the requests without jeopardizing their careers.

“I had this unfortunate perception that if I just worked a bit harder, I would be able to get everything done,” Versterlund said. “But the big thing I realized in those meetings was that every time I said yes to something at work, I was saying no to my family. Whenever I took on an assignment to help someone else out, I was really taking time away from my children who were young at the time.”

What exactly is non-promotable work?

Non-promotable work is a task that helps the organization but doesn’t help advance your career, Vesterlund explains. Typically, this kind of work has three characteristics:

  • It doesn’t contribute directly to the organization’s mission. This can look like serving on internal committees or organizing the office holiday party or an upcoming conference rather than working on projects that generate revenue or bring in new clients.
  • It tends to be work that is invisible. For example, you agree to prepare the slides, but don’t give the presentation.
  • It’s work that doesn’t require your unique skill set, like a surgeon who spends time doing administrative duties rather than time in the OR.

In your book, you discuss the gender imbalance when it comes to non-promotable tasks in the workplace. What does it look like?

“In terms of magnitude, the problem is present in truly every single profession and occupation we looked at,” Vesterlund said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer, engineer, architect, TSA agent or supermarket clerk, women are doing more non-promotable work than men. It happens in every single profession that we looked at.”

According to their findings, women spend up to 200 more hours a year on non-promotable work than their male colleagues, equal to a month’s work. Their research also showed that women are 48% more likely to volunteer for tasks no one else wants to do, and that managers—both men and women—are 44% more likely to assign women non-promotable tasks.

Why do women volunteer more to perform these tasks? Where does this habit come from?

“Our data suggests that it all comes from the expectation that women are more likely to say yes,” she said.

It’s a deeply ingrained, subconscious expectation that can be paralleled with domestic life, where average American women still perform more unpaid housework than men. As the primary caretaker of young children, women are also seen as default helpers. But carrying these kinds of expectations over into the workplace is a disservice both to employers and women, Vesterlund said.

“If we’re subconsciously giving all the non-promotable work to women, we’re never going to be able to identify who the most skilled employee is in the workplace,” she points out. “If from the very beginning women enter the labor market and are saddled with assignments where they can’t demonstrate their unique skills set, we won’t be able to promote the right employees or retain them.”

When she was chair of her own department, Vesterlund admits she, too, instinctively reached out to her female employees when she needed to delegate less desirable tasks, knowing that women were less likely to object compared to her male employees.

“When we’re in a rush, we tend to assign tasks based on who will do a good job and take it on and not cause me any trouble. And regrettably, that often ends up being a woman.”

Why women risk more than men when they say no

When women say no to an assignment, research shows they’re assessed much more harshly compared to a man. When women defy the requester’s expectation, they risk greater backlash and accusations of not being a team player. By contrast, the same research showed that men who decline assignments risk little in their professional reputation.

“We have this tendency to say that women should just behave like men and say no. But there are negative consequences for women who say no. What we need is, not for the women to say no, but for the men to start saying yes.”

Overall, it’s not just about getting women to say no, but about changing the way non-promotable work is distributed within the team, and how these tasks are rewarded and recognized within the organization, she said.

In the wake of the Great Resignation when employee retention is more important than ever, for instance, it might be time to consider the onboarding of new employees as promotable, rewardable work, rather than an add-on task foisted on the first female employee to arrive at the office that day.

Instead of asking for volunteers, names could be drawn out of a hat as is done at the University of Pittsburgh. A points system, like the one implemented at the Harvard Kennedy School, also incentivizes employees to sign up for non-promotable tasks and equalizes the workload, as employees risk not getting a satisfactory review if they don’t pull their weight.

Why women of color lose the most

“Regrettably, women of color are hurt even more by non-promotable work than other women,” Vesterlund points out.

Women from underrepresented minority groups may be expected to serve as the face of the gender diversity, equity and inclusion committees, for instance. But this cultural taxation places additional unrewarded and uncompensated labor demands on WOC and can be construed as a form of tokenism in the workplace.

“Representation of these committees have to be representational to the composition of your workforce.”

How can women say no more effectively without jeopardizing their careers?

Avoid giving long explanations and make it clear that working on a non-promotable task comes at a cost to your work and your contribution to the organization. At the same time, offer up a solution to the requester’s problem, such as suggesting the name of a new or junior employee who would benefit from the task. Because as Vesterlund points out, promotable and non-promotable work changes throughout our careers.

In a situation where you have little leverage to say no, negotiate your yes, she adds. That could look like accepting an assignment on the condition they take you off another non-promotable task that’s on your to-do list, or asking to split the assignment in three different parts among your colleagues.

And lastly, make sure there’s an exit strategy. If you’re assigned to organize a conference this year, request that someone else take over the year after.

“Because what we often see is that if you’ve done a good job on an assignment, often you’re rewarded by getting it again.”

Lise Vesterlund is co-author of the book The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work, along with Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, and Laurie Weingart. Vesterlund is the Andew W. Mellon professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh, and the director of the Pittsburgh Experimental Economics Laboratory (PEEL) and the Behavioral Economic Design Initiative (BEDI).

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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