It’s tough to say no to a crappy assignment when your boss expects you to say yes.
Especially if you're a woman.
Gender inequality in the workplace begins with being asked to take on work that doesn’t typically lead to a career advancement or higher pay and is rarely included in formal year-end evaluations or performance reviews.
That’s the core message from Lise Vesterlund, a professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh, along with her academic colleagues Laurie Weingart, Brenda Peyser and Linda Babcock, authors of the new book “The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work.”
This unrewarded work runs the gamut from being asked to volunteer to plan an office party to being given the assignment of interviewing summer interns or spearheading a non-revenue generating company initiative such as diversity and inclusion.
In a 2021 report, for example, McKinsey & Company, in partnership with Lean In, conducted a survey of 423 organizations and 65,000 employees about issues related to women in the workplace. Seventy percent of companies reported that diversity, equity, and inclusion work was critical to the organization yet only 24% of companies reported that such work was formally recognized.
All organizations have this kind of dead-end work. And women tend to be the ones who are asked — and frankly expected — to good-naturedly lend a hand and simply add it to their plate.
The authors undertook studies at the University of Pittsburgh Experimental Economics Laboratory (PEEL), interviewed women across industries and jobs, conducted surveys, and worked closely with organizations to gather data and understand their experience with the problem.
Vesterlund offered insights and advice in a conversation with Yahoo Money. Here are the highlights of that conversation:
Why is this book important now?
We have uncovered a fundamental part of what has been holding women back in the labor market. We've been working to improve or equalize the playing field for men and women for a long time, but we have not managed to move the needle on women’s advancement.
Women are doing a lot more non-promotable work than men. This has been holding women back. If women are doing a lot more, non-promotable work than men, they will get lower wages. They will not advance, and they're going to get more burned out.
What is the ‘No Club?’
The No Club started 12 years ago, when I and four other women felt completely overwhelmed by our current jobs. We felt like we were working really, really hard, but that our careers were not advancing anymore.
We were so overwhelmed that we started to meet, to talk about how our careers had gone off track, and how we could make changes to get it back. What we discovered was that a lot of the work that we were doing was not core to the jobs that we had.
We had taken on a number of service assignments. The time that we had to do our core jobs — researching and teaching — kept getting smaller and smaller. We started to think more strategically about how we spent every single day in the office. And what was common for all of us was that we had taken on what we initially referred to as a lot of crappy tasks.
These assignments helped out our organizations but didn't help our careers. Instead of calling them crappy tasks, we began to call them ‘non-promotable’ tasks. How do we get all these tasks? How do we try to limit those tasks? And how do we say no without risking backlash?
Every time you say yes to something, you're implicitly saying no to something else. And what is that other thing that you're saying no to, is it other work? Is it your family? Is it yourself?
We met once a month. We would talk about, what did you say yes to, what did you say no to? It was tremendously helpful for each of us to have this group of women who helped us stay accountable to all the yes’s.
What do you and your co-authors consider to be non-promotable work?
Broadly speaking, something that helps the organization but doesn't help the individual who does the assignment. It is the oil that keeps the wheels turning within the organization but isn't recognized. It can be governance work, such as safety committees, ethics committees, diversity committees, climate committees, and review committees.
It can be recruiting or onboarding new employees. It can be working on a presentation deck, but not giving it, organizing the charity fundraiser, screening the summer interns, taking on the time-consuming but low-revenue client, or simply helping others with their work.
How do you know if the task is non-promotable?
There are three characteristics we ask people to look for when they're trying to pick out if their assignment is non-promotable. Is it directly linked to the organization's goals and missions? If it's not revenue-generating, for example, and you're in a for-profit organization, you should be cautious.
Is it visible? Can people see or identify the work that you've done? Last, are you using your unique skills? If you’re a lawyer, you should be going to court, meeting with clients. Recruiting interns would not be a promotable task for a lawyer because it's not using their unique skills.
Are women more accommodating by nature and more apt to say yes than no?
It is definitely more women in every single profession that we've looked at who are doing more of this work. Whether or not you’re a supermarket clerk or a lawyer, an engineer, or working in academia — every single profession shows that women are doing more of this work.
We did a number of studies where we really tried to home in on why it is that women are doing this work? In hundreds of these individual group settings, we found that women volunteer 48% more than men. It's not that women are moral, altruistic; rather, it is because when women are with men, both men and women expect the women to volunteer.
This expectation that women will do the work puts them in a bind. Managers are far more likely to ask the women to be the ones who come forward to volunteer.
Is it a cultural norm embedded in our workplace culture?
Absolutely. The men feel like they can take a pass. They can look at their assignment and say, do I want it, or do I not want it? I'm going to say, no. Women don't have the same freedom to do that.
Are they worried if they say no that it will block their promotional opportunities?
The challenge is that we have these expectations of women. If women say no, they get perceived very negatively. Whereas if a man says, no, he's not perceived negatively. If a man says, yes, though, he's perceived very positively. Whereas a woman who was already expected to say yes is not perceived positively at all, because we already expect that she would take it on.
Is there one big mistake that women make in this arena?
This is not a fix-the-women book. We don't think that women are making mistakes. We think organizations are making mistakes because this is coming from expectations. This is not something that women can fix.
We have this tendency to want to come out of some of these gender issues and say, “oh, we should just get women to behave like men.” We should fix the women and get them to negotiate and be confident.
When we started saying no to lots of things, it didn't mean that the requests kept coming because it was the culture around us. Organizations need to fix it.
Ok, but what are some strategies you found in your research that can help?
Start a list of all the tasks you perform. Write down everything you can think of. The tasks do not need to be a formal part of your job to count. Don’t judge them, just list them. Estimate how time you spend on each on a typical week.
Figure out what is promotable and what is not promotable. You need to think strategically about the assignments that you end up with. Assess the request on the promotability spectrum. Is this something that will get me to where I want to be? And then if it is something non-promotable, carefully assess, can I say no to this without negative consequences?
The challenging thing, when we say no, is that we tend to go into the spin where we start explaining all the reasons why we can't do it. Give a quick explanation for why you can't do it. Then a solution to the request. “I can't work on the holiday party because I'm working on the product launch, but you should ask John because he doesn't know anybody in the firm yet, so why don't we get him to handle it?”
If you can't say no, don't just say yes, negotiate that. One way is to offload something else that is not promotable.
If you have to take it on right now, negotiate a timetable for when the task should move to another person afterwards.
Another option is to divvy up the task so that it doesn't just become yours. Say “this is a big assignment, we can split it into three. I'll handle A, because that's where I have expertise, but let's have John and Jim do the two other parts.”
Start your own small — no more than five or six women — No Club. The purpose of a No Club is to help you make better decisions about how to spend your time at work, making sure you are saying yes and no to the right things, and holding you accountable to your choices.
Do managers recognize this tendency to ask women to volunteer?
I think we might be aware of it a little bit. Some of the organizations we've worked with certainly have a suspicion that things might not be quite right. But they have no idea how bad the problem is.
When I was chair of my department, I did, very disturbingly, have a tendency to ask women to take on the work that the men didn't want to do. I was busy. I got requests that needed to be handled all the time.
I wanted to give it to someone who could do it quickly and not going to put up a fight when you give them the assignment. When you get a request for something that you know will not go particularly recognized or rewarded, the first person who's going to come to mind will tend to be a female.
Once I became aware of it, I started writing out lists in advance, so that I knew who's already doing all the non-promotable work, who are the guys who should be next on that list? I was ready to go to that list when the next request came in.
We know that women are more likely to volunteer. So stop asking for volunteers. Change the way you allocate the work. Put names into a hat.
What’s an example of something an organization can do to make a non-promotable assignment rewarded?
During this period of the great resignation and the great reshuffling, every single organization is short of new employees. We're spending lots of resources on recruiting and identifying new talent to bring into the organization. The process of onboarding and bringing in those new employees, again is not one that we consider promotable, and it is something that typically will fall to a woman.
But getting new employees set up is making them feel welcomed and is not something that just anybody can do well. It’s important for the extent to which these new employees are going to succeed within the organization. This task needs to be seen as promotable.
Anything unexpected emerge from your research?
I thought that what we were going to find women are assessed as being more accommodating and altruistic and that would explain the gender gap. It does not. It's true that men and women who are more accommodating and more altruistic tend to take on these assignments, but it is not the gender gap. It’s collective expectations. It doesn't matter if you have a male or a female boss, they're all going to ask the women more.
Kerry is a Senior Columnist and Senior Reporter at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon