Saying no to non-promotable tasks

A new book looks at the many tasks that women tend to take on at work which are not considered relevant to promotion. Why do we do them and should we just say no more?

Stressed woman working


Do you tend to say yes to lots of extra activities at work which don’t really get recognised or rewarded? If so, you’re not alone because women tend to do it a lot, according to a new book, The No Club, which aims to highlight and address the issue of task overload.

The No Club started when five women working in academia got together at a local restaurant to discuss how their working lives had got out of control. “We didn’t know one another well,” they write, “but we all had one thing in common – we were drowning in our jobs and were suffering both personally and professionally.”

That first meeting laid the groundwork for considerable research into the phenomenon of women not being able to say no to tasks which have no relation to their core job or to their career progress [they call them non-promotable tasks or NPTs], for mentoring of other women and work advising employers and, finally, to the book itself.

The authors, Lise Vesterlund, Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser and Laurie Weingart, write: “Rather than being strategic about where to focus our attention, we were running around trying to fulfil other people’s needs and expectations.”

What are NPTs?

NPTs cover a wide range of low visibility tasks, from organising a charity fundraiser, screening the summer interns and serving on a committee to helping others with their work and leading diversity and inclusion initiatives. Mostly that work is not recognised or rewarded. A 2021 survey by McKinsey & Company and Lean In found 87 per cent of companies reported that employees’ work to support well-being among their coworkers was critical to the functioning of the organisation, yet only 25 per cent of companies report that such work was formally recognised in performance evaluations. The same was true for diversity, equity, and inclusion work, where 70 per cent of companies reported that this work was critical to the organisation yet only 24 per cent formally recognised it.

The authors worked on scripts for responses to requests, practised role-playing and prepared for possible pushback. They managed to turn down requests, but soon realised that the tasks tended just to get reassigned to another woman. Saying no wasn’t enough. They wanted to understand who was doing non-promotable work and why.  Finding only limited research on the issue, they started their own initiative.

They found that women tended to get asked to do NPTs more than men and are more likely to agree to do them than men. This was due to increased expectations that women will do these tasks which becomes a self-fulfilling cycle leading to women being asked more.  Sometimes those who ask the women to do them think they are helping them.

The authors decided that it was not just an individual problem for women, but an organisational one which needed to be tackled from the bottom up and the top down, with women initiating the charge and their organisations taking ownership of the change.

From that research they listed a top ten of NPTs:

  1. Helping others do their work and filling in when people are absent
  2. Organising and coordinating (but not managing) the work of others
  3. Editing, proofreading and compiling, especially the work of others
  4. Logistical planning and special events
  5. Governance work, such as safety committees, ethics committees, diversity committees, climate committees and review committees
  6. Recruiting
  7. Resolving conflict among co-workers
  8. Helping coworkers with their personal problems
  9. Onboarding, training and mentoring
  10. Office housework such as getting coffee and cleaning

What would help?

The authors suggest that organisations need to do more to identify not only what these NPTs are, but whether there is a gender divide in the distribution of them. They also need to understand the cost that doing all these tasks has on women, for instance, on their career progression, their health and wellbeing, on their confidence and on wider society, such as their families.

NPTS need to be shared more equitably and this will help with talent attraction and retention, say the authors. Other things employers can do include: raising awareness of the problem; educate their employees; showing how NPT distribution links to diversity; mobilising allies using network groups; training line managers; mentoring women better; creating an NPT Innovation Team; ensuring initiatives are department and organisation wide; changing performance evaluations; redesigning jobs to make NPTs into promotional tasks; and communicating and monitoring their strategy on NPTs.

For women, the authors counsel that women need to get together and support each other to think before saying yes to a task; get clarity on what the task involves, wait before they say yes, set time limits on tasks, suggest alternatives and be more strategic in what tasks they accept. And mostly they need to argue for a more equal sharing of NPTs.

They conclude: “Sharing this load means that your career can take the shape you want it to and your organisation can reap the benefits of all of your talents and efforts. It’s not hard; it just takes will. You can do it, and so can your organisation.”

*The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work” is just out and is published by Simon and Schuster.

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