It’s a tantalizing idea that’s been floated for some time: Perhaps women should stop going to work or caring for their children for a day in order to demand greater equity, as 90% of the women in Iceland did on one Friday in 1975.
“One solution might be to let things fall apart for just one day. Stop working, stop washing, stop doing any of the labor—visible and invisible, paid and unpaid—that makes this country run,” declared Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code and the Marshall Plan for Moms, in a recent essay for NBC News.
A recent book called The No Club by Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart offers support to the idea that things would fall apart without unrecognized female labor and provides a playbook for addressing inequities in the workplace.
The authors, professors and academic leaders, started “The No Club” 12 years ago as an informal support group to address the feeling that they “were drowning in [their] jobs and suffering both personally and professionally.” (p. 1)
They came to focus on what they call non-promotable tasks (NPTs), which the authors define as things that “matter to your organization but will not help you advance your career….in terms of pay, performance evaluations, assignments, promotions, and status” now or in the future. (p. 18) Examples are when you “prepare a presentation deck, organize the charity fundraiser, screen the summer interns, take on the time-consuming but low-revenue client, or simply help others with their work.” (p. 10) Some NPTs are sometimes described as “emotional labor” and “office housework.” “While these tasks are good for the organization, they are bad for the good citizens whose workday is overloaded with them,” the authors conclude. (p. 27)
People who spend disproportionate amounts of time on NPTs tend to fall behind as their colleagues get raises, plum assignments, and promotions, or become overworked from doing those tasks alongside those their organization rewards. They might be skipped over for tenure because doing NPTs reduced their ability to do research or miss out on being made partner because they clocked fewer billable client hours. The authors’ research demonstrates conclusively what others have previously observed: NPTs fall disproportionately on women, and it’s one reason they’re overlooked or burned out.
Babcock, Peyser, Vesterlund, and Weingart do an impressive job trying to decipher—including through clever new experiments and analysis of prior research—why women are burdened with NPTs and what the specific consequences are for both women and organizations. And they offer tactical exercises for identifying NPTs and a high-level change process for addressing the inequities.
NPTs fall disproportionately on women because they’re more likely to be asked to take them on. And they’re also more likely to say yes when asked. The reasons for this appear to be partly cultural, the authors write: “Women feel guilty when we consider saying no. We think it is our own voice compelling us to feel guilty for not saying yes, and our own voice telling us to be offended when a woman says no. But it’s not us! It is the collective expectation that women will take on non-promotable work.” (p. 67)
Women can experience backlash when they decline to take on NPTs. There’s also “cultural taxation” that occurs when women are underrepresented in a workplace, so they each face greater demands to serve in NPT roles such as committee membership in the name of gender diversity.
How can individuals reset the balance?
- Understand which activities are NPTs. This can vary by organization, but NPTs generally don’t serve the core mission or metrics, require specialized skills, or come with any visibility.
- Audit how you spend your time. That allows you to identify NPTs you should say no to. To be sure, taking on some NPTs is a good idea to support the broader organizational good, especially if you find them fulfilling or they take advantage of your individual skills.
- When asked to perform a task, get the information needed to understand whether it’s an NPT and get better at avoiding mistakes that lead you to say yes. Those mistakes include saying yes too quickly without thinking it through, underestimating the time that a task might take and tradeoffs it might require, and falling victim to flattery.
- Learn to say no more effectively. Some examples of unambiguous ways to say no, from Shonda Rhimes: “I am going to be unable to do that,” and “That is not going to work for me.” (p. 129) Negotiation expert William Ury recommends a “yes, no, yes” strategy for declining a task: You affirmatively express your needs and values, say no and provide a brief explanation, and then proactively suggest an alternative.
- Explain that avoiding being overloaded with NPTs increases your ability to contribute to the organization. By doing so, you can better reduce burnout and leverage your unique skills.
Babcock, Peyser, Vesterlund, and Weingart show that for organizations, changing the allocation and recognition of non-promotable work has the benefit of:
- Better utilizing the workforce
- Creating a culture where everyone contributes
- Having engaged and satisfied employees
- Retaining and attracting talent
The book provides a detailed process for identifying and reducing inequities linked to NPTs. Measures at the team and organizational levels include:
- Randomly assigning work or setting up a rotation rather than asking for volunteers.
- Requiring employees take on a minimum number of NPTs. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, for example, created a point system and requirements for faculty to perform administrative functions such as serving on committees.
- Providing incentives for doing NPTs. This could include an extra day off, for example, and has the virtue of encouraging a broader group of employees to volunteer.
- Avoiding cultural taxation. Reducing the burden could mean having less representation of women or other underrepresented groups in areas—such as committees weighing non-strategic matters—where it’s less essential.
- Eliminating unnecessary NPTs. Some unrewarding tasks are vestiges of earlier projects and don’t make sense anymore.
Babcock, Peyser, Vesterlund, and Weingart provide a useful statement for organizations to disseminate:
“To support our values of equity and effective workforce utilization, we will ensure that all employees have equal opportunity to demonstrate skill and potential. We will provide employees of similar ability, rank, and role with comparable work assignments. We will share responsibility for the change, and managers and employees will collectively work to equalize NPT workloads among peers.” (p. 223)
To be sure:
- It’s still hard for an individual to always determine what is an NPT in any given circumstances and what tasks could instead yield dividends down the line–such as a chance interaction with a superior who then awards a plum assignment. Also, there’s no strict formula for the balance of NPTs that is healthy to spend time on for your own career and the greater organizational good.
- The book doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge how the revolution in flexible and remote work has altered how tasks are valued and employees are evaluated. While more flexibility is generally positive for employees—particularly those with caregiving responsibilities—managers often exhibit “proximity bias,” for example, and value workers more when they’re performing tasks in the office rather than remotely. The question of how workers should factor the changed context into understanding what is an NPT isn’t addressed at any length.
- Babcock, Peyser, Vesterlund, and Weingart acknowledge they’re writing from the perspective of successful white women and that the challenges they describe can be more severe for workers of color, those with different gender identities, and others less privileged.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- Some 87% of organizations said that work to support colleagues’ wellbeing was critical, but just 25% said it was formally recognized in performance evaluations, according to McKinsey and Lean In.
- Researchers found that academic faculty of color spend three more hours per week on NPTs than do white faculty.
- The authors found that at one consulting firm the median woman spent about 200 hours more per year on NPTs than the median man. “That’s approximately a month of extra dead-end work!” they write. (p. 47)
- Babcock, Peyser, Vesterlund, and Weingart conducted so-called “coordination game” experiments involving groups of three subjects, where they all were given more money if one of them volunteered to accept a lesser amount than the others (but still higher than if no one volunteered). In mixed-gender groups, women were 48% more likely to volunteer than men to accept the lesser amount. When in all-male groups, men stepped up and volunteered at the same rate as women. The authors conclude that when there are women present, both men and women just expect them to do the undesirable tasks, such as accepting less money. In a variation on the experiment, subjects asked to volunteer someone else to accept the lesser amount were 44% more likely to ask a woman than a man.
- “Often these situations which go on in a woman’s career—workplace situations—they don’t seem big. But I heard someone say a marvelous thing in this context: ‘A ton of feathers still weighs a ton.’” —Elizabeth Blackburn, former president of the Salk Institute (p. 9)
- “Women aren’t the problem. Organizational practices are.” (p. 13)
- “Employees are an organization’s most important asset, and how they allocate their time across tasks is perhaps the most important business decision.” (p. 171)
The bottom line is that The No Club is a clear-headed explanation of how many of us—particularly women—overwork ourselves or miss opportunities for advancement because we’re not critical enough about the work that we take on. The book provides helpful tactical advice for individuals and a guide for righting inequities at the organizational level.
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