Careers

Hidden baggage: do women take on more “non-promotable tasks” at work?

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Anna Brech
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Do you find yourself volunteering for everyday tasks in the workplace? If so, it may be part of a worrying and sexist trend that is endemic in our work lives – according to an intriguing new career guide.

Emotional labour has been dubbed “the next frontier of feminism” – in an uncomfortable reality that may apply to the workplace as much as anywhere else. 

According to the authors of a ground-breaking new book on gender equality, women take on the lion’s share of “non-promotable tasks” in the office, exerting a massive toll on our workloads and ability to handle stress

Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie R. Weingart are four female professors who started “The No Club” between them over a decade ago, in response to their burgeoning to-lists. The academics, from the US state of Pennsylvania, noticed that they constantly lagged behind their male colleagues, despite grinding harder than ever (sound familiar?). 

So, they bandied together, using their combined backgrounds in policy, management and behavioural science to carve out a better way of being. And now they’ve published their findings in a new book, The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work, out this May.

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As co-author, Professor Weingart, explains in a new interview with LinkedIn this week, The No Club takes a deep dive into the unrecognised duties that women – far more than men – typically acquire in the workplace. This might include anything from taking notes in a meeting to organising a colleague’s birthday cake. They might sound small on the face of it; but the authors argue that they exert an insidious toll on women, in particular, and detract from more meaningful work.

“The basic definition is a task that may matter to your organization but will not help advance your career,” explains Weingart. “It does not lead to increases in pay or formal recognition. It is really about tasks that have to get done and the organization needs to get done but it does not help the individual.”

A woman working on her laptop
Women, far more than men, take on "non-promotable tasks" in the workplace

So, why do women end up shouldering more of these everyday tasks? As with life outside the office, it comes down to social conditioning and an expectation to please. Just as research shows that women find themselves doing more “cognitive labour” at Christmas than their male spouses or partners – for example, by anticipating everyone’s needs and coming up with creative solutions – so we have ended up with the brunt of trivial admin requests in the office. 

“The reality is that this isn’t work that women are especially suited for, and we demonstrate that in our research,” says Weingart. “There are no gender differences, but there is still this propensity to ask women. Women internalize this expectation to say yes, so we automatically do.” The research also found that women from ethnic minority groups, especially, “get overtaxed to serve in these duties”.

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With workplace stress on the rise, coupled with an endemic risk of burnout, non-promotable tasks aren’t merely annoying; they also force women into a series of unenviable choices. “Women are either working really long hours or they are cutting their time into their promotable work and each of those have negative repercussions,” Weingart says. 

In many ways, then, the toll of these tasks exacerbates the unfairness of the gender pay gap (women in the UK currently get paid 90p for every £1 earned by men) by waylaying us, and holding us back from the kind of meaningful work that matters most to our career progression. What’s worse, the problem – like sexism itself – can be surprisingly nuanced, and difficult to call out. After all, if you say no to organising an office party, or training up the intern, aren’t you simply being unfriendly? 

A woman at work on a laptop
It's not a woman's job to try and change an organisation

The authors argue that this fear is all part of the wider problem; and, as such, it shouldn’t be down to women individually to fix the issue. Yes, we can find ways to make savvy and mindful decisions about the work that we agree to take on. But it is also up to organisations to create sustainable change; by reassessing how they assign and reward work of all kinds. 

In part, this is a challenge that starts with introducing dialogue around the concept of non-promotable work, and why women do it more than men.  “You first need to have the language and understanding that everyone needs to do this [address the problem],” says Weingart. Then companies can think about strategies to tackle it; for example, by assigning non-promotable tasks, rather than asking for volunteers (when women are more likely to put themselves forward). 

Addressing inequality is a major incentive for doing this, but so too is the question of retaining talent. The professors say they saw lots of examples of women “wanting to leave their organizations because they got stuck doing this work”. 

This bigger challenge is likely to take time, however. So, in the meantime, you can do yourself a favour and politely decline the next “friendly ask” that comes your way at work – especially if there’s a man next door to you who’s just as qualified to do it.

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.