Saying ‘no’ in science isn’t enough

NO written with building blocks. Conceptual. Copy Space.
NO written with building blocks. Conceptual. Copy Space.

Credit: Getty

In August 2022, a group of female scholars wrote ‘Why four scientists spent a year saying no’: an article about what they had gained by saying no to 100 work-related requests over the course of year. We knew we had found kindred spirits in the authors. We, too, have lost time by saying yes to work that didn’t move our careers forward. That led us, four female professors, to form the No Club.

Over the past decade, we have researched work that doesn’t help to advance careers — an attempt to understand why we, along with many others, were doing so much of it. We gave this work a name: non-promotable tasks (NPTs). Although this work matters to an organization, it brings no external reward or recognition to the individual who does it.

These tasks can be found throughout any institution — examples include helping other people with their work, serving on governance committees, organizing events, mentoring and even resolving office conflicts. A 2021 study1 of more than 400 non-academic organizations by global management consultancy McKinsey & Company and Lean In, a non-profit organization in Palo Alto, California, that focuses on women’s leadership, shows the disconnect between what is important to the organization and what is rewarded: for example, 70% of those surveyed said diversity, equity and inclusion efforts were “critical”, but the survey found that only 24% rewarded this work.

We have identified three characteristics of NPTs: they are not directly tied to the organization’s mission; they are largely invisible and are usually done behind the scenes; and they rarely require specialized skills, so many people can do them.

Take, for example, a research scientist who is asked to organize a team-building event for her laboratory. Although the event is important to the team, the time spent organizing it is not directly linked to the scientist’s research output; she does most of the planning alone, so no one sees the time she puts into it; and the work doesn’t require her science background. Although her efforts can boost the team’s productivity, they nonetheless go unrewarded — and the scientist’s career would probably have enjoyed a greater boost if she had spent the time on research.

Studies show that women, regardless of occupation, take on the bulk of NPTs. Survey and administrative data25 confirm that female academics, engineers, lawyers, architects, US Transportation Security Administration agents and supermarket clerks all spend more time on NPTs than do their male colleagues. A striking example can be found in a business consultancy we worked with. Because consultants keep track of their time, in terms of both billable and non-billable hours, we could track the amount of time that they spent on promotable and non-promotable work. Using three years of data2, we found that the median female consultant spent 200 more hours each year doing non-promotable work than did her male counterpart. In the time period we looked at, the women did almost an extra month’s worth of work that did not advance their careers that their male colleagues did not do.

Why does this gender difference exist? In a series of experiments6, we studied who agrees to ‘take one for the team’ and handle a task that everyone wanted to be done but preferred someone else to do. In mixed-gender groups, we found that women were 48% more likely to volunteer to do the task, 49% more likely to say yes when asked directly to do it and 44% more likely to be asked to do the task. The underlying reason is simple, and sad: we all expect women to take on this work, which is why we ask them more often and judge them harshly when they say no. Women have internalized these expectations, and they feel a lot of pressure to say yes.

Members of the No Club certainly got better at saying no to unrewarded work (such as serving on university committees), but requests kept coming. We soon discovered that there was an unintended consequence when we declined — the work often went to another woman. We realized that the problem isn’t solved by individual women saying no. Instead, we needed to develop solutions that leaders can implement so that women aren’t forced to either decline the work or take on too much. And, because this work needs to be done, the organization needs to find better ways to share these tasks.

Improving the distribution of NPTs is an organizational problem: employers and team leaders must lead the change.

The solutions we present here, based on our work, are easy to understand and adopt. They are low cost, mainly requiring the will to address the problem and to maintain the new practices over time. So, what can organizations do?

Stop asking for volunteers

We know that women are more likely than men to volunteer for an NPT, so asking for volunteers exacerbates the inequity in allocation. If you are willing to ask for any individual at a meeting to volunteer for an NPT, then it probably means that just about anyone at the meeting is qualified to do the task. So why not assign it more fairly? Kay Brummond, an associate dean at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, used to ask for volunteers to write reports summarizing the recommendations from promotion and tenure committees, but now draws names from a hat to select someone for the job. Over time, the task will be shared more equally.

Raise awareness about non-promotable work

Help everyone in your organization to understand which tasks will move their careers forward (the promotable work) and which ones won’t. Clearly define all tasks as promotable or non-promotable — or, for a more refined approach, divide tasks into bins of promotability. Knowing where to focus time helps both employees and the organization. That said, everyone still needs to do some non-promotable work, so the goal is to share the load. Help those who have benefited from the current system to understand the inherent inequities and the advantages that come from distributing work according to skill rather than willingness to take on the task.

Assign work strategically to take advantage of specialized skill sets

An NPT for one position might be promotable for someone at a lower level. One of us used to create the schedule of courses every semester and did this for many years. She worked with her supervisor to shift that duty to a junior staff member. This allowed her to devote her time to more strategic challenges, and it allowed the junior staff member to develop new skills.

Redistribute tasks to create equitable portfolios of work

Collect data on the NPT load carried by each person to see whether anyone is doing too much. Reassign tasks to those who have a lighter burden, or for whom the task could be promotable. The associate deans at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh developed a spreadsheet to keep track of committee assignments, and they used it to make sure that this workload was allocated equitably across faculty members.

Consider providing rewards for some NPTs

Putting together an event can be a huge amount of work. Although the organizer might get a ‘shout out’ for pulling off a great event, the reward will certainly be less than what would come from spending that time on conducting research or applying for a grant. Rewarding the effort by reducing teaching loads or by providing research funding will make it easier for faculty members to take on NPTs. Another option, if possible, is giving a one-time payment to the individual who took on the task. Check to see what employees value and provide commensurate rewards. To be clear, we are not suggesting that women continue to do these tasks for pay — that’s not the solution to moving their careers forward. But by providing rewards, institutions can encourage more people to take on these tasks and, in effect, further level the playing field.

Any organization — no matter the size or industry — can implement these easy fixes. Once their employers take responsibility for addressing the issue, women won’t be compelled to shoulder the challenge of declining work.

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