Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from the new book “The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work” by Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart (May 2022: Simon and Schuster). The authors define non-promotable work as “tasks that matter to your organization, but will not help you advance your career.” They are tasks that are often invisible, not directly tied to the company’s mission and ones that many others can do.
One evening, Lise came to a club meeting with a confession. When her boss asked her to find volunteers to serve on several committees, she quickly found six people who all agreed, and after submitting the list to her boss, she realized that she had asked only women. It was ironic that she, of all people, would ask women and not men. She felt terrible for placing yet another burden on her female colleagues, and at our club meeting, she wondered, “How could I ask my female colleagues to take on this dead-end task? I am a horrible person.” We said, “No, you’re not. You’re just like everybody else.” That was our hunch, so we decided to investigate whether that was true and why that might be.
Whom Do We Ask to Do Non-Promotable Work?
When we explored the supply side of non-promotable tasks in an earlier study, we found that women are more likely to say “yes” than men are because they are expected to do so. Here, we turn our attention to demand—are women more likely than men to be asked to do non-promotable work? We found very little research on how people allocate work tasks and virtually none on how non-promotable tasks are assigned. That lack of evidence spurred us to do more research, and ours is, perhaps, the only systematic study on the assignment of non-promotable work. We focused directly on the “demand” question, and what we learned will not surprise you: Women are asked more than men. By that, we mean that we—all of us—ask women more than men to perform non-promotable tasks.
We conducted a study with groups of four people. One member who was designated the “manager” recommended one of the other group members to volunteer for a task. The other three group members had two minutes to click a button to volunteer for a task that they were equally good at doing and all benefitted from getting done, but that each preferred another group member do. Everyone saw photos of each member in their group and knew whom the manager asked to volunteer. Although the manager could not click the button, every other group member could (not only the person who was asked), and the round ended when someone clicked or when the two minutes were up. Every group member, including the person who was asked to volunteer, hoped that someone else would jump in and click before the round ended.
Suppose you were in this study and you were the manager. If these were your group members, who would you have asked to click the button?
If you were equally likely to ask any group member, then you would ask each person one-third (33%) of the time, but our “managers” didn’t. In groups with one woman and two men, the woman was asked 40% of the time and the men were each asked 30 percent of the time. Why did managers prefer the woman? Maybe she stood out because she was the only woman. To test this idea, we looked at groups that included two women and one man. Of the three people below, who would you ask?
If the same dynamic were at play as in the prior example, then we would ask the man 40 percent of the time, just as we asked the woman when she was the group’s only female. What we found instead was that women were still asked 40 percent of the time. The group’s two women were each asked 40 percent of the time, so the man was asked even less frequently than before—getting only 20 percent of the requests.
Remember, that this “ask” is for a volunteer to perform an undesirable task and to “take one for the team.” Who did you ask? A woman? If you’re like the students in our study, you are on average 44% more likely to ask a woman than a man. Interestingly, both the men and women managers asked women more than men. Lise was not alone. Even our college undergraduates, not yet influenced by workplace norms, asked women more than men. Because women are expected to say yes when asked, that just seemed like the best bet for getting a volunteer.
Our friend Meihui shared a story of an online meeting she was in with eight physicians, the other seven of whom were men. One of them started the meeting with, “Hey, Meihui, want to be our scribe and consolidate stuff to share back to everyone?” What struck us about this request was how “natural” it was for her male colleague to take charge, and give Meihui a burdensome administrative task, despite all eight being equals. It seemed completely normal to everyone on the call except our friend, who, familiar with our research, saw this as an obvious example of an extra burden on women.
While our study speaks plainly to women being asked more than men, the data cannot speak to other characteristics such as race, ethnicity, class, and age. However, given the evidence that people of color may face backlash for behaving assertively, there are strong expectations that they will agree to do NPTs. For that reason, people may be more likely to ask them to do this work.Linda Babcock is a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University. She is the author of “Women Don’t Ask” and “Ask for It.” Brenda Peyser was a professor of communications at Carnegie Mellon where she also served as associate dean of the School of Public Policy and Management. Lise Vesterlund is a professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Pittsburgh Experimental Economics Laboratory. Laurie R. Weingart is a management professor at Carnegie Mellon University. She has served as CMU’s Interim Provost and Chief Academic Officer.