Author Talks: Flex your ‘no muscle’

Nonpromotable work profoundly affects women’s careers and lives. In her new book, Lise Vesterlund explains why women so often agree to it—and how they can say no.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Justine Jablonska chats with Lise Vesterlund about her new book, The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work (Simon and Schuster, May 2022), cowritten by Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, and Laurie Weingart. Vesterlund and her coauthors found in their research that the bulk of dead-end work can quash women’s careers, detrimentally affect their organizations’ productivity and profitability, and ultimately contribute to the persistent gender gap in advancement. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What are nonpromotable tasks?

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A nonpromotable task is a task or an assignment that helps your organization but doesn’t help you advance your career. It’s work that isn’t core to your job description, is often done behind the scenes, and rarely uses your specialized skills. Within an organization or corporation, you can think of it as non-revenue-generating work: preparing slides for somebody else’s presentation, taking notes at a meeting, writing a meeting summary, onboarding someone and helping them get into the organization.

Why do so many women say yes to these nonpromotable tasks?

That’s an excellent question, and it’s exactly why we started the research that is the foundation of the book. You could imagine that there are many, many different reasons why women are doing this work. It could be that they really enjoy doing the work. It could be that they care more about getting it done or that they’re better at it. We ran a number of experiments to try to figure out, “Are these the reasons why women are doing it?”

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We found that women are not doing this work because they really enjoy it or care more about doing the work—and oftentimes, not because they’re any better at it. Rather, it’s because we all have the expectation that women will do this work. That collective expectation is held by managers and people who are asking them to do this work. Managers are 50 percent more likely to ask women to do nonpromotable work, and when women are asked, they are 50 percent more likely to say yes to these requests to do nonpromotable work.

Managers are 50 percent more likely to ask women to do nonpromotable work, and when women are asked, they are 50 percent more likely to say yes to these requests.

Women are asked more, they say yes more when they’re asked, and they will even volunteer more. This collective expectation that they take on this work is why they end up with the lion’s share of the work that will not help them get promoted in their organization.

And why are women disproportionately asked to do nonpromotable work?

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We all more or less expect women to say yes to this work. In fact, this expectation that women will say yes to the work means that managers are 50 percent more likely to ask women when it comes to work that nobody wants to do. And this expectation makes women say yes more frequently than men. In fact, women have internalized this expectation that they should say yes—and that everybody else expects them to say yes.

All these requests and yeses from women result in women having a much larger load of nonpromotable work and not having sufficient time to do the promotable work. So when it comes to promotion, they really can’t compete. And that helps explain why we continue to see women falling behind men when it comes to advancement.

Why is your research important to gender equality?

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We think the first step in this whole process is to bring awareness to this issue of women doing more nonpromotable work and how it hurts them and their organization. Once you get that awareness, it also helps you understand why we haven’t made a lot of progress on gender equality over the past 20, 30 years, despite the fact that we’ve been working so, so hard to try to really equalize the playing field and give people equal opportunity.

There has been a eureka moment for a lot of women: suddenly they have a word to attach to all the work that has been making them miserable. Men have intriguingly also recognized the problem. So many men have come up to us after seminars to say, “I recognize my spouse in this. I recognize my daughters in this. Can I please get some material to share with them?”

Both men and women have recognized this problem. What’s really exciting is that organizations also recognize the problem. While many organizations have been aware that they are giving more of the nonpromotable work to women, they have not been aware of the magnitude of the problem. If you put all of the different assignments in a continuum ranking from the most likely to help you get noticed and advanced to the least likely, they have been shocked to see how much of the least-promotable work has been assigned to women.

We work with one organization who suspected that there might be an issue. What we found in looking at all of their billable-hour data was that the women in that organization were spending 200 more hours than the men per year on nonpromotable work. That magnitude far exceeded anything that they had expected. What was all the more disturbing was that this difference wasn’t something that they saw just among their junior females but also among their senior females. So it is a problem that is persistent across all ranks, all industries, all organizations.

‘Women aren’t the problem,’ you write. ‘Organizational practices are.’ How and why?

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This is not a “fix the women” problem, where women should just start saying no. Organizations don’t need more naysayers; they need more yes sayers. As long as we hold these collective expectations, there’s only so much that each individual woman can do. Whereas the organizations can do a lot of things. They can bring awareness to the problem so that we recognize it and start paying attention to who’s doing what so that we don’t just go to the woman every time we have to solve a quick problem.

Another thing that organizations can do is to get rid of the practices that increase the load of nonpromotable work that goes to women. For example, in my own institution, we often would ask for volunteers to take meeting notes and write meeting summaries, but we no longer do that. We put names in a hat and draw out a name at random—it’s so obviously fair that nobody objects. These small changes can really help the organization improve the allocation of work.

In my own institution, we often would ask for volunteers to take meeting notes and write meeting summaries, but we no longer do that. We put names in a hat and draw out a name at random—it’s so obviously fair that nobody objects. These small changes can really help the organization improve the allocation of work.

Understanding and documenting who’s doing what will shed light on some of the crazy things that your most talented employees are doing just because it somehow ended up on their desk.

But this is not a problem women can fix on their own. They can see the change within their organization by bringing awareness to the problem. Ultimately, it’s up to organizations to lift this burden, and it is in the interest of organizations to do so.

What’s a ‘no muscle’?

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The book was started with a club that I and three other professors joined 12 years ago. We were so overwhelmed with how much we were working and didn’t feel like we were spending time on the work that really mattered to us. We started on this journey to try to get control over our work life, so we started meeting monthly to talk about all the requests that we were getting.

Gradually, we started building what we call our no muscle. Whenever we took on additional work, we had to say what we were going to give up in return because we all have only so many hours in the day. We also thought about how to say no in a strategic way that didn’t result in backlash. The challenge with everyone expecting women to say yes is that it’s risky to say no. Building up our no muscles involved thinking about how to respond to requests.

When somebody asks you to do something, explain what else you have on your plate, what the trade-offs are, that you are not going to be able to spend time on another far more important tasks. Also think about how you can negotiate the ask: “If I take on this nonpromotable work, can you relieve me of some of the other nonpromotable work that I’m doing?” Are there ways of saying, “I will take on the work now, but I will not take it on next year,” “Can we take turns?” or, “Can we split up the task so that I take this little portion that is well aligned with my skills and that I can parlay later on in my career, and have somebody else do the rest?”

It got easier to say no. We became more strategic in the way that we said no. Our own personal work balance got better. The disturbing part, and the reason why we ultimately started doing the research, was that the work that we got rid of, unfortunately, was given, by and large, to other women.

And what happens when these nonpromotable tasks are simply shifted onto other women?

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While women are given a lion’s share of the nonpromotable work, it unfortunately turns out that women of color and less privilege are given an even larger share of the nonpromotable work. Oftentimes we have even greater expectations that they should be taking on the work, which is disturbing, and that is precisely why organizations are the ones who have to start paying attention.

Another reason we end up seeing women of color getting a very large share of this nonpromotable work is because we engage in what you can characterize as “cultural taxation.”

While women are given a lion’s share of the nonpromotable work … women of color and less privilege are given an even larger share of the nonpromotable work. Oftentimes we have even greater expectations that they should be taking on the work, which is disturbing, and that is precisely why organizations are the ones who have to start paying attention.

We think that women should represent their personal demographic. At the university where I work, we are very eager to have equal representation of men and women on committees and representation across all races on each committee, which is a very noble objective. The challenge is that we don’t have equal representation on our faculty, so when we put women on half the committees, and we only have 25 percent women, we are effectively putting a three times larger burden on women in terms of the committee work that they have to do.

That’s for women. Assigning a faculty member of color in places where they are severely underrepresented to all these committees on diversity, equity, and inclusion is giving a much, much greater load to faculty of color.

Unfortunately the same thing is happening in a lot of organizations. And part of what we are arguing in the book is that we need to trade off against other nonpromotable work, giving everyone an equal opportunity to demonstrate their talent on the promotable work and redistributing the other nonpromotable work.

Part of what we are arguing in the book is that we need to trade off against other nonpromotable work, giving everyone an equal opportunity to demonstrate their talent on the promotable work and redistributing the other nonpromotable work.

These are the employees that we really want to succeed in our organizations. We worked hard to recruit them. If we’re going to retain them, we need to give them the same purpose and opportunity within the organization as everyone else.

What impact do you see possible through this research?

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My coauthors and I have been concerned about gender equality for many, many years and have been trying to figure out what we possibly can do to improve the opportunities that are given to women. What’s exciting about this work is that we really think that this can help women advance. It can also finally lift the anchor off of women so that they can rise.

We have been looking at negotiation; we have been telling women to lean in; we have been telling them to be more confident. We’ve been talking about how they’re not competitive. It’s hard to do all those things if you are held back by doing all this nonpromotable work. The reason we wrote this book is that we are determined to spread the word about this work so that we can get to the equality that we’ve been aiming for all along.

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Lise Vesterlund on how nonpromotable work affects women and how they can say no

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