Dr. Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Dr. Lise Vesterlund, and Dr. Laurie Weingart, authors of The No Club–Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work

Stop Saying Yes to Unrewarded Work

01/20/2023
By Dr. Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Dr. Lise Vesterlund, and Dr. Laurie Weingart

Any of you reading this article have done work that didn’t advance your career. Maybe you spent time dealing with a research partner who disrupted the team, chaired your department’s website committee, or stayed late rerunning your lab mate’s experiment to help them out. We call these “nonpromotable tasks,” or NPTs for short, because while they help your institution, they don’t benefit your career; they won’t get you a raise or promotion.

Our research shows that people are more likely to ask women to take on NPTs and that women are more likely to say yes due to unconscious biases on both sides. The result is that women have less time to do the work that will move their careers forward.

Twelve years ago, we formed a No Club to help us reduce our time on NPTs. We became cognizant of the biases that too often lead us to say that we would be “happy to,” when someone asks us to do something, and we developed best practices to steer ourselves toward the work that is core to our jobs and careers. Here are some pointers we have developed for navigating the common traps and for helping you to say no:

Manage your guilt. What is the first thing you feel when you consider saying no? For women, it is often guilt. When you feel cornered as someone asks for a volunteer, recognize that your guilt comes from internalizing the expectations that others hold about you. If you have already done your part, wait it out, and let someone else take a turn.

Delay your yes. Don’t feel pressured to say yes right away: impose a waiting period before responding. We use the 24-hour rule: we can say no to anything straightaway but must wait at least 24 hours before saying yes. This helps us to evaluate the ask and to craft an effective no.

Don’t underestimate the time involved. If you’ve ever painted a room in your home, you’ll understand the concept of miscalculating how much time a “small” task will take. We multiply our first guess by four for a more realistic assessment.

Consider your implicit no. When you say yes to one thing, you are saying no to another. What are you turning down? More important work tasks? Time with your family? Social engagements? Sleep? Be cognizant of what you give up for this new work.

Account for the impact on your other work.  A task with a short deadline will trump a task with a longer one, no matter how insignificant it is. The big tasks— strategic, important work—rarely are as time sensitive, so taking on an NPT likely means that you will put off these big initiatives.

Remember the future you. Someone asks you to arrange a conference six months from now. Your future schedule appears open, so saying yes doesn’t seem so bad, but in six months, you will be just as busy as you are right now. If you can’t do it now, don’t commit to it for the future.

It is one thing to decide that you want to reject a task; it is quite another to actually decline it. Because women are always expected to take on NPTs, it’s especially important for them to say no in the right way. How can women say no and avoid backlash?

We’ve found that an effective no is one that provides a quick explanation and also helps solve the requester’s problem. Most people (probably even your boss) don’t know all the tasks on your plate. What is the work that you will not be able to do if you take on a new task? If you’re asked to head the safety committee, make clear that you “are leading the women’s advancement project and that doing both tasks will prevent you from submitting your next grant application,” and then recommend someone else (perhaps a man with fewer NPTs) who would be suitable for the task.

Of course, there are times when you can’t say no. On these occasions, in order to keep your workload in check, consider negotiating your yes.  Agree to do the work but on the condition that you’ll be relieved of an existing NPT. Limit your term with a plan for who will do it next. Consider putting the task on rotation, by saying, “I’ll go today and pass around a sign-up sheet so that you all can sign up for a turn.” Or divvy up the assignment into smaller parts, sharing it with others. Perhaps you can get resources to complete the task, such as a small budget or staff help. Finally, consider upscaling the assignment. If you are asked to be on the website committee, ask for a more influential assignment that better uses your skills.

Learn to recognize non-promotable tasks, avoid the hidden traps that compel you to say yes, and be strategic about both declining and accepting work, so that you can focus on the work that best uses your skills and helps your career advance.