Women take on more ‘non-promotable work’ than men, hurting their careers

Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart, two authors of "The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women's Dead-End Work."
Courtesy of Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart

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– Division of labor. To progress in their careers, employees typically need to check three boxes: Does it advance the goals of the organization? Is it visible? And does it require specialized skills, or can anyone do it?

The rest is what academics Laurie Weingart and Lise Vesterlund call “non-promotable work.” And unsurprisingly, women do more of it. The category is broader than typical office housework like taking meeting notes or planning a going-away party; at a for-profit organization, it can include handling a low-revenue-generating client or creating slides for someone else to present in a meeting. “A non-promotable task is one that’s important to the organization, but doesn’t advance an individual’s career,” explains Weingart.

Weingart and Vesterlund, alongside Brenda Peyser and Linda Babcock, are the authors of the new book The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work. In 2010, the group of professors noticed that non-promotable tasks, like organizing committees, were eating into the time they had for their promotable work of research and teaching. They set about figuring out how to say “no” to non-promotable tasks—and then sought to understand why they had to.

Courtesy of Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart

They found that women are 44% more likely to be asked by male managers to perform non-promotable tasks, and 50% more likely to say yes. Women and men have internalized a “shared expectation” that women will be the ones to take on these jobs. In a mixed-gender group, women volunteered to take meeting notes much more frequently than men; in single-gender groups, women and men volunteered at the same rate. “It’s not that men don’t know how to volunteer,” says Vesterlund. “They just don’t do it when women are in the group.” At one professional services firm, women took on 200 more hours of non-promotable work a year. That’s 200 hours those women didn’t spend on work that could advance their own careers.

The solution isn’t to eliminate non-promotable work entirely. Some might provide value to an individual other than the potential for career advancement. (Think of time spent mentoring younger colleagues or supporting employee resource groups.) Instead, managers and organizations must restructure how this work is distributed and valued. Managers can stop asking for volunteers and, instead, assign tasks on rotating schedules. Senior executives can also reevaluate their own non-promotable work, which could be promotable work to a more junior member of the organization. Lastly, businesses can make non-promotable work promotable. Tying executive compensation to ESG or diversity goals is one recent real-world example.

If organizations don’t, they risk missing out on their strongest assets. “Organizations are taking one of their most valuable resources—their employees—and misallocating work to them,” says Vesterlund. “If women are given non-promotable work from the very beginning, they will not be able to demonstrate the skills they have. The organization could end up promoting the wrong people.”

Emma Hinchliffe

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