Women are doing more thankless tasks at work — here's how to help fix the problem

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Lise Vesterlund felt she was "spread too thin" at work, but it was only when the economist started discussing it with friends that she realized the source of the problem — "non-promotable tasks."

Vesterlund, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh, coined the term with fellow academics Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser and Laurie Weingart. They define a "non-promotable task" as a job which "matters to your organization, but will not help you advance your career."

The four academics, along with legal consultant MJ Tocci, who passed away in 2014, started regularly meeting up more than a decade ago to discuss how overwhelmed they were feeling at work and formed "The No Club."

This actually became the title of their book, "The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women's Dead-End Work," which came out last week.

And non-promotable tasks are not just isolated to office chores, such as bringing in cake for colleagues, making coffee or cleaning up mess in the kitchen.

Vesterlund told CNBC on a phone call that, for her, these tasks included mentoring graduate students, acting as an advisor on committees and reviewing work in academic journals. All of this was beneficial to the institution employing Vesterlund but pulled her away from her core work of academic research.

And to cope, Vesterlund said she started work earlier in the morning and then worked after her kids went to sleep. She said that this "non-promotable work was requiring so many hours of me that the only way I could protect my research time and my teaching time was to sort of back-end my day with a lot of work."

In their book, the four academics not only talk about their own journey to realizing they were being disproportionately burdened with these tasks, but also look to highlight how widespread this problem is for women across the workplace and why this is the case.

Their study of one consultancy firm found that women on average spent around 200 hours more a year than men on non-promotable work, the equivalent of a month on "dead-end" work.

So why does this happen and what's the best way to combat the issue?

Raising awareness 

To find out why women tended to be saddled with more non-promotable tasks, Vesterlund and her co-authors conducted experiments looking at how decisions were made in groups.

Specifically, they were looking at scenarios where there was a task that everyone wanted completed, but they would rather someone else do it, so it was dependent on a volunteer to get it done.

They found that in a mixed gender group, women put themselves forward to do these tasks 50% more than men.

"So what this research pointed to is that the reason, or certainly a large contributing factor, to women doing this work is that we all expect them to take on this work," Vesterlund explained.

The first step to helping alleviate this burden on women is to raise awareness of the issue, she argued.

Vesterlund said that making known this terminology to help describe an issue that is effectively "derailing the careers of all these women, is a critical first step, so that we recognize that not all tasks that are assigned are the same, that there's some work that is less valued, and that that work tends to go to women, and that is preventing them from succeeding."

She said that spreading awareness of this issue also helped organizations as it ensured that non-promotable tasks were not only given to those employees who "object the least," but also to those who were the best at doing the work.

One way to shift from primarily delegating certain tasks to those who volunteer was to pick names out of hat, Vesterlund said.

Encouraging organizations to document the distribution of non-promotable tasks could also help "keep management somewhat accountable."

Admittedly, she said, there would be organizations that would not be open to change but added that spreading awareness of the issue would make co-workers "more reluctant to give all the bad work to women."

Internalizing expectations

Vesterlund said it was also important for women to realize that there was an element of internalizing the expectation that they would do the work.

She said not immediately raising your hand in meetings to volunteer for tasks could be beneficial.

Vesterlund and her co-authors had spoken to one organization which was training women to study the body language of male co-workers in meetings. The organization noticed that many looked disengaged and were checking their phones when there was a request for volunteers, so it tried to instruct women to do the same, instead of internalizing "everybody else's expectations."

And while Vesterlund said she wasn't sure how much forming a group like "The No Club" would help with raising awareness of this issue within organizations, she said it would help "you stay accountable for your 'yeses'" and can act as a sounding board for problems.

She pointed out that "every time you say yes to something, you are implicitly saying no to something else."

A modified 'yes'

In situations where women feel as though they might experience backlash if they do not do a certain non-promotable task, Vesterlund suggested giving "a modified 'yes'," by agreeing to take on that job, on the condition you can take another task off your list.

Vesterlund said another option was to agree to do that task just the once.

She said that her co-author Linda Babcock has a useful rule of thumb for these types of tasks, in allowing herself to say "no" to something straight away but to wait 24 hours before saying "yes," so she had time to mull over the impact of taking it on.

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