More than ten years ago, Lise Vesterlund noticed that something was going wrong with her career. She had too much work, wasn't getting enough recognition and was stuck on the career ladder. She was not alone in this realization. Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser and Laurie Weingart felt the same way. The four women decided to get to the bottom of the phenomenon and began researching. They recorded their findings in the book "The No Club." Recently, Lise Vesterlund presented her research and book in Zurich at an event organized by the Excellence Foundation of the University of Zurich. We met her for an interview.

Lise Vesterlund, You spent ten years researching the topic of non-promotable work and documented your findings in the book The No Club. How did the topic occur to you personally?

About twelve years ago, I along with four other women formed what we called the No Club. We were all overwhelmed with work and never ending demands on our time, so we began to meet on a monthly basis to get our work lives under control. We were doing a lot of undervalued work that really wasn’t core to our jobs, and the meetings pushed us to more strategically pursue the work that was more recognized and valued by our organizations.

Maybe we need to clarify at this point: What exactly is non-promotable work?

Non-promotable work is work that helps your organization but not your individual career. In our no club we were doing plenty of it. Non-promotable work has three general characteristics: First, it is work that does not contribute directly to the mission of the organization. Second, it tends to be invisible and is often done behind the scenes. And finally, it tends to be work that doesn’t require any unique skills. Many people can do it. Which means that it is hard to make it promotable.

Lise Vesterlund
Female employees spend 200 more hours per year on non-promotable work than their male colleagues.

Could you give some specific examples of such tasks?

There are lots of different tasks, they are very diverse, and they come up at all levels. They depend on your occupation, rank, and experience. Some examples are: helping others with their work, organizing the farewell gift or team event. If you are working for a for-profit firm it could be a non-revenue generating work. It could be service on an internal committee, training new employees, or supporting others to improve their work by editing it and so on. But it can also be working with a time-consuming difficult client that brings in very little revenue. Because if your colleagues are bringing in more revenue than you, then your work will be less promotable.

But aren’t all these tasks important for the culture and operation of a company?

Yes, they are, but they are still not recognized when it comes time for your performance evaluation. For example, a recent study by McKinsey and Lean In conducted a survey of 400 different organizations. The survey asked for an assessment of the type of work that the organizations saw as critical for their leaders to engage in. One type of work was checking in on the wellbeing of their employees. 90 percent of the organizations thought that this was essential work for leaders to do. But when organizations were asked if they had any formal recognition of that work, only 25 percent said yes. The results were similar when asked about leaders spending time on diversity, equity, and inclusion.  The work was seen as critical but was not recognized. What this study tells us is: We think that this kind of work is essential, we have to have somebody do it, but we don’t recognize it when it comes to salary increase, promotions, or status in the organization.

Women take on much more of this non-promotable work. How much more?

For our book, we worked with a professional service firm. We got three years of their data where we could see how all the employees had spent their time, and we could take the assignments to the management and ask: is this non-promotable or promotable? What we found was that female employees were spending 200 more hours per year on non-promotable work than their male colleagues. That is an entire month of work that didn’t get recognized or rewarded.

That is really shocking. Why is that?

It is actually really terrible. And it was shocking to the organization as well. We conducted another study where we found that women are 44 percent more likely to be asked to take on non-promotable than men, and that they are 50 percent more likely to take on the work when asked. In fact, women are 48 percent more likely to volunteer for this type of work than men are. Importantly our research showed that women aren’t doing this work because they like it more or because they were better at it. Rather they are doing the non-promotable work, because we all expect them to take it on. And women themselves have internalized these expectations, so they feel tremendous guilt when they say no. They know that the work is not going to be done if they don’t do it. And when they do manage to say no, it is often taken differently.

In what way?

Women are much more likely to experience backlash if they say no. Because we all expect women to take on this work, women who say no often get a negative response. For example, they will be seen as not a team player or being selfish. On the other hand, men are more often perceived as very generous if they say yes to that kind of work. Also, no one will be disappointed in them if they say no because they are just not expected to take on these tasks. They can much more easily reject these kinds of requests, and don’t experience the same level of guilt because they can rely on somebody else to do the work.

What harm does this non-promotable work do to women's careers?

There are many negative effects: First, you are not going to get promoted as quickly as your male colleges are. Women are doing less of the work that is needed for a promotion because a big part of their time is filled with non-promotable tasks. Second, you are not going to get the salaries your talent warrants. And third you are not going to be able to negotiate because if you take on non-promotable assignments you can negotiate as much as you want, but it will not be effective. Because there is someone else similar to you who is doing more promotable work. So in terms of compensation and advancement, it is detrimental for women. And there are other negative effects as well.

Such as?

Doing work that isn’t core to your job can cause you to lose self-confidence and make it more likely that you experience burn out. Despite working long hours you are not getting anywhere, or at least not as fast as your male colleague. Women who are overloaded with non-promotable work don’t have the chance to use the talent that they were trained to use. They may become disillusioned and lose confidence in the job. When asking women why they change jobs, one of the big things that come up is that they don’t feel like they are getting challenged. They don’t feel that they are getting the jobs that they really could handle. In our interviews, we spoke to a lot of young women who had just gone into the labor force. They were all highly talented and skilled and really committed to build their careers. And then when they enter the labor market they somehow end up doing work that isn’t highly valued by the organization. As a result, their careers start to go down the wrong path. Once they are down that path, it is really difficult to get back on track.

Lise Vesterlund
Women are not promoted as quickly as their male colleagues because they have less time available for relevant work.

Were the women you spoke to aware that?

I have spoken to women at many different levels. The junior women who were out one or two years, they don’t know what is going wrong. But they often sounded like they were suspicious. I spoke to one junior woman who right after she started had been given a client that a senior partner had had before he retired. Everybody had told her: «Oh, that’s so exciting. You are getting this client all by yourself. » But if you come in as a junior woman, you should not be working on your own with clients that do not challenge you. You should be working in teams you can learn from. Other women we have spoken to, were given difficult clients and everybody told them: «Oh that is such a difficult client, but you are so good at handling him. You are so good at resolving all the conflicts and all the issues. » All these ways of falsely complimenting women and telling them how needed they are, is an effective way of putting them on pause. We are blindsiding them to take on work that we value much less than other assignments.

Under these circumstances, how do women even manage to get into senior positions?

Well that was a really disturbing finding. Our studies showed that the junior women who do the 200 more hours of non-promotable work do 200 hours less of promotable work. The ones who made it into senior positions were however spending the same number of hours in promotable tasks as their male co-workers were. But: The women still spent 200 extra hours of non-promotable work. They just did that on top of their promotable tasks. That suggests that it was not possible to get promoted for these women without working a lot of extra hours.

Are there differences in terms of non-promotable work depending on the industry?

It turns out that gender gap in work assignments show up in every single profession people have looked at. We find this imbalance with consultants, lawyers, architects, in academia, engineers, and even supermarket clerks. Women everywhere are spending more time on non-promotable work than men are.

Lise Vesterlund
Male and female leaders are equally likely to ask women to take on non-promotable. Leaders just want the job done.

And is there a difference between a woman and a man leading a team or a company?

No, none. It happens at a very subconscious level. Male and female leaders are equally likely to ask women to take on non-promotable. Leaders just want the job done and are not aware of the damage this does to women’s careers. I myself as a leader was asking women to do that kind of work. Because as a manager you are often in a rush for time, and you just want to get the job done and you want it done well. And you don’t want any pushback. So you ask the person who you think will say yes, and that is more often a woman.

How can we fix this problem? Do women just need to learn to say no?

First: women cannot fix this problem on their own. It’s the organizations that need to fix their system and change their practices. Not least because organizations don’t need more people to say no to that kind of work, they need more people to say yes.

How do organizations manage this?

Organizations need to become aware of what work is promotable and what work is non-promotable work. After that, they should question themselves: Who is doing how much of the non-promotable work? Does that reflect the composition of the organization? How do we allocate the non-promotable work? Here we know from our studies that if organizations are asking for volunteers to take over these kinds of tasks, women are more likely to volunteer than men. It is also important to recognize, that women are not only being asked by managers to take on this work. Everybody else also expects women to say yes so co-workers will also ask them. So women get requests from a lot of different places, and this results in a work load that is skewed toward non-promotable work.

Once organizations have created awareness, how can non-promotable work be effectively allocated?

In general, organizations do better by allocating work based on who is better doing it, rather than based on who is least reluctant in taking it on. Instead of asking for a volunteer for a task that we think everyone can and should take on, just take turns or draw names out of a hat. Another option is to write down a list of people who are not doing a lot of non-promotable work and to give them the next available assignment The aim is not that everybody should carry the same load of non-promotable work. But if you bring in a new bunch of young MBAs you should make sure that for the first couple of years, they have equal access to the promotable work so you can identify each employee’s potential and talent.

Would it be an option to make this work promotable?

Some work certainly could be promotable, onboarding is one example. But it isn’t possible for every kind of non-promotable work. Because many of these tasks don’t require any special talent or skills. But there are possibilities to make it kind of promotable. Organizations could specify a certain amount of non-promotable work that employees must do, and if you haven’t done enough, you would get a bad review. This helps to get more people to contribute. The Harvard Kennedy School for example has come up with a point system. You get points for doing service and for teaching. And if you don’t have enough points you can’t get a satisfactory performance review. There is a very clear expectation that says: This is how much you need to have done and if you have not met that expectation it does not matter what else you have done.

You have talked to many companies and also advised them in this area. How do they react to the topic?

Most of the organizations are shocked when they find out how skewed their distribution of work is. And most of them don’t want it to be that way. So, they are really interested in changing their system. But we have also experienced push back from a few organizations that weren’t ready to tackle the problem.

Basically, the structures in organizations have to change. That can take time. Until that time comes, what can women do to relieve themselves of this work?

I really think, it is up to organizations to bring awareness and change their structures. But there are also some things that women can do until they get to that point. Recognize the non-promotable work you are doing. Is it aligned with what your colleagues are doing, if not, can you off-load some of your assignments to others?  When you get a new request and want to say no, then we have found that an effective way of doing so, is to take the requester’s perspective. Remember they just want the problem solved. So, if you can solve the problem for them, it is less about you doing the work than it is about getting the work done.  An effective way of saying no is to give a quick explanation and then provide a solution to the problem. Because that is really what the requester is after. He needs a quick solution. It could look like this: «I can’t do that assignment because I am already on a different assignment. If I take this one on as well I am not going to be able to work on my important task – for example the product launch which is clearly promotable. So why don’t you ask Jim. He is new to the organization and the assignment would help him develop new skills and introduce him to a lot of new people.»

Which other options do women have?

You can also negotiate your yes. You can say yes to a non-promotable assignment if you get rid of another non-promotable assignment. Or limit the time on the assignment. Agree to do it this time if someone is lined up to take it on next time. Or say yes if the assignment is divided up into smaller parts, so you will do A and Bill will do B. It’ is also important to ask more questions. Why am I being asked? What makes me the best choice for this? And finally, you have to ask yourself some questions when deciding whether to take on the work: What is your personal trigger to take on this work? What is your implicit no?

Lise Vesterlund
You can negotiate your yes. You can say yes to a non-promotable assignment if you get rid of another non-promotable assignment.

What does implicit no mean?

So that means: What are you not going to do, if you take on that work? Are you not going to work on another, more important project? Are you not going to take care of yourself? Are you not going to make it home on time, to be with your family? Being aware of your implicit no, often makes it easier to decline requests for non-promotable tasks because you start to realize what you miss. And it takes you away from that feeling of guilt.

How did you yourself learn to say no?

I always thought that if I just worked a little bit harder and pushed myself a little bit more, then I could fit in all the work I needed to do. And I always felt guilty when I would say no to people who needed my help. But when I started to think about my implicit no, it got a lot easier. My implicit no was always my family and kids. Once I recognized that, I did not feel guilty anymore. Because my kids deserved my time, far more than unreasonable last-minute requests. So moving the interaction away from me vs. the requester to the requester vs. my kids made it easier to say: I know you need my help, but I have worked late all week and I can’t take this on, but why don’t you ask Sam instead.

So in the end, it's still about women learning to say no.

That is part of it. But it is also about setting priorities. Understanding how much time you need to spend on promotable work, and determining what non-promotable work matters the most to you. I always really cared about mentoring young women. Therefore I’ve started to shift my time towards that kind of non-promotable work and stopped doing other things. While non-promotable work needs to get done it must be better distributed and we all benefit if we each spend time on the non-promotable work that we are good at or care the most about. Thinking more carefully about the distribution of non-promotable work will secure that we don’t take a lot of female talent down a path of no return.