If there’s extra work to be done at the office, more often than not a woman ends up doing it.
Whether it’s planning a birthday party, taking notes, or serving on a committee, studies have found that women are more likely than men to take on service-oriented tasks, which usually come with little benefit to their careers. And the disparity is even more pronounced for women of color.
Now, new academic research details what’s behind all the “non-promotable work” women do, and the answer is fairly straightforward: because they’re expected to. For women, being helpful is a cultural norm. They feel guilty saying no, and there are repercussions when they do, such as not being seen as a team player, according to the book “The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work.”
“We’ve internalized those expectations that everybody holds,” said coauthor Lise Vesterlund, an economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “It’s very easy for men to say no, because there are no consequences.”
For women, there are consequences either way. Performing these often invisible roles can take time away from core duties, meaning they could risk getting passed over for promotions, leading to fewer women in leadership positions and less money in their pockets. And if women offer assistance on top of all their other work, it can lead to long hours and added stress.
This is bad for organizations, too, because they aren’t getting all their employees have to offer if they’re stuck doing work that doesn’t utilize their skills, Vesterlund said.
“The magnitude of the problem is much greater than what we expected,” she said. “It is absolutely everywhere.”
Jackie Canas-Perez is well aware of the bind women find themselves in. When an executive at a Boston hospital asked her to learn about grant project management so she could provide assistance when the administrator retired, she saw it as an opportunity to grow. Canas-Perez, who worked in finance, spent six months studying the system, putting in 15 to 20 extra hours of unpaid work a week.
Then she was asked to train the person hired to fill the grant administrator position. Canas-Perez, 47, was never asked to apply, she said, and got no compensation for her time — not even a thank-you.
At a different job years later, Canas-Perez, who was born in El Salvador, spoke up for a fellow woman of color who wasn’t being treated fairly and advocated for coworkers worried about losing their jobs when the company was sold. She was already putting in long hours, and these extra duties took a toll. Recently, her son told her he wished she’d been able to come to more of his basketball games.
Despite all her efforts to go above and beyond, said Canas-Perez, who is now a sales account manager at Bluebird Graphic Solutions in Woburn, they haven’t helped her career — or her family.
“When you miss the most important parts of your children’s life,” she said, “that just tore me apart.”
Women are often “volun-told” to carry out unrewarded tasks, said Shirley Knowles, chief inclusion and diversity officer at the Burlington software company Progress. Knowles, 36, experienced this early on when she worked in corporate communications and was expected to train senior leaders on social media, which fell outside her responsibilities. But taking the time to explain the ins and outs of Twitter provided little benefit for her. Pushing back against these undertakings doesn’t seem like an option, especially for women of color who are constantly trying to prove their worth, said Knowles, who is Black. And performing these duties could hurt a woman’s ability to rise through the ranks: “You may not be considered as someone that folks see as a leader, but as someone who can only give support.”
Multiple studies have shown the low value that organizations place on these tasks. In a 2021 McKinsey & Co. survey, nearly 90 percent of companies said that employees’ work to support coworkers was critical, but only a quarter reported this work was formally recognized.
The gender imbalance in carrying out these roles is widespread, according to the book: in education, law, investment banking, engineering, even among TSA agents. At one professional services firm examined by the authors, the median number of hours a woman spent on non-promotable tasks was about 200 more per year than the time a man spent on them.
The authors also conducted a series of experiments that showed it wasn’t just men who expected women to take on added responsibilities; women expected it from each other, too. Regardless of the gender of their manager, women were 44 percent more likely than men to be asked to take on non-promotable assignments, and despite being asked more often, were 50 percent more likely to say “yes.”
Susan Loconto Penta, co-founder of MIDIOR Consulting in Cambridge, has noticed that in client meetings, the employees taking the notes are usually women. And then they get stuck. “Once taking the note, always taking the note,” she said. This doesn’t have to be purely a secretarial role, though, said Penta, 57, who counsels women to take ownership of the notes by advancing projects and allocating tasks.
Penta also cringes when a woman at a client company brings sweets to board meetings. This well-intentioned gesture could cause younger colleagues who aren’t aware of her skills to have less respect for her, she said: Similar to not wearing low-cut blouses to the office, “it’s being sensitive to the perception that you’re creating.”
Krista Huebner, a senior manager at the consulting firm Ernst & Young in Boston, has devoured books about gender and corporate culture and studiously avoided taking on “thankless” tasks. If she does say yes, it has to benefit her in some way. When Huebner volunteered to help organize a gift drive for a nonprofit, for instance, she turned it into a scavenger hunt and invited leaders to participate.
“It built my brand as someone who could think differently and showcased my organizational skills,” said Huebner, 33, who admits this way of thinking takes vigilance. “Everything you do, you need to get something for it.”
For Vesterlund, the “No Club” coauthor, the research was personal. As a woman in the male-dominated field of economics, she feels obligated to represent her gender by agreeing to write letters of recommendation or reading papers by peers. “I felt that I was incredibly selfish if I didn’t,” she said. But she was working day and night. She and her coauthors had formed an “I Just Can’t Say No Club” — the genesis for the book — but the tasks kept piling up, and Vesterlund ended up in the hospital with severe hypertension.
Women can do a number of things to ease the demands on their time, Vesterlund said, such as talking to their managers about divvying up tasks and suggesting others who might be better suited to perform them. But it shouldn’t be a “fix the woman” problem, she warned. Companies should assign duties instead of asking for volunteers and acknowledge the value these tasks bring to a company.
A number of No Clubs have popped up around the country in response to the book. Laura Gee, an economics professor at Tufts University, is in one with several other academics, including Wellesley College professor Olga Shurchkov, and members help each other identify requests that won’t help their careers. Gee is often asked, for instance, to review articles or write recommendation letters for peers up for promotion, both of which are confidential. She also recently organized a conference, with Shurchkov, and often finds herself arranging lunches and happy hours. Gee recently started tracking these extra activities and found she was devoting about 20 percent of her professional time to them.
“I was constantly feeling these tiny interruptions, so it’s kind of like death by a thousand cuts,” she said.
Gee is loath to turn down visible opportunities to represent women, such as attending student functions. And because there are so few women in the department, she ends up being called on more often than her male peers.
Gee has talked to leaders about the issue and is declining more requests than she used to. And yet, she said, “I’m still pretty uncomfortable saying no.”
Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.