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How “dead-end work” reinforces the gender pay gap

Linda Babcock and Laurie Weingart, authors of The No Club, reflect on why women are often given “non-promotable tasks”.

By Emma Haslett

Twelve years ago, Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, convened four of her friends for a self-imposed intervention. Over drinks at a local restaurant in Pittsburgh, she told them why she had summoned them: “I am completely overwhelmed with work. I’ve lost control of my time. I can’t keep up with everything, and more stuff just keeps coming at me. Every time someone asks me to do something, I want to say no, but I feel like I can’t.”

It was the first meeting of what they called “The No Club”, a group of women who would help each other to turn down tasks at work they didn’t feel would help them progress in their careers. But because all but one of them were academics, they became curious: what was making them, in particular, feel so swamped? Why did they feel burned out when many of their colleagues seemed to be handling things just fine?

The results of their research, said Babcock and Laurie Weingart, a professor of organisational behaviour at Carnegie Mellon and one of the four co-authors of their book, also titled The No Club, indicated that it was because they were women. Women and non-white people, they found, were more likely to take on – and be “volun-told” for – what they called “non-promotable tasks” (NPTs): jobs like sitting on committees, organising events, training interns, taking notes in meetings and organising leaving parties. These were tasks their organisations needed to be done, but which no-one wanted to do because they were time-consuming, often fiddly, and they wouldn’t advance their careers. According to their research, the average woman spent 200 more hours per year on these NPTs than their male counterparts – “that’s approximately a month of extra dead-end work!”, they wrote.

Once they noticed this phenomenon, they found it hard to un-see, said Weingart.  “We really did think it was our problem, that we were doing something wrong. Then it started gelling for us – hey, this is something that’s happening to us, it’s not happening because of our inability to cope.” That led to what they called “work-work imbalance”, where the sheer volume of NPTs meant “real” work took a back seat.

[See also: Don’t give us “menstrual leave”, destigmatise sick leave]

One of their most impressive achievements was designing a lab experiment that removed one of the main excuses for women being lumped with these additional tasks: that they wanted to volunteer for them. Participants sitting at a computer were put into groups of three, and told that one person must “volunteer” to click a button within two minutes – but that while the volunteer would be paid $1.25, the rest of the group would be paid $2. If no-one clicked, no-one got paid. They had found a way to replicate an “undesirable” task.

Women were 48 per cent more likely to volunteer than men, while in another experiment in which a “manager” was assigned to choose a volunteer, women were asked on average 44 per cent more than their male counterparts. Even women tended to nominate women more, which they concluded was because society’s expectation was that women were more likely to volunteer. Babcock and Weingart began noticing it in their own careers: “We even found ourselves doing that – following the path of least resistance, going to the people we knew would step up and help us out,” said Babcock. Those people tended to be women.

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Which leads us to the big question: is it nature or nurture that lumps women with these tasks? “It’s definitely nurture,” said Weingart. “When we put men in groups by themselves, they knew how to press the button – they were just choosing to not do it when women were in the room, because they knew that women were going to go ahead and do it.”

It is the force of the expectation that women will not only volunteer but also perform the rest of their tasks without complaint that leads them to feel such guilt when they turn them down, said Babcock and Weingart. “If you have this expectation that you should be able to manage this, of course you’re going to feel guilty if you can’t,” said Weingart. “Men don’t have to face that guilt, because they’re not expected to say yes.”

[See also: “It’s a Wild West”: the scientist who took on the multi-billion femtech industry]

What is the answer? Sometimes, said Weingart, it is simply not to put women or non-white people up for the task. That may harm the perception of an organisation: the book cites the leaders at one campus at the University of California who proudly proclaimed that 50 per cent of positions on their committees were taken by women. But what percentage of the total faculty were women, asked Babcock? The answer was 25 per cent. “I said, did you give them more compensation? No. Did you reduce their loads on teaching? No. Did you give them fewer other non-promotable tasks? No.” Babcock shook her head. “I was like, you are taxing women here in a way that you’re harming them.” “Sometimes, you don’t have to have a woman in the role,” added Weingart. “So find a man.”

Although the book provided women with ways to reduce the number of NPTs they are taking on, its authors were unequivocal that most of the work must be done by organisations themselves. “That real change is going to come from organisational leaders, men and women, who are open to some of the small and larger changes that could take place,” said Weingart.

How successful were their strategies? Had they banished NPTs from their lives altogether? “We’re works in progress,” admitted Weingart. “We all still struggle with it,” added Babcock. “But I think that understanding of the mechanism by which it arises is helpful.”

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