How to solve the issue of women doing more ‘dead-end’ work tasks

Read Time:5 Minute, 5 Second

Morsa Images | Stone | Getty Images

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.

Check out: There are 7 types of ‘office jerks,’ says psychologist: Use this chart to find out which one you work with

If you want to know more about business please go to

0 %
0 %
0 %
0 %
0 %
0 %
We use cookies to personalise content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyse our traffic. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. View more
Cookies settings
Privacy & Cookie policy
Privacy & Cookies policy
Cookie name Active

Who we are

Suggested text: Our website address is:


Suggested text: When visitors leave comments on the site we collect the data shown in the comments form, and also the visitor’s IP address and browser user agent string to help spam detection. An anonymized string created from your email address (also called a hash) may be provided to the Gravatar service to see if you are using it. The Gravatar service privacy policy is available here: After approval of your comment, your profile picture is visible to the public in the context of your comment.


Suggested text: If you upload images to the website, you should avoid uploading images with embedded location data (EXIF GPS) included. Visitors to the website can download and extract any location data from images on the website.


Suggested text: If you leave a comment on our site you may opt-in to saving your name, email address and website in cookies. These are for your convenience so that you do not have to fill in your details again when you leave another comment. These cookies will last for one year. If you visit our login page, we will set a temporary cookie to determine if your browser accepts cookies. This cookie contains no personal data and is discarded when you close your browser. When you log in, we will also set up several cookies to save your login information and your screen display choices. Login cookies last for two days, and screen options cookies last for a year. If you select "Remember Me", your login will persist for two weeks. If you log out of your account, the login cookies will be removed. If you edit or publish an article, an additional cookie will be saved in your browser. This cookie includes no personal data and simply indicates the post ID of the article you just edited. It expires after 1 day.

Embedded content from other websites

Suggested text: Articles on this site may include embedded content (e.g. videos, images, articles, etc.). Embedded content from other websites behaves in the exact same way as if the visitor has visited the other website. These websites may collect data about you, use cookies, embed additional third-party tracking, and monitor your interaction with that embedded content, including tracking your interaction with the embedded content if you have an account and are logged in to that website.

Who we share your data with

Suggested text: If you request a password reset, your IP address will be included in the reset email.

How long we retain your data

Suggested text: If you leave a comment, the comment and its metadata are retained indefinitely. This is so we can recognize and approve any follow-up comments automatically instead of holding them in a moderation queue. For users that register on our website (if any), we also store the personal information they provide in their user profile. All users can see, edit, or delete their personal information at any time (except they cannot change their username). Website administrators can also see and edit that information.

What rights you have over your data

Suggested text: If you have an account on this site, or have left comments, you can request to receive an exported file of the personal data we hold about you, including any data you have provided to us. You can also request that we erase any personal data we hold about you. This does not include any data we are obliged to keep for administrative, legal, or security purposes.

Where we send your data

Suggested text: Visitor comments may be checked through an automated spam detection service.
Save settings
Cookies settings