Scientifically Saying No Is Not Enough

Scientifically Saying No Is Not Enough
Scientifically Saying No Is Not Enough

In August 2022, a group of female academics published an article entitled “Why four scientists spent a year saying no” in which they discussed the benefits of turning down 100 requests for their work. We were sure that the authors were like-minded individuals. We were also wasting our time accepting jobs that didn't advance our careers. As a result, No Club was founded by us as four female lecturers. The main topic of our article will be “When women decline invitations to engage in unpaid activities, another female colleague is often asked to replace them”.

For the last ten years, we've tried to understand why so many people, including ourselves, are working in non-career-developing jobs.

Non-promotable tasks are what we call this job (NPTs). While this work is important to the organization, the person doing it does not receive any outside compensation or recognition.

Every organization has these responsibilities; some examples include helping others with their work, joining governance committees, scheduling events, mentoring and even resolving office disputes. The disconnect between what matters to the organization and what is rewarded is illustrated by a 2021 study of more than 400 non-academic organizations by global management consultancy McKinsey & Company and Lean In, a nonprofit focused on female leadership in Palo Alto, California. has been revealed. For example, while 70% of respondents said that diversity, equality and inclusion efforts were “critical”, the survey found that only 24% of these efforts were rewarded.

According to our research, NPTs have three key features:

  • They are not directly related to the organization's goal; First of all, they are hidden.
  • They are performed behind the scenes
  • Rarely need a specific expertise

This makes them accessible to a wide range of people.

As an example, let's take a research scientist who is asked to plan a team building event for her lab.

Despite the importance of the event to the team, the scientist spends very little of his time organizing it alone, so no one can see how much time he has devoted to it, and the task does not require direct scientific training.

While their efforts have increased the productivity of the team, they are not appreciated, and the scientist's career would likely benefit more if he spent time doing research instead.

Research has shown that women are interested in most NPTs, regardless of their line of business. According to survey and administrative statistics, female academics, engineers, lawyers, architects, US Transportation Security Administration officers, and supermarket clerks all devote more time to NPTs than their male counterparts.

A business consultant we work with offers a surprising example. Because consultants tracked their time as both billable and non-billable hours, we were able to track how much time they spent on promotable and non-promotable tasks. Using three years of data, we discovered that the average female counselor works 200 more hours per year than her male counterpart in non-promotional roles.

During the period we examined, women worked almost a month extra, putting in more effort than their male colleagues did.

Why is there a gender difference? In a series of experiments we looked at who would agree to “get one for the team” and do a job that everyone wants done but would rather have someone else do.

We discovered that in mixed-gender groups, women were 49% more likely to say yes and 48% more likely to volunteer when directly asked to perform an activity. They also volunteered 44% more when asked to complete the task.

The real and sad explanation for this is that we all expect women to take the job, so we ask them more often and be tough on them when they refuse. Because women internalize these expectations, they are subjected to serious pressure to say yes.

Even though “No Club” members got better at rejecting unpaid job requests, the requests kept coming. When we declined, the assignment often went to another woman, an unexpected effect we soon learned.

We concluded that individual women saying no would not solve the problem. Instead, we needed to create policies that managers could put in place to prevent women from having to refuse work or take on too much work. Also, the organization needs to find better ways to allocate these jobs because they need to be completed.

NPT deployment needs to be improved and companies and team leaders need to take the initiative.

The answers we present here, based on our research, are easy to understand and apply. They are inexpensive and often depend on your willingness to engage and stick to new behaviors over time. So what can businesses do?

Stop asking for volunteers
Asking for volunteers exacerbates the imbalance in allocation, as we know that women are more likely than men to volunteer for NPT. If you are willing to ask any meeting attendee to volunteer for an NPT, it is likely that almost everyone present will be qualified to perform the task. Why not give this task a fairer way?

Kay Brummond, formerly vice dean at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, who has asked volunteers to write summaries of recommendations from promotion and concession committees, is now choosing a name out of the hat to fill the position. This task will be distributed more evenly over time.

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