Q&A with Linda Babcock, BCFG Team Scientist
Laurie Weingart, Lise Vesterlund, Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser
1. You’ve studied gender differences in the workplace that can harm women’s career advancement. In your new book, The No Club, you focus on “unrewarded work.” Could you explain what unrewarded work is and why it’s a problem?
Unrewarded work or non-promotable tasks (NPTs) are important to the organization, but don’t advance a person’s career. They are often tasks that are less central to the organization’s mission, are done behind the scenes, and can be handled by many people. Taking notes at meetings, training new hires, planning the office party, or serving on an organization-wide committee are all NPTs. Each is important, but they won’t count in an employee’s next performance review, no matter how well they are done. I show in my new book, jointly with Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart, that independent of occupation and rank, women spend more time doing unrewarded work than men do. This creates a series of problems for women. Since there is only so much time in a day, women have two options to complete these NPTs—either work longer hours or do less of their promotable work. Both options are bad. Long work hours spill into personal time and lead to both physical and emotional stress, creating work/life imbalance. Less time on promotable work means fewer opportunities for a woman to demonstrate her value to the workplace. And, to compound the problem, once a woman is pigeon-holed as the go-to person for NPTs, it becomes harder to imagine her promoted to the next level.
2. Could you walk us through what a No Club is and how it can reduce unrewarded work?
Let me start at the beginning. Over 10 years ago I sent four of my friends (Brenda Peyser, MJ Tocci, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart) an email asking if they’d like to meet up and talk about our difficulties in saying no to things we ought to. I was overloaded with things like serving on the IRB or agreeing to (yet another) search committee outside my department, when I already had a slew of other university committee assignments. My friends had the same problem and we realized we needed to support each other to get our work lives under control. We called ourselves the “I just can’t say no club” which we renamed in celebration—after learning to say no—the “No Club.” We met monthly to try to understand why we were doing so much work outside of our core job responsibilities of research and teaching.
We learned a lot more than we expected. At first, we thought we were the problem because we couldn’t say no. So, we spent a lot of time figuring out how to say no without feeling guilty or looking like we weren’t “team players.” Our No Club was indispensable to us in navigating tricky situations and avoiding backlash. Once word got out, other clubs sprang up. Most are focused on helping members better manage their time at work. Learning when to say no and how to do it is core to what No Clubs do.
But we soon realized that while our solutions helped us, they just shifted the NPT to another woman, and that wouldn’t do. That’s when we recognized that the root of the problem was not us. Organizations have a lot of non-promotable work that needs to be done and this work is often a “public good” that suffers from free-rider problems. We, like other women, had become the go-to people expected to do this work. Rather than an individual problem or “woman” problem, it was an organizational problem about how to allocate and reward work. That led us to broaden our focus to address the root-cause of the problem and write our book, The No Club, to shed light on how organizations can change the allocation of NPTs in both small and more systemic ways.
3. Beyond a No Club, what particularly promising behavioral science insights do you think could be applied to reduce the harms of unrewarded work?
In our book we identified decision traps—dare I say, “sludge,”—that unfortunately push us to say “yes” when we are asked to do non-promotable work. Recognizing and eliminating this sludge can help us make better decisions about how to spend our time.
Some examples of sludge are:
Feeling social pressure to decide immediately. Unless the task is something that needs to be done today, your best defense is to impose a waiting period before you respond with an automatic “yes.” I use the 24-hour rule: I can say no to anything straightaway, but I have to wait at least twenty-four hours before saying yes. So instead of saying “sure,” I tell the requester “I’ll get back to you.”
Underestimating the time involved. The planning fallacy is alive and well when it comes to NPTs. Far too often, we think we can knock it out in thirty minutes, when the task is actually hours’ worth of work. If you’ve ever painted a room in your home you’ll understand the concept of miscalculating how much time a “small” task will take. I multiply my first guess by 4 to more realistically assess how long a task will take me.
Failing to consider your opportunity costs. Because opportunity costs aren’t as salient, they get underweighted in our decision making. Saying yes to an NPT means fewer hours for promotable work or less personal time. Lise’s rule is to visualize herself telling her children “Laura and Jacob, I know I’ve been working late all week, but I am going to spend this Saturday and Sunday commenting on a research paper of someone I barely know rather than going to the park with you.” Problem solved.
Ignoring the impact on your other work. A task with a short deadline will trump a task with a longer one—no matter how insignificant it is. The big tasks—strategic, important work—rarely are as time sensitive, so taking on an NPT likely means that you will put off these big initiatives. Laurie found that putting deadlines—even artificial ones—on her promotable work helped her avoid doing this.
Forgetting about the future you. Affective forecasting biases are definitely at play here. In the future, when your schedule is wide open, today’s yes doesn’t seem so bad, but later on when it is time to do the work, you will be just as busy as you are right now. Failing to consider this comes from focalism—when we think about the event, like doing an NPT, we fail to account for all the other things we will be doing. Here’s the trick we learned from Richard Thaler: Imagine the request to do something in the future is actually to do it tomorrow. Would you be as excited to do it tomorrow as you think you will be in the future? Probably not!
Getting caught up in the diva moment. What happens when you are so flattered to be asked to do something that you are blinded to the downside? We named this the “diva moment,” since we felt like divas when someone chose us for an important (though sadly, non-promotable) task. Remember, you can still have a diva moment even if you say no—you were asked!
If you are a woman, recognize that you have internalized the expectation that you will say yes. We all expect women to take on the work that no one else wants to do. When asked to volunteer, recognize that your discomfort and reluctant willingness to once again take one for the team stems from you internalizing that expectation. Brenda replaced a far too frequent response of “Happy to” with a proposal of taking turns on the work no one wanted to do.