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How to Stop Saying Yes to “Non-Promotable Work” — with Linda Babcock

How-to-Stop-Saying-Yes-to-Non-Promotable-Work-—-with-Linda-Babcock

Why are women running faster than ever, burdened with endless to-do lists and still trailing behind their male colleagues?

Because women most often are unfairly left with “non-promotable work:” planning the office party, screening interns, attending to that time-consuming client, or simply helping others with their work. The imbalance leaves women overcommitted, underutilized and trapped in a spiral of toxic productivity.

In this episode of Women Amplified, Carnegie Mellon professor of economics and women’s empowerment researcher Linda Babcock will explore what must be done for women to achieve career advancement and equity. Learn actionable ways to change your workload, create boundaries and make empowered and savvy decisions about the work you take on so you can focus on work that matters and gets you promoted.

 


Linda Babcock

Linda BabcockLinda Babcock is the James M. Walton Professor in Economics at Carnegie Mellon University and the coauthor of The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work, with Lise Vesterlund, Laurie Weingart, and Brenda Peyser.  Babcock is a behavioral economist focused on understanding barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace and developing evidence-based interventions to promote a level playing field. She is the founder and director of the Program for Research and Outreach on Gender Equity in Society (PROGRESS), which pursues positive social change for women and girls through education, partnerships, and research. She is also the author of Ask for It and Women Don’t Ask.

 

 

Celeste Headlee

Celeste HeadleeCeleste Headlee is a communication and human nature expert, and an award-winning journalist. She is a professional speaker, and also the author of Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism—and How to Do It, Do Nothing, Heard Mentality, and We Need to Talk. In her twenty-year career in public radio, she has been the executive producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio, and anchored programs including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as cohost of the national morning news show The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Headlee’s TEDx talk sharing ten ways to have a better conversation has over twenty million total views to date. @CelesteHeadlee

 

 


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Photo credit: iStock/iselleflissak

 

Transcript of Linda Babcock’s Interview on Women Amplified

Linda Babcock:

Hi. I’m Linda Babcock, and I’m a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon. My research is focused on women’s empowerment. I’ve written books on women in negotiation. And my latest book is about how men and women spend their time at work.

Celeste Headlee:

Which is what I really want to focus on today, but can we start just by this question of solving gender gaps in wages, in salaries, but also in the tasks that we do, the work that we’re assigned, and who is sort of responsible for that? And that question comes from this idea that for a very long time, these gaps between the genders have been… We’ve been told that the solution is that women need to change, that women need to fix themselves, act more like men. What’s your answer to that?

Linda Babcock:

Yeah. It’s a great question. A really important question. We’ve been focused in organizations for so long on how to improve equity in the workplace and we’ve tried a lot of different things. There have been a lot of programs that have focused on, as you say, fix the women. Some of my research has been a part of that and looking at negotiation or maybe women need mentoring, they need sponsoring, they need special training. And all in all, it’s been pretty unsatisfactory in terms of it hasn’t helped move the needle.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah.

Linda Babcock:

And so the new research that we’re focused on is really looking at how men and women spend their time at work because of course, that is an input into everything. It’s an input into how you’re going to advance to your salary and is one of the things that we think has really been hiding in plain sight and requires an organizational solution rather than something that women need to change.

Celeste Headlee:

So when you say organizational solution, what does that mean in terms of… Look, let me put it more blatantly here. So much that has to do with either gender differences, or racial differences, or really any gap of achievement, salary, whatever it may be that can be traced back to identity.

Celeste Headlee:

So often those initiatives don’t make it past the executive level. For one reason or another, the sort of radical, or sometimes revolutionary changes, that have to be made don’t get made because there’s an executive reason, a good reason why they shouldn’t be made. So when you talk about organizational solutions, what is it that you mean?

Linda Babcock:

Well, these are solutions and I can understand the perspective you just laid out is that sometimes the problems that we’re trying to solve don’t have easy solutions. You think about implicit bias, right?

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah.

Linda Babcock:

How do you stop people from having biases? Well, it turns out that’s pretty hard. And so we have the ideas about what the problem is, but we don’t really have easy and inexpensive solutions. And as you say, there’s always a reason why, “Well, we can’t do that. We can’t implement that.”

Linda Babcock:

What we’re talking about here is not rocket science. It’s actually really easy and it’s very easy to change. And it goes back to the kinds of work that men versus women are assigned to do and asked to do. And what we find in our research is that women are more likely to be asked, and say yes to, work that advances the organization, but doesn’t help their careers. And we call this non promotable work.

Linda Babcock:

And our organizations are asking us to do this. We feel, as women, we have to say yes, because the expectation is that we’ll say yes. And so this work is being done by women and it’s really an anchor that’s holding them back. And so what we need to do as a solution is to change the way that work is assigned.

Linda Babcock:

And actually that’s not that hard. Instead of asking for volunteers to do something that no one wants to do, draw names out of a hat, rotate who does the task. This isn’t difficult to implement and it’s in organization’s interest to do so. Not only because they are going to finally see the diversity, equity, and inclusion goals that they would like to see as a result of changing the way your work is allocated. But also it is dragging organizations down for women to be doing this work.

Linda Babcock:

So let me give you an example. If you have someone that’s a highly skilled, trained… Let me start over.

Celeste Headlee:

Sure.

Linda Babcock:

If you have someone that’s technically trained and you’re having them do a lot of work that just about anyone in the organization can do, it’s not a good use of resources. So I came across a woman who is a database analyst, and we talk about her in the book, Maria, and rather than spending her days writing complex algorithms, she was tasked to do a lot of administrative work. She sat on company-wide committees, she managed, she organized birthday events. She took notes at meetings, and that was not a good use of her time.

Linda Babcock:

It made her unhappy, it dragged her career down, and it wasted the organization’s talent. And so they would’ve been better off assigning that to someone who hadn’t spent years getting that technical training. And they could have done the work more efficiently. And so this is something that organizations should want to change and it will help them achieve their equity goals.

Celeste Headlee:

Can you give me an example of other, you’ve mentioned a couple tasks that you’re talking about and in your research, it looks like they’re called tasks with low promotability? I assume that means tasks that don’t lead to a promotion, but can you give me an example of what they are?

Linda Babcock:

Yeah. I know it’s a mouthful, non promotable tasks, but we think it’s a lot better than the term that’s often used is, and that term is office housework, because it’s not really housework. And some of it is very meaningful to the organization.

Linda Babcock:

So for example, we talk to a bartender and you might think, “Well, what non promotable tasks are there that bartenders have?” Well, in this case, this bartender worked at a bar and grill, and every time they hired somebody new to work behind the bar, the owner had her train the new person. And when you train someone, you’re not going to be serving in as many drinks. And how does she make money? She makes money from tips. And so every time she did the training, she was sacrificing some of her income for the good of the organization. Okay? And so, while it’s not promotable, in the sense we use the term very broadly to refer to anything that will help you achieve your work goals, whether that be income, a promotion, training, it’s really standing in their way of achieving those goals.

Linda Babcock:

And so for the bartender, training new bartenders was non promotable. She did not get rewarded for it. In fact, she was punished in terms of having less tips that evening when she did the training.

Celeste Headlee:

So some of these things that it occurs to me immediately, a friend of mine is a science director at the National Institute of Health. She keeps getting asked to serve on hiring committees, which again, as you say are really important to the institution, but I have to wonder if that’s a good use of the talents of a neuroscientist?

Linda Babcock:

Exactly, exactly. Maybe there are parts of it in evaluating candidates that her expertise is very important, but often so much these hiring committees are doing also a lot of the administrative clerical work that doesn’t need science based training. And so the organization is really not using that person’s resources, talents, effectively. And it’s dragging that person’s career down as well.

Linda Babcock:

We heard so many examples from lawyers who were involved in administrative details of coordinating the summer internship program when what she ought to have been doing is spending time with clients. And it wasn’t that she had chosen to spend her time that way. It’s that the firm had tasked her to do that.

Linda Babcock:

And our research really backs up the fact that our organizations task women, not men, to do this work.

Celeste Headlee:

And interesting enough, you research finds that women are just as likely to assign this work to other women?

Linda Babcock:

Exactly. It’s not that it’s some evil male managers that are doing this, but it’s all of us, it’s men and women. And that’s because we have the collective expectation that women will say yes to this work. And so if we want something done, we ask a woman. And it’s not fair to the women and it harms their careers.

Celeste Headlee:

So the other thing that often happens with a lot of women, not just myself, but plenty of them is that there’s work that we believe, sometimes justifiably, wouldn’t happen if we didn’t do it. And that brings me back to some of the things like birthday party’s, bringing in cakes for people, celebrating colleagues. Sometimes if we were not the ones who did that, it wouldn’t happen.

Linda Babcock:

Right. And these are really important activities. There was a study last year by McKinsey in LeanIn that found, they surveyed hundreds of employers in the United States, and what they found is that 87% of employers said those activities, like what you mentioned, having party’s, activities that promoted employee wellbeing and health and happiness, 87% of companies said that those were critically important to the organization, but only 25% said that they rewarded the people who did those activities that led to that better wellbeing and health of employees.

Linda Babcock:

So there’s this gap between it being important, but not being rewarded. And that is the gap where women are filling in. And so we’re not saying that we should stop doing these activities. They’re really important, but men can stop off at the bakery on the way to work and get cakes also. It’s not hard.

Celeste Headlee:

But will they? That’s the question. Unless, and maybe this is what you’re talking about in terms of organizational solutions, I’m thinking about a fundraiser that I organized every single year that became a company wide effort. And if I didn’t do that, then we wouldn’t have been given giving to that very deserving charity. So at some point do the executives have to say, “Look, this is important to us. And therefore this work must be don?”

Linda Babcock:

Absolutely. It’s a failure of leadership to just have those things slip through the cracks, right? If they’re important, let’s do them, but let’s assign who does them fairly. So absolutely these things need to happen. And so, Celeste, if you’re organizing the fundraiser this year, maybe then you don’t have to do the set of other non promotable activities that you were doing. Take those off your plate and give them to somebody else that isn’t doing those activities. And so what we have to do is share this load, share it equitably, across men and women.

Linda Babcock:

But also as you started out talking about looking at other aspects of identity. There’s research that also shows that people of color get assigned to do these tasks more than people who are white. And so that’s also burdening people of color with this work, holding them back.

Celeste Headlee:

Sometimes the requests to do these things are couched in complimentary terms, what researchers like you call casual sexism, benevolent sexism, whatever term you want to use, where they ask the woman to take the notes by saying, “You have the best handwriting in the group.” Or, “You do such a great job at this.” How do we respond in those cases?

Linda Babcock:

Yeah. I think that we respond by saying, “Well, that’s great. I’ll do it this week, but perhaps Ben can do it next week? And he can take notes on his laptops since his writing is not so good.” And you have other people in the room to back it up. And this is one of the things that we heard about in the Obama administration is that, of course you’ve heard of the research that shows that when women present an idea, they don’t get credit for it. But when a man then says that exact same idea it’s agreed by the group and gets credit for it.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah.

Linda Babcock:

So the women in the Obama White House were tired of this happening. And so they kind of got together and said, “Hey, look, next time we’re in a meeting, a woman says something, it doesn’t get noticed another woman will chime in and say, “Hey, Mary, that’s a great idea.” Or if Brad takes credit for it, she can chime in and say, “Oh, Brad, I’m so glad that you liked Mary’s idea. That’s right.” And so you can kind of have this either explicit or implicit agreement among others in your team that you’re going to chime in and support the suggestion, for example, to rotate these tasks.

Celeste Headlee:

So if I am listening to you and I say, “Wow, Linda Babcock is right.” I need to stop doing all this extra work that a, is leading to overwork and burnout on my part, but also is not helping me get ahead, so I’m all in. How do I go through my schedule and determine which ones are promotable in which ones aren’t?

Linda Babcock:

Well, I think there’s a couple pieces to your question. And one is that we don’t necessarily want to be advising that women just start saying no to this work without presenting alternatives, because there is the collective expectation that women will say yes to this work. And so there can be backlash against her if she does say no. And so that’s why we’re really trying to promote an organizational solution so that you’re not putting women in this difficult position where either they’re saying yes to the task and then they’re dragged down by it, or no, and then there’s backlash against them, but excuse me.

Celeste Headlee:

Sure.

Linda Babcock:

But what we do suggest in the book is that women do take a look at their schedules just to get a handle on how much of this non promotable work they’re doing. And so we identify three characteristics of this work.

Linda Babcock:

First, it isn’t directly tied to the organization’s mission and goals. So for example, if you’re a lawyer bringing in a new client or logging billable hours are directly associated with the organization’s mission. So that’s promotable, okay? And yet working on the program to hire the summer interns is not.

Linda Babcock:

Second, the work is typically invisible. So women engage in a lot of activities that are important to the organization, but not seen. For example, they help out each other a lot. Someone needs a report to be edited or help with a PowerPoint presentation, women are often the one stepping in to help and that’s done behind the scenes and so not visible.

Linda Babcock:

Women also are involved in solving a lot of interpersonal conflicts that happen at work. And of course, that also happens behind the scene. And so you’re not going to get credit for work if it’s not visible.

Linda Babcock:

The third characteristic of non promotable work is that many people can do them, not just you. And we talked about this earlier, if you’re having a scientist input data or take notes in a meeting that may not be the efficient use of her time, not using her specialized skill. So if pretty much anybody in the organization can do it. It is probably not a promotable task.

Linda Babcock:

And so you can go through your task that you do every day, each week, each month, and rate them on a scale of promotability, is this something that’s really going to be noticed and appreciated and compensated? Or is this something that’s done behind the scene, is less important to the organizational goals, or less visible to the organizational goals that then is likely to be non-pro promotable.

Celeste Headlee:

Okay. So if this is not sort of an individual solution in that I find out I spend 90 minutes a day doing non promotable tasks. And if my solution is not to walk in my boss and say, “Nope, not happening anymore, screw you.” Then how do I go about bringing about the organizational changes that you’re talking about?

Linda Babcock:

Well, we really recommend that women do take a look at their schedules so that they can help to raise awareness in their organization of what’s promotable, what’s not promotable, and the inequities in how they’re these tasks are allocated in order to ready the organization for change. And so we think that people talking about this work, “This is non promotable.” And starting to have those conversations, whether it be in book clubs, in affinity groups that will then start to build momentum for organizations to make some systematic changes about how work is allocated.

Linda Babcock:

And so it’s kind of a understanding my own situation so that I can bring awareness to this broader situation at work and be instruments of sparking the change for that organization. Because this might be new thinking to many organizational leaders. And so sometimes change can bubble up from the bottom by people raising the issue, talking about it, and then creating that case for change.

Celeste Headlee:

That’s a incremental strategy though. I wonder what advice you have for a woman, who like so many others, is burnt out right now? For whom, a very typical situation I will see is that a woman has all of these tasks that are non promotable, but she doesn’t want to let up on her promotable work. And so therefore she ends up working a lot of hours, 60 hours or more per week in order to get it all done. That incremental strategy may feel too slow for her.

Linda Babcock:

Yeah, no, that’s right. And so there are other things that could be done, talking to your boss, “I read this book, I saw a talk about this work. It’s interesting. I’ve noticed that women are assigned this work more, how about us changing some of the ways that we allocate this work?” Or doing these initiatives, like I mentioned before, when someone’s asking for a volunteer to just say, “Hey, how about we draw names out of a hat?” And so that can start to create change, but I totally get the impatience of the slow approach and you’re right. Because women’s plates are filled up with this non promotable work and they’re working so many hours that also being part of a change initiative feels a little daunting.

Linda Babcock:

And that’s why we are engaging in a lot of media activities that’s focused on the business press. So that organizational leaders see this work and realize it’s an opportunity to change and make the organization more effective. And so we’ve targeted a lot of audiences like Fortune and Forbes, Fast Company, The Harvard Business Review places where executives and organizational leaders read about the latest research, because we think that this could be an, “Aha” moment for them and help them to realize some of their goals by changing a way that this work is allocated.

Celeste Headlee:

Why is the business press so influential here?

Linda Babcock:

Well, because it’s targeting the people who have the power to make change.

Celeste Headlee:

And they read it, right?

Linda Babcock:

Exactly to read it and then say, “Hey, we could have a competitive advantage by allocating our talent better. Hey, we haven’t been achieving our equity goals. This might be one way to do it that’s going to help the organization in multiple levels.” And so organizational leaders are looking out for innovative ways to make change. And so we think that this will be very attractive for them, in that it doesn’t require complex organizational solutions.

Celeste Headlee:

So how important is this to a woman’s career decisions? In other words, if a woman is in a position in which she is getting a lot of this work, she has tried to speak with supervisors, she tried to bring about change, and it hasn’t worked, should she be looking for another position?

Linda Babcock:

Well, this work has severe consequences for women. As our work is starting to get more attention in the media, I’ve often heard comments to some of these, our articles, like, “Oh, well, so what if a woman has to go get cake and make coffee? This is no big deal.”

Linda Babcock:

But what we found in one study is that women in an organization were spending 200 more hours per year than men on non promotable work.

Celeste Headlee:

Oh, my gosh.

Linda Babcock:

200 more hours. And so what this adds up to is something we call work work imbalance. So you’ve heard of work life imbalance. But work work imbalance is the balance between the kinds of work you do at work that is promotable and non promotable. And when women’s work work balance is imbalanced, she’s doing too much promotable work… I mean, sorry, too much non promotable work and not enough promotable work.

Linda Babcock:

And that has really severe implications for women. And let me just step back and tell you a personal story. So I’m a professor at Carnegie Mellon and and our promotable work is research and teaching. And a lot of the other work that we do is called service. And this is the work that’s important for the organization, but won’t reward me for doing it. And I found that I was getting bombarded with requests to do this work.

Linda Babcock:

It’s actually what started me on this research on this topic was realizing that my schedule was completely out of control. And it had some really negative impacts on me, because I had so much non promotable work, I cut back on my promotable work. And I was really starting to feel, and the truth of the matter was I was starting to be a lot less productive as a scholar, and it affected the way I felt about myself.

Linda Babcock:

I lost confidence that I still had what it took to succeed in academia and that caused me a lot of stress. And I started really questioning my identity as a scholar. And I became really unhappy with my job. And many times I almost quit and it got to be pretty bad. And so I almost left a job that I loved at one point, that I had once loved.

Linda Babcock:

And so this is not just getting cakes. This is really affecting so many parts of a woman’s life. And so it’s quite a serious problem. And I do think that it forces many women to the point of quitting. And there’s research that on burnout, that’s showing that women are so much more burnout at work than men. And we think this is a big part of it. They’re just dragged down by this work and that forces many people to look elsewhere.

Celeste Headlee:

This has also, research shows, been the case in terms of racial equity and justice in the workplace, which leads us back to the comment you made earlier on the fact that very often the very people who suffer from inequities are the ones that end up having to do all the work to remedy it. Do you have any suggestions on how we might go about finding allies, especially those allies with lots of influence who statistically speaking are likely to be white men?

Linda Babcock:

Yeah, no, it’s a really important question. The survey that I mentioned earlier, 70% of companies said that DEI initiatives were really important to the company, but only 24% of those companies reward the people that work on those DEI initiatives. And who is tasked with engaging in those activities?, people of color and women. And so you’re giving them a supersize helping of non promotable work that’s going to further drag them down.

Linda Babcock:

So this is something we absolutely have to fix. And if organizations say, “Well, but those voices are really important in these initiatives.” Well, fine. Reward them for it, make it part of their jobs, make it part of their promotion possibility. Take other non promotable work off their plates if they’re doing DEI work. And so there’s lots of ways to have the voices you want in these initiatives without taxing the people who do them, because that’s really what it is, you’re taxing people for their under representation and that fundamentally isn’t fair.

Celeste Headlee:

Okay. So have you seen some of your strategies implemented in a way that worked?

Linda Babcock:

Absolutely. We’ve seen great success in small changes and in large changes. For example, my co-author, Lisa, works at another university and the way they do promotions is that they have a big meeting and someone writes up the meeting notes after the deliberations and that task typically went to women. It’s really important for the organization, but it wasn’t rewarded. And what they do now is they draw names out of a hat. They literally bring a hat into the meeting with people’s names and they draw the name of the person who will write up the meeting notes. That’s a small change and that can happen overnight. And that’s something that she was really successful at changing the organizational culture so that it didn’t overburden women.

Linda Babcock:

Now you can go on the other end of the spectrum. One organization that I was working with, I’d been down to give a talk to them and the timing of the talk was that it happened while they were revamping their performance evaluation system. And what they realized during my talk was that some of the things that they thought were really important to the functioning of their organization, weren’t being recognized in performance evaluations. And so they changed the way that they evaluated performance.

Linda Babcock:

They decided that helping other people was really important and they wanted to promote that. So what they did is that if you were helped by somebody, you could put a note in someone’s file that says, “Hey, this person helped me on this project and here is why it was really valuable to me.” And that those would be explicitly used as metrics, those notes, in that person’s performance evaluation.

Linda Babcock:

So if you didn’t have any, you didn’t score well on that dimension and your raise was less. And so that’s a kind of an example of a broader initiative that takes more planning and coordination, but still can change the way that people feel about doing this work that was previously non promotable. In fact, in a sense, they made the non promotable work promotable.

Celeste Headlee:

So you’ve made the case, I think, pretty convincingly that making these kind of changes is really important for women, especially, but can you make the case for any executives who may be listening on why it’s worth it? Because if you look, it takes a lot of effort to make changes like this. What you’re talking about is changing kind of the norms and culture of a business?

Linda Babcock:

Mm-hmm. And clearly, there is some low hanging fruit, things that can be done easily, but the more kind of bigger changes does take organizational leadership to say, “This is important and here’s why.” And so we actually have a whole chapter in the book that shows how the mismanagement of non promotable work hurts the profitability of organizations. And that makes really the business case for it. That you’re not using your talent effectively. You’re having dissatisfied workers. That causes workers to quit. Quit are very expensive because you have to recruit and train new people.

Linda Babcock:

And so there really is a business case for better managing how this work is allocated and rewarded. So we think that’s something executives and leadership will pay attention to.

Celeste Headlee:

I agree, any last bits of advice for all the women who may be listening and trying to screw up their determination and courage to take this on?

Linda Babcock:

Yeah, definitely. The thing that was most helpful for me personally, was not all the research that I did and the companies that I consulted for, but was my No Club. So we started this club 12 years ago, five of us, who were all frustrated with our work lives in terms of, we felt overwhelmed all the time and we didn’t know why. And we’ve been meeting just about every month for 12 years. And it’s through that process that we generated the research and this book, but on a personal level, the club has been incredibly helpful for us and supportive in that we can discuss how we’re spending our time with a group of other people who are invested in our success and who will listen and not judge and help us try to make better choices ourselves in the areas that we can.

Linda Babcock:

And that club has been really a bedrock for me in turning around my career and my happiness. And I think these clubs, other clubs around the country have formed, and this is something that you can do with a group of friends to see how this work affects you and what changes you can make in your own lives. Because we found that not only could we make some changes in our own work schedules, but we could have influence on our organization.

Linda Babcock:

So Lisa, when she suggested they draw names out of a hat, she had an influence, Lori, who’s another one of my co-authors, changed the way that committee assignments were made because she made a spreadsheet showing how women were doing more committees than men, which is non promotable in a university. And so they now track this with a spreadsheet.

Linda Babcock:

So these are the kinds of things that we as individuals came… This came out of our club, not ways that we could personally change, but also ways that we could help our organizations change. So for us, it was just a very positive experience.

Celeste Headlee:

Great. Thank you so much.





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