It is not enough to say “no” in science

It is not enough to say “no” in science

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In August 2022, a group of female scientists wrote Why Four Scientists Spent a Year Saying No: an article about what they earned by saying no to 100 work-related applications over the course of the year. We knew we had found soul-like souls in the authors. We also lost time by saying yes to work that didn’t move our career forward. That led us, four professors, to form the Rejection Club.

Over the past decade, we’ve been researching work that doesn’t help advance careers—trying to understand why we, along with so many others, do so much. We called this work: Non-Upgradable Missions (NPT). Although this work is important to the organisation, it does not bring any external reward or recognition to the individual who does it.

These tasks can be found throughout any organization – examples include helping other people with their work, serving on governance committees, organizing events, directing, and even resolving office disputes. Study 20211 From more than 400 non-academic organizations by global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company and Lean In, a Palo Alto, California, nonprofit organization focused on women’s leadership, show the disconnect between what is important to the organization and what is rewarded: For example, 70% of those surveyed said diversity, equity and inclusion efforts were “critical,” but the survey found that only 24% rewarded this work.

We have identified three characteristics of NPTs: they are not directly related to the mission of the organization; They are largely invisible and are usually performed behind the scenes; It rarely requires specialized skills, so many people can do it.

Take, for example, a research scientist who was asked to organize a team building event for her lab. Although the event is important to the team, the time spent organizing it is not directly related to the research output of the scientist; She does most of the planning on her own, so no one sees the time she’s spending; The work does not require her scientific background. Although her efforts can boost team productivity, they nonetheless go unrewarded—and perhaps a scientist’s career would enjoy an even greater boost if she took the time to research.

Studies show that women, regardless of profession, take the bulk of NPTs. cadastral and administrative data25 She asserts that female academics, engineers, lawyers, architects, TSA agents and supermarket clerks all spend more time on NPTs than their male colleagues. A stark example can be found in the business consultancy we worked with. As consultants track their time, in terms of both billable and non-billable hours, we can track how much time they spend on upgradeable and non-upgradeable work. Using three years of data2, we found that the average chancellor spends an extra 200 hours each year doing non-promotable work than her male counterpart. In the time period we looked at, women did nearly an additional month of work that didn’t advance their careers that their male colleagues did.

Why is there such a difference between the sexes? In a series of experiments6, we studied who would agree to “take one for the team” and tackle a task that everyone wanted to do but preferred someone else to do. In mixed-gender groups, we found that women were 48% more likely to volunteer to do the task, 49% more likely to answer yes when asked directly to do so, and 44% more likely to be asked to do the task. The underlying reason is simple and sad: we all expect women to take on this work, which is why we often ask them and judge them harshly when they refuse. Women have internalized these expectations, and feel a lot of pressure to say yes.

Sure, No Club members got better at saying no to unpaid work (like serving on university committees), but requests kept coming. We soon found out that there was an unintended consequence when we refused – the work often went to another woman. We have realized that the problem is not solved by women by saying no. Instead, we needed to develop solutions that leaders could implement so that women weren’t forced to refuse work or put up with too much. And because this work has to be done, the organization needs to find better ways to share these tasks.

Improving the distribution of NPTs is an organizational problem: Employers and team leaders must lead change.

The solutions we offer here, based on our work, are easy to understand and adopt. It is low cost, and essentially requires the will to tackle the problem and maintain new practices over time. So, what can organizations do?

Stop asking for volunteers

We know that women are more likely than men to volunteer for the NPT, so the demand for volunteers exacerbates the allocation inequality. If you are willing to ask anyone in a meeting to volunteer for the NPT, that probably means that anyone in the meeting is qualified to do the job. So why not allocate it more equitably? Kay Bromond, associate dean at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, used to ask volunteers to write reports summarizing recommendations from promotion and tenure committees, but now she derives the names from a hat for choosing someone for a job. Over time, the task will be shared equally.

Raise awareness about non-promotable work

Help everyone in your organization understand which tasks will advance their career (promotionable work) and which will not. Clearly mark all tasks as upgradable or non-promotable – or, for a more nuanced approach, divide the tasks into baskets for promotion. Knowing where to focus time helps both employees and the organization. However, everyone still needs to do some non-promotable work, so the goal is to share the burden. Help those who have benefited from the current system understand the inherent unfairness and advantages that come from distributing work according to skill rather than a desire to take on the task.

Assign work strategically to take advantage of specialized skill sets

A single NPT position may be promoteable to a person at a lower level. One of us used to create a course schedule every semester and did this for many years. She worked with her supervisor to transfer this duty to a junior employee. This allowed her to devote her time to more strategic challenges, and allowed the junior employee to develop new skills.

Redistribute tasks to create fair portfolios

Collect data about each person’s NPT load to see if anyone is doing too much. Reassign tasks to those with lighter workloads, or for whom the task can be upgradeable. Co-deans of the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh developed a spreadsheet to track committee assignments, and used it to ensure that this workload was equitably distributed among faculty.

Consider offering rewards to some of the NPT

Putting together an event can be a tremendous amount of work. Although the organizer may get a ‘cry’ for accomplishing a great event, the reward will certainly be less than what would come from spending that time doing research or applying for a grant. Rewarding this effort by reducing teaching burdens or by providing research funding will make it easier for faculty members to deal with NPTs. Another option, if possible, is to give a one-time payment to the individual who took on the task. Check to see what employees appreciate and offer proportionate rewards. To be clear, we’re not suggesting that women continue to perform these tasks for pay – that’s not the answer to moving forward in their careers. But by offering rewards, organizations can encourage more people to take on these tasks and, in effect, increase equal opportunity.

Any organization – regardless of size or industry – can implement these easy fixes. Once employers take responsibility for addressing the problem, women will no longer have to take on the challenge of refusing to work.


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