Chapter 1: The No Club CHAPTER 1 The No Club
Five women sat around the table at a local restaurant with two bottles of wine. We wondered who would be the first to admit her life was out of control. We didn’t know one another well, but we all had one thing in common—we were drowning in our jobs and were suffering both personally and professionally.
Brenda filled our glasses as Linda dove in: “I asked you all here because I need help and I think you might too. I am completely overwhelmed with work. I’ve lost control of my time. I can’t keep up with everything, and more stuff just keeps coming at me. Every time someone asks me to do something, I want to say no, but I feel like I can’t. I’m a mess. Is it just me?” The rest of us simultaneously answered, “No!” We looked at one another and let that sink in. This became the first of many meetings of The No Club.
It all had started two weeks earlier, the day Linda realized that she just couldn’t keep up with her work load. Here’s how she remembers it:
I finally had it. My calendar was filled with back-to-back meetings that left me almost no time for research. I’m a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University, so research is not only a key part of my job, it is the primary factor in my performance evaluation. That means the amount of time I spend on research really matters, so it is critical that I schedule “non-teaching” days to focus on my research.
On one of my non-teaching days, the morning started with a rush as I ran to and from meetings. I noticed my across-the-hall colleague, George, sitting at his desk every time I passed by. He didn’t move all day. I couldn’t understand how he managed to spend so much time in his office, and when he joked about how much running around I did, I asked what his schedule for the day was like. He showed me his calendar, and as I compared it to mine, I was shocked. LINDA’S DAY GEORGE’S DAY
Institutional review board meeting Research
Curriculum committee meeting Research
Interview with reporter Research
Executive education meeting Research
3:00–4:00 Research Research
Prepare talk for women’s group Research
Out of the entire day, I had one hour devoted to research, while George had seven. He had only two non-research commitments, where I had seven! How was his schedule so focused on research—a critical part of both of our jobs—when mine wasn’t? I looked at all the things on my calendar and realized that I had agreed to every single one of them. How did this happen? I needed an intervention, so I reached out to four of my friends for help. February 12, 2010 1:15 PM
Hi Brenda, Lise, Laurie, and MJ:
This email is to invite you to the inaugural meeting of the “I Just Can’t Say No Club.” I’ve decided to start this club so that a group of smart women can have a few drinks and talk about the difficulties we all have in saying no to things that we ought to. This is one of the hardest things I face and I think we can all help each other out a lot on this. Since I know that none of you can say no to my invitation, please fill out the form at the following link that will let me know what days you can come to the inaugural meeting. I thought we’d meet at 5 p.m., say at the Union Grill, but I’m always willing to start drinking early.
I think this will be really helpful and at the very least, all you cool women will get to meet each other.
Then I got nervous: I was the only one who knew everyone, and I was having second thoughts about whether this could work. I had chosen each woman for a reason: Brenda and I were close, having worked together for years. An associate dean in the public policy school at Carnegie Mellon (CMU), Brenda was always the first person to offer to help, which was great for everyone but her. I noticed she was doing a lot of work that no one else would do, and she wasn’t getting credit for it. I had also asked Lise, a fellow economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, because we bonded on a plane ride home from a gender conference at Harvard. During that flight, I was surprised to learn how much stress she had managing her workload, since she is a prolific scholar and seemed to have it all together. Laurie, a professor in Carnegie Mellon’s business school, and I shared an interest in negotiation research, and we’d taught a course together. Laurie was another person who seemed to have everything under control—but I suspected that she might not. MJ and I had met doing a project with the Women and Girls Foundation. She was a major contributor to women’s organizations in our region, and people always wanted her expertise for free. Because she ran her own consulting business, she relied on opportunities for visibility, but was spread too thin. Everyone agreed to join.
Brenda was excited. When she told her husband about the club, he laughed. He said, “Perfect group for you. Do you know that any time anyone asks you anything, you say ‘happy to’ before they even put the question mark on the end of the sentence?” She hadn’t realized that she did this and was surprised, because she thought of herself as decisive and, frankly, no pushover. She had spent decades in executive-level positions in the private sector and higher education. She had consulted with Fortune 100 companies, founded Carnegie Mellon’s campus in Australia (the first foreign university in the country), and overseen the creation and growth of a number of master’s programs. With all that experience, you’d think she’d be able to prioritize and manage her workload, but she was overwhelmed with work, and her plate never got emptier. An early riser by nature, she was getting up even earlier, sending emails at four thirty a.m., just to keep from getting even further backlogged. She figured she had nothing to lose by joining the club, and for the next week, paid attention to how she responded to requests. Her husband was right; she said yes immediately and often.
Lise didn’t respond to the email for several days because she was too busy. She was teaching a full load, recruiting new faculty for her own department and for the public policy school, and supervising projects for eight PhD students. Having agreed to serve on the editorial boards of four different academic journals, she was, to put it mildly, struggling. Plus, with a three-year research grant from the National Science Foundation, her pile of work was towering. She spent her days playing whack-a-mole to free up her calendar and sleepless nights compiling to-do lists. She had been juggling too many things for too long. While the club seemed like the right group for her, she wasn’t sure she had the time—and because of that, she knew she needed to join. She emailed Linda letting her know she’d be there.
Laurie was pretty sure she didn’t have a problem saying no. She knew she was doing a lot, but thought her workload was fine. She was organized and capable, managing her time reasonably well. She had a busy research agenda, writing papers and book chapters, while advising doctoral students and teaching three MBA courses. She was also serving as president of a new professional association and leading the design and delivery of a leadership training center for the MBA program, but she felt she could handle it. She kept a detailed set of work, family, and personal calendars to keep track of everything, and if it wasn’t in her calendar, it didn’t get done. She acknowledged that she was stretched thin and wasn’t sure whether that was by choice or happenstance. She didn’t think she needed the help, but since she and Linda were friends, and this would be an opportunity to meet new people, she figured what the hell, why not.
MJ was an attorney who spent the early part of her career as a prosecutor in San Francisco, named one of California’s most effective prosecutors by California Lawyer
magazine. She and her family moved east, where she founded Fulcrum Advisors to teach lawyers how to try cases effectively and worked with law firms and corporations to recruit, retain, and promote talented women. MJ was involved with dozens of women’s and community organizations, and she had a reputation for getting things done, which meant she received endless requests for her expertise. She rarely said no because she felt that the stakes were high with the work she was doing. She was very good at calling out BS anytime she saw it—and she saw it plenty with us—but like the rest of us, she decided to join the club because she realized she needed to be called out herself. Most often, this was for agreeing to give yet another talk (for free) to a women’s group. MJ jumped into Linda’s invite with gusto. “I’m in! I never turn anyone down and it’s all too much. An hour ago, I said maybe to someone when I should have said no. Our meeting isn’t soon enough for me!”
During the dreariest time in Pittsburgh, winter, in 2010, we kicked off our inaugural I Just Can’t Say No Club meeting at a cozy restaurant where we could get a meal and $10 bottles of wine (really!). We went around the table sharing, or actually, confessing. We each described the things we had agreed to when we were asked (this turned out to be a lengthy list for all of us), and then contrasted that with what we had said no to (these were very short lists). We asked one another for advice on how to say no, since we found it so hard to do. Wanting to get a better handle on our workload, we knew the extra support from the group would help, so we agreed to meet every few weeks. We left the meeting feeling unburdened and exhilarated. None of us realized what a transformative experience this would become for each of us. This first meeting laid the groundwork for us to grow personally and was the tiny spark that lit our significant research agenda, led us to mentor women and consult with companies—and then, finally, to write this book and share what we learned to help other women address their struggles too.
Our meetings were a high point for us. Well, sort of. We were serious about holding ourselves accountable for taking on too much work, so as we went around the table, each admitting our latest bad choice, we were anxious and embarrassed and, at times, shed tears. Divulging that you had made the same mistake four times in a row was difficult. Worse was when everyone else at the table, except for you, saw what you had done. We first took comfort in the fact that four other women were similarly overwhelmed and were relieved to have each other to try to figure it out. Then we started to question why we found ourselves in this position—and realized that many others did, too; perhaps even you.
We came to every club meeting ready to bare our souls and support one another. We were fully invested in one another’s success. MJ stood out in this regard. She was our heart, the truth teller in the group. She had a way of arching one eyebrow that stopped you midsentence, and you knew right away that you had taken on too much. But we were in for some terrible news. Shortly after we started the club, MJ was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She spent four years undergoing treatment; we cheered at every sign of progress and marveled at her grace and fancy new hairdos. Through her treatment, MJ continued to come to club meetings and contribute to our burgeoning research agenda. She kept up with her professional work, while fully invested in the club. She told us how much our work meant to her and how the club held a piece of her heart. We were devastated to lose her on February 15, 2014. We mourned together, wondering what the club would be like without her. We felt incomplete and unfinished without her smile that lit up the room and her personality that felt as big as the world. For months, we stumbled even more than we had previously. It took time to reestablish ourselves. While we grieved the loss of our friend, we also wanted to do right by her. MJ’s legacy of helping women succeed in the workplace gave our club a greater purpose. In working through our own struggles, we understood why other women were struggling as well, and we began to see how to improve that. Doing right by MJ meant that we had to carry on, for women more broadly and for ourselves. We were still a work in progress, and picturing MJ’s arched eyebrow as we continued to say yes and overcommit kept us moving forward. We began to think of her as a guardian angel, albeit a sardonic one, who still would call us out for bad decisions.
One such moment came when an academic journal offered Lise an editorial position. Professors are expected to accept these types of invitations to pay it back to the profession. Being an editor adds many hours of work per week, on top of your regular job, and offers limited compensation or support. Lise already was serving on several other editorial boards, and the new editorship would take even more time away from her research. At a club meeting, Lise shared how torn she was, offering many reasons why she should take the position. The rest of us could see she was already overloaded, so another
editorial position would make her big pile even higher. We were adamant that she had to say no, especially since she already had the visibility and work of several other editorial boards. So what did she do? She said yes, and as expected, the decision haunted her. More than a year went by as she carved out evenings and weekends to review manuscripts, delaying her research, and she struggled to keep up with her teaching and departmental obligations. It was obvious to us all, including her, that she had taken on too much. But how could she reverse the decision? Wouldn’t that be even worse than having said no in the first place? A club meeting made her see the light: While it might be terrifying to resign, saving her sanity was more important. She resigned, and we toasted her at the next club meeting.
Our progress was slow, but we were learning. We realized that we said yes to requests from others far too often. Rather than being strategic about where to focus our attention, we were running around trying to fulfill other people’s needs and expectations. We each made a list of the work we were drowning in. Much of it didn’t seem critical to our jobs—like serving on a committee to select the company’s new online calendar system, identifying a new travel vendor, providing feedback on new risk mitigation procedures. We dubbed these “crappy tasks” and were surprised by how often we were asked to do this type of work, and how quick we were to take it on.
Elizabeth Blackburn, former president of the Salk Institute, observed:
“Often these situations which go on in a woman’s career—workplace situations—they don’t seem big. But I heard someone say a marvelous thing in this context: ‘A ton of feathers still weighs a ton.’?” The number of yesses—small as each was—had the cumulative effect of becoming a very heavy weight for us to carry. We felt overwhelmed and buried by all of these seemingly unimportant tasks, convinced that we were “just getting by” on some things and doing a bad job on others. While we were sprinting and often working very long hours, we were not keeping up with the work that mattered for our careers.
With time, we realized that what we considered crappy tasks weren’t necessarily crappy. What was a slog to us was quite important to our organizations. For example, putting together the class schedule for the entire school fell to Brenda for years, even though technically assigned to both her and a male colleague. Arranging each semester’s schedule well matters, and it’s complicated to pull off because there are lots of moving parts. Required courses can’t all be at the same time, otherwise students can’t take them; a seminar class needs a room where tables and chairs can be moved around; faculty want to teach all their classes on the same days so they can set the other days aside for research. So scheduling is important to students and faculty and to the smooth functioning of the university, but no one really knows what goes into it, and no one cares—unless it goes badly. It took Brenda a great deal of time to ensure it didn’t go badly, but it had no bearing on her career advancement. The task was critical to the organization, but wasn’t going to earn her praise, a raise, or a promotion. It was invisible unless she messed it up.
We started to call these crappy tasks non-promotable
because while they were important to our organizations, they took time away from the work that was core to our jobs and mattered for our advancement. In some cases, like Brenda’s, the task was invisible. Other times they didn’t require any unique skills or capabilities; someone—anyone—just needed to take them on. You might recognize non-promotable tasks (NPTs) in your own job: maybe you prepare a presentation deck, organize the charity fundraiser, screen the summer interns, take on the time-consuming but low-revenue client, or simply help others with their work.
We noticed that many of our coworkers didn’t seem to be bogged down with these types of dead-end assignments, and often looked like they were getting a free ride. We wanted what they had—more time for promotable tasks. We didn’t really understand the root of the problem (blame the wine), but we thought that if we just stopped saying yes, our lives would improve.
As it turns out, the club was a game changer in developing our individual ability to say no. We were so pleased with our progress that we renamed ourselves The No Club to reflect our growth. Together we learned to identify NPTs, and we honed strategies to say “no.” When any one of us waffled, the others pointed out the problem in concrete terms, gave advice on an approach, and helped instill the confidence to say no. We offered scripts for responses to requests, practiced role-playing, and prepared for possible pushback. With one another’s help, we started to develop our “no” muscles—and we got better at saying it—which carved out room for more promotable work. Pleased that we’d gotten so good at saying no, we were disappointed to discover that when we said no, the task was most often reassigned to another woman.
Saying no wasn’t the solution—the problem of non-promotable work was bigger than that. Wanting to learn more, we looked for research on this topic. We wanted to understand who was doing non-promotable tasks and why, but finding only limited literature, we started our own initiative, sketching out questions and hypotheses. We undertook studies at the University of Pittsburgh Experimental Economics Laboratory (PEEL), interviewed women across industries and jobs, conducted surveys, and worked closely with organizations to gather data and understand their experience with the problem.
In our own and others’ work, we found substantive and overwhelming evidence that
women more than men are tasked with non-promotable work. Less saddled with these tasks, men have the freedom to concentrate on work that helps them advance, while women’s careers are stalled or stymied. In exploring why this might be, our pioneering research uncovered two drivers. First, we ask women more often than we ask men to do such tasks. Second, when we ask, women are more likely to agree than men are. Importantly, we discovered that the key explanation for these drivers lies in the collective expectation that women, more than men, will do the unrewarded and non-promotable work. This finding not only pointed to effective solutions, but also made clear that women cannot tackle this problem on their own. It is an organizational problem. And it is in the interest of organizations to address it.
Our book shows that non-promotable work has a negative effect on women’s careers and lives, but also a detrimental impact on the productivity and profitability of their organizations. Fixing the distribution of non-promotable assignments is in the interest of both employees and organizations, and we show how this can be solved in a coordinated fashion—bottom up and top down, with women initiating the charge and their organizations taking ownership of the change.
As we talked about our research on NPTs, we began hearing from other women who shared stories of their struggles and feelings of helplessness. So many stories. We’ve included some in these pages to show how non-promotable tasks affected them and to help you reflect on how it may be hurting you. These women represent different industries, jobs, experience levels, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In order to tell their stories without potential reprisal, we’ve changed their names and sometimes identifying details (like their industry or job title). In our stories, we identify a woman’s race only when she told us that it affected her experience. All of these very personal examples helped us understand the impact of NPTs, and we hope they’re helpful to you too.
Being trusted with these women’s stories is humbling, and telling them through this book has been a labor of love. We want to share our collective stories and research to move the needle on gender equity. Women’s excessive load of non-promotable work is the anchor that has been holding them back, and we will share with you the straightforward solutions for freeing them of this work. It took us ten years to understand the challenges surrounding the distribution of non-promotable work and find solutions. Through our research and work with organizations, we learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, and we will share the effective and easily implemented solutions with you. But we want to be explicit that none of our solutions suggest that women should fix themselves because:
Women aren’t the problem.
Organizational practices are.
So this is not
a fix-the-women book. Instead, we focus on how individual women and their allies, working with their organizations, can systematically address the problem and help both women and their organizations reach their potential.
This book is also the story of our journey of personal exploration, where we learned about NPTs and how to handle them in our own careers, and, more importantly, how we set about addressing changes that organizations can make to help all women. We recognize that we are a group of women who have worked hard to achieve success in our roles. But we’re also women who have been lucky to have gone to good schools and grown up in supportive communities, and who have jobs that provide a stable and comfortable life, as tenured professors or high-level university leaders, all white women not facing systemic racism or classism at the same time. We believe that our challenges with non-promotable work apply to all women, while also recognizing that they are much more severe for women with less privilege than we have.
Our book is focused on gender, but it would be a mistake to take a monolithic approach to the topic. Women differ in myriad ways, and we discuss how specific subsets of women experience NPTs differently when we have research that supports that distinction. The research on NPTs is still in its infancy, and so there is scant data that provides a nuanced understanding of how other aspects of identity, such as race and class, intersect with gender regarding NPTs. We attempt to supplement this deficit through the many stories we heard from a diverse set of women. Now
is the time to provide women with relief from carrying a too-heavy load of non-promotable work. We suspect you’re tired and burned out just like we were. We can help. Stick with us through these pages and we’ll guide you through assessing what type of work matters in your organization, understanding your own NPTs, and developing tactics to change what’s not working for you. We’ll also help you become a catalyst for change within your own organization so you can help solve the problem for both yourself and other women. Working together, we can redistribute work and take critical and overdue steps to put a stop to women’s dead-end work and finally achieve gender equity in the workplace.