The unpaid work of women is one of the four primary drivers of the 257-year economic gender gap. Women worldwide spend three to six hours performing unpaid care while men, on average, spend half an hour to two hours doing the same. This unpaid labor can hold women back from progressing in their careers — or prevent them from even working at all.
Unpaid work can take many forms, including childcare, but plenty of it happens in the workplace, too, often in the form of unpromotable work. These additional tasks often fall on the shoulders of women, which can leave many feeling overburdened and overwhelmed with work that isn’t central to their careers—or helpful to their career advancement.
Lise Vesterlund, University of Pittsburgh economics professor and co-author of The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead End Work, says, “We’re finding that women are carrying the brunt of this work, no matter what the job is.”
In her book, Vesterlund sets forth a playbook filled with tips to help women push back against what she and her co-authors call “non-promotable work” — planning office parties, tending to time-consuming or high-touch clients, screening interns, and more.
“We’re not just talking about putting a coffee cup away or cleaning up a common kitchen: we’re talking about a large amount of work,” says Vesterlund.
Resisting unpaid work may partly mean being comfortable saying no more often. This may mean approaching your needs with the same degree of importance as the kinds of asks from work, friends, and family: a reflexive “yes” can be the first habit to break. The less we agree reflexively, the more we’re able to concentrate on high-priority tasks.
“A big contributor to women doing this work is that we expect them to do it,” Vesterlund says. Women are less likely and less expected to say no. This perpetuates office cultures in which women do more invisible or non-promotable labor.
“In our studies, we found that women are not doing this work because they really enjoy it. Rather, it’s that we expect them to say yes. They expect themselves to say yes, too.”
Unpaid labor can, in a professional setting, feel like a must in order to get ahead in your career. And certainly much unpaid work is essential to creating a rewarding workplace culture. But there’s only so much anyone can take on — paid or unpaid — for the sake of one’s career. So what’s the solution?
Businesses should reconsider what they deem promotable, says Vesterlund, taking a more inclusive approach to deciding what counts toward generating revenue or succeeding and then leading their organizations through a change in how they assign non-promotable work.
Women should avoid saying yes as a reflex. “When women begin to say no, our research shows they’re more likely to experience backlash,” Vesterlund notes, so “stop thinking about non-promotable work as a yes or no, but rather as a negotiated yes