Professor collaborates with Carnegie Mellon peers on the art of saying no

four women standing at window


An employee known for their reliability in training new colleagues, serving on committees, screening interns and writing promotional letters is usually valued by their supervisors and often beloved by their co-workers. But what if none of these “optional” tasks falls under the job description of, say, an academic researcher?

That chasm between official, promotable duties and how unspoken workplace expectations spur the volunteer spirit has been on Lise Vesterlund’s mind for more than a decade. The Pitt professor of economics spent the past 12 years regularly meeting with friends and Carnegie Mellon University professors Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser and Laurie Weingart. The group swapped stories and explored the deceivingly complex option of simply saying no.

The frustrations and strategies discussed during those monthly “No Club” meetings comes to fruition with “The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work,” a Simon and Schuster-published book released May 3. Vesterlund and her co-authors spoke on the book’s release day during a Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture Series event at Carnegie Library Lecture Hall. University Times spoke with Vesterlund about the project and the long-running workplace trends that inspired it.

“We wrote this book because we firmly believe that bringing attention to women doing the vast majority of the non-promotable work is one of the key things we need to address to secure gender equality in the labor market,” Vesterlund said. “It’s very much been an effort we put out to change the landscape for women when they go to work every day, and that’s why we’ve been working so hard on the book and pushing so hard (for publicity). It’s just to (increase) awareness for the problem and the many easy solutions there are to the problem.”

The No Club sprang from an increasingly overextended and frazzled observation from Babcock, professor of economics and head of Carnegie Mellon’s Social and Decision Sciences Department. Running around her workplace to cover one extracurricular obligation after another, she noticed a certain male colleague was — reliably and firmly — planted at his desk, toiling primarily on research-related work. That’s work he was specifically hired to do.

“Out of the entire day, I had one hour devoted to research, while George had seven,” Babcock explained in the book’s introductory chapter. “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?”

Looking at her calendar, Babcock realized she had agreed to every single item on there. “How did this happen?” she asked herself. “I needed an intervention, so I reached out to four of my friends for help.”

Vesterlund recalled what evolved after a fateful email from Babcock, who had a gut feeling the women to whom she reached out would say yes to a No Club.

“We started meeting once a month at the Union Grill in Pittsburgh to try to get our work lives under control,” Vesterlund recalled. “We realized that what was keeping us so busy was what we ended up characterizing as non-promotable work or non-promotable tasks — that is, tasks that are important to the organization but not to the individuals performing it.”

Non-revenue generating work goes beyond being the perpetual office birthday party planner, she noted, citing such non-promotable duties as serving on committees, orienting or onboarding new employees, writing external letters related to recruiting efforts, and preparing presentations and spreadsheets.

“If you were a lawyer, you should be working on billable hours. You should not be doing a lot of things that are not billable hours,” Vesterlund observed. “So, if you’re contributing directly to the mission, it’s going to be promotable. If you’re not, it’s more likely to be non-promotable.”

Working with a professional services firm that kept meticulous track of how employees spent their time, the authors asked the tasks to be categorized in “promotable” and “non-promotable” categories.

“And what we found was that women were spending, every year, 200 more hours on non-promotable work than men,” she said. “Women were spending a full month of extra work that was non promotable.”

The group used the Pittsburgh Experimental Economics Laboratory to dig deeper into why women were doing more of this work than men. More than 1,000 Pitt undergraduates took part in a study about what happens when volunteers are called on for one workplace task or another.

“We sort of wanted to mirror the setting that you have when you come into an office environment and the boss comes in and describes a task that nobody wants and sort of sees who isn’t (or) who’s going to raise their hand when a request goes out to take that task on,” Vesterlund said. “And we all know how that situation plays out. Everybody looks away (and) pretends like they couldn’t hear the request. They’re checking their phones, disengaging from the table, and eventually somebody’s going to come forward and raise their hand.”

In mixed-gender groups, the lab experiment showed, women were 44 percent more likely to be asked to take on non-promotable work and agreed to volunteer 50 percent more often than men, Vesterlund said. The required task involved clicking a button, so “everybody was equally good.”

“So, you couldn’t say that women were volunteering more because they were better at this task. That couldn’t be an explanation for why women were volunteering.”

Nor, as it turned out, were women’s levels of altruism and devotion to workplace efficiency. Switching the experiment from mixed- to specific-gender groups reinforced the authors’ suspicions.

“If women are more altruistic, then (if) I look at their cooperation with only women, and compare it to a group of all men, that the female groups … should find volunteers more often,” Vesterlund said. “But what we find instead is that the volunteering rates in all-female and all-male groups are exactly the same. So, it’s not that men don’t know how to volunteer. It’s just they only volunteer when the women are not around.”

This tendency becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy cycle in which women, Vesterlund said, “know if they don’t come forward, it’s not going to get done,” and thus pile more and more onto their overloaded plates.

That said, Vesterlund acknowledged it’s more a “fixed-organization problem” than a “women problem.”

“We know we should be giving work to the employees who are best at solving a task, not to the employee who is least reluctant to take it on,” she said. “Organizations can improve if they start distributing assignments based on sort of the value added that each employee has to the different jobs.”

Rather than just asking for volunteers and getting predictable outcomes, assigning tasks based on proficiencies, drawing names from a hat or taking chronological turns are among fairer approaches in allocating non-promotable tasks, she noted. Looking at new strategies also opens a door for new employees to gain valuable experience.

“I should make sure that everybody among my new recruits is spending the same amount of time on promotable and nonverbal work so that I can figure out who’s best at doing what,” Vesterlund said. “So we are pushing for this to be an organizational solution where organizations first just bring awareness to the fact that women are doing all this work.”

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at


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