Beware The ‘Women’s Work’ Trap

Arranging office drinks, taking notes, managing interns... it’s most often women who are asked to pick up these ‘invisible’ tasks – and it’s hurting our careers

The Women's Work Trap

by Elle Hunt |
Published on

Five women walked into a restaurant, ordered two bottles of wine and admitted to each other what they had not previously dared to voice, even to themselves: their lives were out of control and it was all because of the 'Women's Work' trap.

Linda Babcock, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, had called this meeting of work acquaintances in search of support. She told them she was feeling overwhelmed, personally and professionally. It was like she was constantly working, but never achieved anything of value – every time she ticked one task off her to-do list, it was replaced by two more.

‘I want to say no, but I feel like I can’t,’ Linda said. ‘I’m a mess. Is it just me?’ The response from her friends – all high-achieving and established in their respective fields – was immediate and unanimous: no, it was not just her.

So began the first of many meetings of ‘The No Club’, where the women helped each other to get on top of workloads, manage schedules and – most importantly – learn to say no to more demands on their time. They discovered that their hours were being taken up by tasks they felt obliged to take on, which not only offered little to no reward but distracted from their real work.

‘We were supposed to have reached the point where we were doing the work we wanted and here we were – serving on committees, writing reports and doing all these things that we hadn’t been hired to do,’ says Lise Vesterlund, an economics professor at Pittsburgh University.

Women's Work Trap

You may recognise this from your own experience of work: those time-consuming but dead-end jobs – like taking minutes in meetings, organising the present for a departing colleague or a social event, assembling awards entries or screening interns – that are important but unlikely to earn you a rise, or even thanks.

The exact nature of these unrewarding, unrewarded tasks differ by industry, and even by individual, but one finding is consistent: across the public and private sectors they are disproportionately done by women. In one analysis of employee hours at a large consulting company, the median woman – regardless of seniority – spent 200 more hours per year than the median man on duties that would likely lead nowhere.

Inspired by their own experiences, Lise and her fellow researchers within The No Club set out to quantify the impact of what they termed this ‘non-promotable’ work – a decade-long process of personal and professional discovery they detail in their new book, The No Club. During that time, they found that not only are women more often asked to take on unrewarding tasks than men are, they are also more likely to say yes.

Men only put themselves forward in the absence of women – evidence of the ‘collective expectation’ of it to be women’s work, says Lise. ‘Many of us have this assumption that women do the holiday party because they enjoy it, they’re taking meeting notes because they’re better at it – but what we very convincingly show in our research is that women are doing this work because everyone expects them to,’ she says.

Other findings suggest the pressure is even greater on women of colour, expected to lead on matters of organisational diversity and inclusion, though their contribution may never be formally recognised. ‘Often when you have a task that nobody wants to do, you will be inclined to find the person who’s most likely to say yes – and that will most likely be a woman,’ she says.

Stress, frustrated and business woman with paperwork and information in modern corporate office. Burnout, overworked and professional manager with overload of management document, report and deadline

It supports a vicious cycle where women are kept busy with tasks that won’t progress their careers, and may even hold them back. Lise suggests that non-promotable work may explain why women are still not advancing at similar rates to men, despite over a decade spent trying to address the disparity. This is on top of responsibilities at home, with a study by the Centre for Progressive Policy finding that UK women provide more than twice as much unpaid childcare per year as men.

Lise says the fix starts with awareness: by recognising dead-ends in our own workdays, and any inequities in how they are assigned, it becomes easier to resist taking on more than we have to. Strategies deployed by The No Club include suggesting someone more suitable, highlighting other responsibilities on your plate, or explaining the cost to your meaningful work. Even if you can’t get out of a request altogether, you can suggest sharing it with someone else, or trade it for another one.

‘Building the business case makes clear that your objective is to contribute to the organisation in the best way that you can, and that your time is better spent,’ says Lise. If only women volunteer for tasks, managers should assign them at random or by a rota. But, she adds, organisational change is slow-going, and dependent on leadership. In the meantime, women can support each other to lighten their loads at work and home by forming their own ‘no club’.

In her own case, Lise says she was shocked to realise the extent to which she had internalised the expectation to say yes. ‘I kept feeling like I could handle it in the future – that if I somehow ran faster, jumped higher, then I could get it all done.’ The external accountability from her friends pushed her to be realistic about her time.

‘If I had taken on anything – which I almost always had – then I had to explain what I was going to get rid of.’ Now, instead of responding with yes, Lise considers what she would be implicitly saying no to: spending time with her children, for example, or on meaningful work, or self-care. ‘We all have 24 hours in the day – we don’t owe them all to work,’ she says.

‘The No Club: Putting A Stop To Women’s Dead-End Work’ by Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie R Weingart (£14.99, Piatkus) is out now

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