Skip to Main Content

Stop Doing Work That Doesn’t Advance Your Career

businesswoman standing on top of rising arrow with telescope

Photo credit: (Nuthawut Somsuk)

Linda Babcock looked at her work calendar one day. She noticed that most of it was filled with meetings and very little on research – which, as a university professor, would determine how she was evaluated. 

In fact, the limited time she was spending on the work that would advance her career was already leading to negative consequences. 

“My career started to stagnate, and my productivity was dropping,” she recalls. “This also caused tension with my colleagues because I was jealous of how they spent their time when I was stuck in all these meetings. And it started me thinking, could I cut it as an academic anymore? I became unhappy with my job and seriously thought about quitting.” 

Then she talked to a male professor whose office was across the hall from hers and asked to see his calendar. The difference was striking: Most of his time was spent on research. 

“This kind of got me riled up,” Babcok says. “I wondered, how do we have the same job but spend our days so differently? And how would I ever get my research done if this is what my schedule looked like?”

That’s when she realized she needed help. She sent an email to women colleagues that said, “This email is to invite you to the inaugural meeting of the ‘I Just Can’t Say No Club.’” Babcock and her colleagues met for the next dozen years – exploring their challenges, conducting research across several companies, and ultimately, in 2022, publishing a book, The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work. 

Here are some highlights Babcock—now the James M. Walton Professor of Economics and Head of the Social and Decision Sciences Department– shared with the Conferences for Women community. 

She addressed how to identify non-promotable tasks (tasks that are important to the organization but won’t help your career), how to create a more balanced workday, and how organizations can, as Babcock puts it, “stop dragging women’s careers down with dead-end work.”

The most useful first thing to understand is how women take on more than their share of non-promotable tasks. 

Why Women Carry a Disproportionate Share of Non-Promotable Tasks 

Babcock’s research found that women are:

  • Fifty percent more likely than men to respond to volunteer requests.
  • Forty-four percent more likely than men to be asked to do non-promotable tasks.
  • Fifty percent more likely than men to say yes when asked to perform non-promotable tasks. 

But none of this is because women necessarily like doing this work. 

“Society expects us to do this work,” she says. “And so we do because we know that if we say no, we will feel guilty because we violate society’s expectations and may experience backlash–that people may think, ‘Oh, she’s not a team player, or she’s just difficult.’ But this is fundamentally unfair because men don’t face these penalties.” 

How to Identify Non-promotable Tasks

Four questions can help you identify non-promotable tasks: 

  1. Is the task instrumental to improving your organization’s bottom line?
  2. Is the task visible to others?
  3. Can anyone do it?
  4. Will the task help you develop skills and relationships that might lead to more promotable work in the future?

Examples include helping others with their work, solving conflicts, and sitting on committees.

Three ways to create more balance 

Here are three ways Babcock recommends creating a schedule that won’t have you spending too little time on the work that is most important to your career. 

  1. Make a Plan
  • Assess your work-life balance by keeping a log of tasks and time spent on each.
  • Differentiate between promotable and non-promotable tasks.
  • Calculate your ideal balance and seek input from colleagues or mentors.
  • Create a list of non-promotable tasks to keep or discard based on preferences and priorities.
  1. Execute Your Plan
  • Reduce non-promotable tasks by seeking supervisor or colleague assistance.
  • Consider sharing duties, requesting staff resources, or aiming for a slightly lower level of perfectionism.
  • Rebalance your work portfolio as needed.
  1. Maintain the Balance
  • Be aware of the planning fallacy, which involves underestimating task completion times.
  • Use the rule of multiplying estimated task time by four for more accurate planning.
  • Recognize that your future schedule will remain busy and avoid over-committing to future tasks.
  • Implement a 24-hour rule for responding to requests, allowing time for reflection and external input before accepting new commitments.

Six Ways Organizations Can Change The Way Work Is Allocated

There are many ways organizations can also help ensure a more equitable distribution of non-promotable tasks. Here are Babcock’s recommendations:

  1. Optimize Task Allocation
    • Assess how individuals use their skills and ensure that tasks align with their strengths.
    • Shift tasks from individuals for whom they are non-promotable to others where they may be promotable.
    • Maximize productivity by capitalizing on specialized skills.
  2. Equitable Task Assignment
    • Avoid relying solely on volunteers, as this often leads to gender disparities.
    • Assign tasks more fairly by rotating responsibilities or randomly assigning them.
    • Address “cultural taxation,” where underrepresented groups are burdened with non-promotable work.
  3. Raise Awareness
    • Make discussions about non-promotable tasks a part of performance evaluations.
    • Create awareness among men about the impact of their refusal to do such tasks on their female colleagues.
  4. Increase Supply and Training
  • Train more individuals to perform non-promotable tasks, reducing the burden on a select few.
  • Share the responsibility for non-promotable work more equitably.
  1. Change Performance Metrics
    • Set minimum thresholds for non-promotable work in performance evaluations to ensure fairness.
    • Consider making non-promotable tasks promotable by including them in performance evaluations.
  2. Provide Incentives
    • Offer incentives, such as sending individuals to training programs or providing other rewards for doing non-promotable tasks.
    • Encourage more people to volunteer for these tasks, preventing them from falling disproportionately on women.

Linda Babcock

 Linda Babcock spoke at the 2022 Texas and Pennsylvania Conferences for Women. This article is based on her talks.

Get The Conference in Your Inbox

Join over 300,000 like-minded people for inspiration, insights and community for working women — plus Conference news and speaker announcements.

No thanks, I don't want to learn