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Unleashed E48: Lise Vesterlund - Putting a Stop to Women's Dead End Work

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Organizations are wasting precious skills and knowledge by assigning a disproportionate amount of non-promotable work to women. For women, this leads to  longer hours, burnout, and disengagement.

Are you underutilizing the potential of the women in your organization?

Lise shares that the solution is to first recognize the inequality, and then gives steps to address it in constructive ways for the benefit of the individual and the organization overall.

Actions You Can Take Right Now

  1. Recognize that the cause of gender inequality in the workplace – fewer opportunities, promotions, and compensation – is because women volunteer for or are assigned a disproportionate amount of Non-Promotable Work (NPW) – work that needs to get done but is unremarkable, doesn’t leverage their unique skills, and goes unnoticed.
  2. Take stock – teams and organizations must take a hard look at how work is distributed, both mission critical work and NPW, and ensure fair distribution across men and women.
  3. Learn to say no. Women need to build their “saying no” muscle, and there are specific strategies to do so. It takes assertiveness, creativity, and perspective. The organization is losing valuable skills and knowledge by overburdening women with unequal NPW.

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Episode Highlights and Excerpts

  • It’s well established that there is a significant gap in opportunity, seniority and compensation between men and women in the workplace. Lise Vesterlund’s research has revealed that the core reason is that women take on or are assigned a far greater proportion of non-promotable work (NPW).
  • NPW is the opposite of promotable work. Promotable work is value adding or mission critical to the organization, visible, and requires specialist skills. NPW is work that still needs to get done but tends to be less recognized and specialized. Examples of NPW are sitting on committees, checking other people’s work, planning a holiday party, taking notes in a meeting, and other non-remarkable tasks.

  • Everyone does some amount of NPW, but according to her data across all industries, women spend 200 hours more per year doing NPW than men do.

  • The reason for the disparity is complex, cultural, and historical, says Lise. Women volunteer more often than men for unremarkable tasks because they typically play a more caring and nurturing role at home. They are less able to say no to NPW tasks, and have been shown to feel more guilt when they say no. They have a stronger motivation to take care of other people and the wellbeing of the team. And they tend to be less assertive negotiators when it comes to promotions.

  • Some women who take on a disproportionate amount of NPW and still want to get ahead will do so by working harder and longer. This leads to stress, burnout, and disengagement.

  • By assigning qualified woman more to NPW, there is a missed opportunity for organizations to take full advantage of their skills and contributions.

  • The solution to the imbalance is first awareness. Taking stock of tasks and time spent can shine a light on the inequality.

  • From there everyone, but especially managers and leaders, need to take action to create more balance. Many men want to be champions for this cause.

  • Women need to practice saying NO more. It doesn’t need to be absolute; it could be a statement like, “No, but how about … “creating a discussion about reallocation or change of priorities. Sometimes, pushing back on a NPW assignment forces a discussion about whether the work is even needed at all. Lise’s personal strategy was to keep a picture of her children on her office wall to reminder her why she should say ‘no’ often, or risk working more hours which would take away from her family.

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Lise Vesterlund

Lise VesterlundLise Vesterlund is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Department of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh. She is also a Research Associate with the National Bureau of Economic Research. She holds a B.A. in Economics from the University of Copenhagen, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Wisconsin. She serves and has served on numerous editorial boards including the American Economic Review, AEJ: Economic Policy, the Journal of Public Economics, and the Journal of Economic Literature.

She works in two distinct research areas: charitable giving and gender differences in the labor market. Her work on charitable giving aims to determine why we give to charity, and on how solicitation strategies influence donations to organizations. Her research on gender sheds light on why men continue to be more successful than women in climbing the corporate ladder. She has demonstrated systematic gender differences in behavior when deciding whether to enter a competition or a negotiation, or when asked to perform a non-promotable task. In uncovering the drivers of these differences her work points to mechanisms that can be put in place to secure that the best qualified candidates are those promoted. Her research has been featured by New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Economist, Time Magazine and Harvard Business Review.