Who bears the weight of taking on an organization’s non-promotable tasks? That was the question of Monday night’s lecture in Oden Hall. The talk by Lise Vesterlund, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh, came in coordination with the Kenyon “No Club,” a book club run by Associate Professor of Political Science Jacqueline McAllister and Associate Professor of Economics Katie Black.
Vesterlund’s academic interest in non-promotable tasks (NPTs) started 12 years ago when she began to meet every few weeks with three other accomplished female professors and administrators (Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser and Laurie Weingar) who all work at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. Even though the four of them were distinguished professionals well into their careers, they all felt the strain of a bloated workload. This is not to say they stopped loving their work, but the buildup of largely administrative, non-promotable work from their organizations ate up their time. The group was collectively bogged down by NPTs. According to Vesterland, NPTs are tasks that are highly valuable to the organization, like finding interns or chairing committees, but take time away from work that is valuable to individual employees’ careers and promotability.
The journey of Kenyon’s own No Club started six years ago when Black was a student of Vesterlund’s at the University of Pittsburgh. She resonated with the idea of the club as soon as she heard about it, and once at Kenyon, she informed her female colleagues about dealing with their oversized loads of NPTs. When the book was released, Black said, “This is my opportunity to start this conversation [at Kenyon].” Black had already seen the problem affect her peers and wanted to address it. “People end up losing their minority or women Ph.D. candidates and they end up wondering why that happened, and this book is the solution to that,” she said. With her friend and colleague, McAllister, and with help from the Kenyon Community Development Fund, they were able to create a 10-student book club. The club has met four times this semester to discuss The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work, with the club culminating in the lecture given Monday night by the book’s co-author, Vesterlund.
According to Vesterlund, the four coauthors started to discuss the issue as they continually observed that women were completing an outsized share of NPTs in their workplaces. The group became the founding No Club, and they started discussing how to appropriately say no to these tasks and reclaim their time.
The issue wasn’t that the tasks were unnecessary, but that they were unevenly distributed. Women were more likely to give in and agree to take on NPTs, sometimes under the belief that they would help their careers. The reliance on women and minority employees leads to the expectation they will continue to assume the burdensome weight of the NPTs, leaving their other colleagues with more time to work on tasks beneficial to their careers, like taking on new research projects for those in academia.
As the group continued to meet, they began conducting research on this problem and saw that it is an issue women face everywhere, whether they are cashiers or executives. The problem is even more pronounced for women of color, especially Black women. Additionally, they saw that this uneven distribution of labor is a drag on an organization, as it does not allow employees to shine in their fields of expertise, diminishing the potential value an organization could gain from a female employee who did not carry the weight of completing these tasks. As the data piled up from their studies over the years, the four professors felt obligated to share their findings with the public, and they published their findings in The No Club last year.
About the release, Vesterlund told the Collegian, “We did not set out to write a book; we wrote a book because we really think that everyone needs to become aware of this problem so that they can address it. … We wanted people to be aware of it because simple awareness will improve things,” Vesterlund said. This is just what has happened as No Clubs have now started at institutions throughout the country.
McAllister and Black think it is important to address these issues in organizations early on. “You can really get stuck in a lot of patterns that are very detrimental to yourself and your career, so the earlier we can plant these seeds, the better,” McAllister said.
She has already seen this NPT dynamic arising within her classrooms. The peer note-taker position is very beneficial to the class, while the burden of the role is only felt by the volunteer. In her political science classes, where a majority of students are men, McAllister continually sees women assuming the note-taker role.
Since the group first started meeting in February, the professors have already seen their students recognize NPTs being disproportionately allocated to women throughout their time at Kenyon, whether that be in classrooms, clubs or intramural sports. “There’s all these places where they’re now noticing it, which to me is a win in and of itself,” Black said. She also described how the club members have been receptive to the book and have recently been attentive to not get slowed down by NPTs while still at Kenyon. When the Collegian asked club member Delaney Gallagher ’23 what she had gained from the club, she employed what she had learned: “I’m symbolically responding ‘no comment’ as I’ve learned to say ‘no’ to non-promotable tasks such as this question.”
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