Title

Beyond ‘Just Say No’

The No Club on women’s nonpromotable tasks.

June 9, 2022
 
 

If you’ve hung around a university long enough, you likely know the adage “if you want something done, give it to a busy person” could be rewritten to “if you want something done, give it to a woman.” This is doubly true if it’s a woman of color.

As the authors of The No Club—Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart—point out, the trouble is that these somethings very often fall under the category of what they dub nonpromotable tasks (NPTS).

NPTS are different from what is sometimes called office housework, such as organizing gifts or ordering retirement cakes. Many of us know to be on the lookout for these tasks, although they still fall disproportionately to women.

Instead, NPTs are more insidious because, while they are not in the currency that will produce individual promotion (grants, publications, teaching excellence), they are nonetheless important to the functioning of the organization.

Because the NPTs are important to an organization, they can also be quite time intensive. Assessment projects and curricular revisions might fall under this category.

They are also sneaky. For example, as the authors point out, even a high-visibility role such as serving as a department chair is an NPT unless the faculty member wishes to pursue a career trajectory into university administration. NPTs like this feel important because they are—just not to the career trajectory of the woman performing them.

So, what’s a faculty member to do?

Mercifully, the authors answer, what she can. The job is not hers alone.

I approached this book with some skepticism because I’ve seen the problems with the just-say-no advice in action.

As an ambitious young assistant professor, I went to a campus panel discussion about the promotion from associate to full professor. I wanted to get a sense of the path ahead of me. The person leading the workshop mentioned that the university wanted more women and faculty members of color to reach full professor.

I had just left a diversity committee meeting and raised my hand to ask what the university was going to do about the fact that these same groups were doing more service on the campus. The answer from the panelists was simple: people needed to learn to say no.

There are several obvious problems with this advice, which the authors of The No Club acknowledge:

  • First, this work needs to happen for universities to function. Someone is going to have to do the work. If my no means that another overburdened woman is going to say yes, that’s not a good no. “Just say no” solutions are too individualistic.
  • Not all nos are equal. Some tasks and askers are harder to say no to. Also, as the authors carefully document, women are asked more than men to take on NPTs. That means having to give out more nos. This challenge is compounded by what’s called “tight culture,” meaning there are strong expectations around a woman’s behavior. Women are expected to be helpers, to be nurturers, to be team players. Nos go against these cultural norms. Giving out that no is thus riskier for women, even as they need to say it more frequently than male colleagues.
  • Finally, NPTs are not what the authors term a “fix-the-women” problem. Organizations need these tasks to be done and also suffer real losses when employees of color and women are overburdened by NPTs: valuable employees leave, promising scholars and teachers cannot perform at a high level when drowning in NPTs, and the culture in an organization deteriorates. Insidiously, organizational diversity efforts can exacerbate the problem: if every committee must have one faculty member of color, but faculty of color make up only 25 percent of an organization, then these faculty are being overworked compared to white peers (Amado Padilla calls this “cultural taxation”). These are problems created by organizations, and they need to be addressed by organizations.

The No Club offers suggestions at both the personal and organizational level. Certainly, the authors suggest we should be giving out some nos, in part through the support of a club of the kind mentioned in the title.

But one of my favorites among their suggestions is the idea of a woman creating a “portfolio” of NPTs and working to bring them into alignment with her values and interests over time. This strikes me as more proactive and satisfying than simply firing off nos. After all, NPTs are important, and a well-curated (not-too-big) selection of them could be quite rewarding.

The advice for organizations, however, strikes me as more novel and more important. My biggest takeaway was the importance of not asking for volunteers. Because of the social expectation that women say yes, volunteer scenarios produce more NPTs for women. Instead, the authors offer suggestions that are miraculous in their simplicity: draw straws, take turns.

The book offers more complicated solutions for more complicated NPTs, but I was struck by how revolutionary obviously fair policies felt: What if every faculty member simply took a two-year term on the Faculty Senate? No muss, no fuss.


Katherine Fusco is associate professor of English at the University of Nevada at Reno. She also works as a coach, helping faculty connect to values and meaningful goals at midcareer. You can learn more about her at KatherineFusco.com.

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