Original photo by Sally Maxson for Carnegie Mellon University. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)
Original photo by Sally Maxson for Carnegie Mellon University. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

Will you write the meeting notes? Onboard the new hire? Spice up the presentation slides? 

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These are among the extra tasks female employees are asked to do at disproportionately higher rates than men. That began to change 12 years ago for Brenda Peyser, then an associate dean at Carnegie Mellon University. She met with a few other women at the Union Grill “to commiserate,” she said, “because we were all overburdened.” 

After careers of saying yes, they decided to expunge the word from their vocabulary. The No Club was born. 

Initially, the women thought the problem was their answer (yes). “We realized … the bigger problem was that we kept getting asked,” Peyser said. These non-promotable tasks, as the No Club members call them, “help the organization, but they don’t help the person that’s doing them.” Twelve years after their meeting at the Union Grill, Peyser and fellow Pittsburgh academics Linda Babcock, Lise Vesterlund and Laurie Weingart published “The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work.” PublicSource spoke with Peyser about the club and the book it inspired.

Who took the task when you said no?

If we were able to get out of it, it was assigned to another woman. That was kind of what led us to the big idea of the book, which is that individual women can’t solve this problem. … We’re expecting women to say yes. When they say no … there can be this idea that you’re not a team player or that you’re just out for yourself. The things that might not be attributed to men can be attributed to women, so women have to be extra careful about how they say no. Ultimately, it’s up to the organization to solve this problem. … It’s not expensive. It doesn’t cost any money to have people take turns.

Since starting the No Club, have you been asked to do fewer non-promotable tasks?

Yes and no. … [Saying yes] is kind of ingrained in us. Those of us who wrote the book realize that we were just as guilty of asking women to do these non-promotable tasks as men were because we needed to get them done. We knew that if I go ask Lise to do this, she’s going to say yes.

How have your colleagues responded?

Everybody was really quite supportive. … I had a colleague, and he and I had a task that we shared in common, but he sort of never did it. It ended up falling on me until finally I said, “This is something that we should both be doing. I’ve split it in half, pick the half you want.” And his response was, “OK!” I had anticipated a lot of pushback, which is why I didn’t do it for so many years. When I finally did, I was like, “Oh my God, I could have made my life so much easier.”

At the University of Pittsburgh — where one of our co-authors works, Lise Vesterlund — they had a committee meeting [to decide] faculty promotions … and the dean would always ask for a volunteer to write the report. Nobody ever wants to volunteer for a job that’s going to take a lot of time and that is, in fact, a non-promotable task. Lise was able to change the process so that instead of having a volunteer asked for, they pulled names from a hat. 

We’ve had other instances where organizations realized that some of these … non-promotable tasks [like serving on a DEI committee] were important. … So they made those things part of people’s performance evaluations.

Did you get any surprising responses to the No Club?

We’ve had men ask us if they could join the Club. But we said no. They need it too, for sure; there are some men who do just as much non-promotable work as women do. But in our experience, men don’t need the same kind of support that women need in addressing this issue. And we didn’t want to change the dynamic. 

Did you recommend that they make their own club?

Yes, we did.

Did they make one?

No. … It would be easier to join a club that somebody else started, right?

Sophia Levin, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, is a freelance journalist and former PublicSource intern. She can be reached at sophia@publicsource.org.

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Sophia Levin, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, is a freelance journalist and former PublicSource intern.