Female Faculty: Beware the Non-Promotable Task


Lise attended a promotion-and-tenure committee meeting where the dean asked for a volunteer to write the recommendation report and one of the few women in attendance agreed to do it. Laurie walked into the first meeting of an important university committee to find only women in the room. Brenda mentored countless junior staff members, many who weren’t even in her department. Linda was asked to serve on the institutional review board, a request made even more difficult because everyone else had declined. “Service” assignments like those — or, to use our term, “non-promotable tasks” (NPTs) — are important to the college or university. They help it run smoothly, improve its culture, and foster a productive workplace. But an overload of NPTs can have significant negative effects on a faculty member’s progress since this work rarely enters into performance evaluations or promotion and tenure decisions.

If everyone did their fair share of NPTs, faculty members would have equal opportunities for success, but right now, women handle a disproportionate share of those tasks. Research on the use of faculty time consistently shows that women spend more time on committees and on advising undergraduates than men do, and in turn have less time for research. Our research has found in a series of studies that women handle far more of this work. In fact, compared with men, women are 48 percent more likely to volunteer (when a volunteer is sought), 50 percent more likely to say yes when asked directly, and 44 percent more likely to be asked. Examining data from a large public university, we have found that women are more than twice as likely as men to agree to serve on a faculty-senate committee when asked. A survey revealed that faculty members identify this form of service as non-promotable.

Other studies have similar findings. An investigation of gender differences in types of service shows that women do more service than men at their own institutions, though there is no gender difference in the amount of external service. External service provides a better opportunity for professional reward (think editorships, conference talks, etc.), while internal service is largely without reward or recognition. Further research indicates that there are also racial differences in service, with faculty of color spending more time on service activities than their white peers.

How does women’s heavier burden of NPTs affect how they allocate their time? They must either cut back on their promotable activities to make time for the NPTs or work more hours. Both options have negative consequences for women, whether professionally or personally. Imagine reducing your research to devote more time to NPTs like committee service, mentoring faculty members and students, solving interpersonal problems (within your department or across campus), advising student clubs, providing comments on the work of others, arranging events (celebrations of promotions, thesis defenses, etc.), and meeting with or presenting to prospective students. Would those tasks be rewarded by your institution and your profession? If not, how much time should you spend on them?

You might think that the easy solution to this problem is simply for women to start saying “no” and stop volunteering for this work, but our research shows that’s not tenable for three reasons. First, women do so much of this work because we expect them to and they have internalized that expectation, creating a vicious cycle in which they feel guilty when they say “no” and so say “yes” again. Second, when women say “no,” the requester just asks another woman (because of these expectations), and that perpetuates the inequity. And third, when a woman says “no,” there is the potential for a backlash. You’ve heard the comments: “She’s not a team player.” “She’s too ambitious.” “Why won’t she help out the department?”

The upshot is that women don’t need to be fixed, but organizations do. Leaders from the unit level up through central administration must understand that the current distribution of work is both unfair and costly to the institution and that changing it isn’t hard. Here’s what they can do.

  • Raise awareness. Bring the term “non-promotable work” into your institution’s lexicon. Let everyone know that these assignments more often are handled by women and that your goal is to eradicate that inequity. Encourage your faculty and staff members to discuss the work they do that is non-promotable.
  • Collect data. Colleges and universities are data-driven institutions, and providing evidence of the gender disparity in NPTs will help motivate the case for change. Add a category to faculty annual reports that shows not just service categories but also time spent on those activities.
  • Diverse Leadership Eric Petersen spotP46.jpg

    Eric Petersen for The Chronicle

  • Stop asking for volunteers. Our research shows that women volunteer more than men do, so stop this practice, and instead take turns (serving as departmental-meeting scribe, writing promotion and tenure reports, rotating on and off committees) or randomly assign the work.
  • Identify the NPTs in your department, and redistribute them to equalize the load. What standing committees are faculty members assigned to? What are the continuing or coming projects? Make an exhaustive list of those tasks, and then see who does them. Redistribute tasks to ensure that no one group is overburdened (especially women or faculty of color) and that everyone has equal opportunities to handle promotable tasks while sharing in the load of NPTs.
  • Be cognizant of whom you ask to do work. Rather than giving the work to your female colleague because she does such a “great job” and always says “yes,” bring faculty members with a light service load into the rotation.
  • Consider creating requirements for NPTs. Harvard’s Kennedy School created a point system in which points were assigned to teaching and administrative work. Faculty members had flexibility in how they met those obligations; some taught more, others chose more committee work, but they all had to achieve a target number of points to get a satisfactory performance review.
  • Consider changing performance evaluations to provide rewards for some NPTs. Should service or taking the lead on an initiative be part of annual evaluations? If the job is important and continuing, you can consider adding it to the other factors on which faculty members are assessed. While it might be difficult to change criteria for promotion and tenure, rewards can take other forms. For example, participating in an accreditation review is a time-consuming and critical task. To recognize that effort, why not reduce a faculty member’s teaching load for the year or provide another form of compensation — perhaps additional funding for research or conference attendance?
  • Stop doing tasks that aren’t worth it. It isn’t unusual to find that some tasks no longer have value. Think of standing committees that have outlived their usefulness or data that’s collected but not used. Be deliberate about the work you ask people to do.
  • Start small if you need to. While the goal is to have the entire institution adopt better practices for allocating work, change can begin at a smaller level — within a unit, a laboratory, or a department. Then, working with colleagues throughout the campus, you can focus on bringing lasting change to the institution and creating a workplace that allows everyone the opportunity to do the work that matters. While those solutions are not complicated, it takes resolve — from the top of the organization to the bottom — to change institutional culture and practices.

For decades colleges have recognized the need for an environment in which everyone has equal opportunities for fulfilling careers. And yet we haven’t made much progress. Taking simple, inexpensive steps like those above can tackle a central barrier to women’s advancement in higher ed. With such a low cost and such a high return, it makes sense for all our institutions to put a stop to women’s unrewarded work.

The authors of this essay are co-authors of The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work (Simon & Schuster).

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