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The Hidden Cost of Saying No for Women in the Workplace

By Jamie Li

December 9, 2022


[Photo Credit: Nature]

More female scientists say yes to tasks that don’t advance their careers than men. These tasks are essential to organizations but bring little to no recognition or reward to the person who accomplishes them, including but not limited to creating events, helping other people complete their tasks, and solving conflicts.

An example of someone completing non-promotable work is when a scientist is asked to create a team-building event. The scientist then spends their free time putting together this event. Although their effort goes into improving productivity and morale of the general workplace, it is unrewarded and fails to advance their career. Their career would have improved if they focused on research and scientific work instead.

Non-promotable tasks are not directly linked with an organization's mission, are largely invisible, and don’t require specialized skills. Studies demonstrate that women, regardless of the job, do the majority of these tasks. From female academics and lawyers to US Transportation Security Administration agents and cashiers, they all perform more non-promotable tasks than their male peers. The discrepancy is most pronounced with business consultants since they track their billable and non-billable hours. The median female consultant spends 200 more hours each year doing non-promotable work, compared with male consultants. Women are also more likely to end up with these tasks that everyone wants to be done, but no one wants to do. When studying who took these tasks, women were 48% more likely to volunteer for the work, 49% were more likely to say yes when directly asked, and 44% were more likely to be asked to do the task.

Another term that is essential to understanding this issue is emotional labor. Emotional labor was coined in 1983 by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, and it means performing and managing a specific emotion on a job. For example, waiters and waitresses are paid to perform emotional labor to be polite and positive, suppressing feelings of frustration. Now the term has broadened to define unpaid and unnoticed labor, to ensure everyone is happy and comfortable, often at the expense of the person performing it. In western civilization, women are socialized and expected to perform emotional labor, while a socially acceptable emotional range in men is stunted. Furthermore, the false idea that women are naturally and always able to express and manage emotions better than men permeates all aspects of society and enforces women to continue to take on emotional labor.

How do we ensure a more equitable distribution of non-promotable work tasks? The most important change that needs to occur is equal distribution of non-promotable work since it's impossible to completely avoid these tasks in any workplace. Firstly, there needs to be an end to asking for volunteers and instead have random selections. Since women are more likely to volunteer than men, equal distribution is necessary. Next, non-promotable work can be assigned more strategically, such as to people at a lower level. Finally, keeping track of who’s doing non-promotable work, and re-assigning the tasks if one person is doing too much can ensure equity.

Distributing non-promotable work more equally is quite simple, but fixing the deeper expectation of emotional labor from women is more difficult. As a society, we must stop expecting women to pick up the non-promotable tasks and perform emotional labor. Everyone can work towards changing their expectations and creating a more equitable future.


Babcock, Linda, et al. “Saying 'No' in Science Isn't Enough.” Nature News, Nature Publishing

Group, 10 Nov. 2022,

Hartley, Gemma. “Women Aren't Nags-We're Just Fed Up.” Harper's BAZAAR, Hearst Magazine

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Kea-Lewis, Kaila. “Ways Women Work: How Emotional Labor Weighs on Women & 10 Ways

to Ease the Burden: Inhersight.”, InHerSight, 22 Mar. 2022,

St. Catherine University. “Emotional Labor in the Workplace: The Disproportionate Burden on

Women.” Women and Emotional Labor in the Workplace, St. Catherine University, 9 Feb.



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