Saying ‘no’ in science isn’t enough

Read the full story in Nature.

In August 2022, a group of female scholars wrote ‘Why four scientists spent a year saying no’: an article about what they had gained by saying no to 100 work-related requests over the course of year. We knew we had found kindred spirits in the authors. We, too, have lost time by saying yes to work that didn’t move our careers forward. That led us, four female professors, to form the No Club.

Over the past decade, we have researched work that doesn’t help to advance careers — an attempt to understand why we, along with many others, were doing so much of it. We gave this work a name: non-promotable tasks (NPTs). Although this work matters to an organization, it brings no external reward or recognition to the individual who does it.

These tasks can be found throughout any institution — examples include helping other people with their work, serving on governance committees, organizing events, mentoring and even resolving office conflicts. A 2021 study1 of more than 400 non-academic organizations by global management consultancy McKinsey & Company and Lean In, a non-profit organization in Palo Alto, California, that focuses on women’s leadership, shows the disconnect between what is important to the organization and what is rewarded: for example, 70% of those surveyed said diversity, equity and inclusion efforts were “critical”, but the survey found that only 24% rewarded this work.

We have identified three characteristics of NPTs: they are not directly tied to the organization’s mission; they are largely invisible and are usually done behind the scenes; and they rarely require specialized skills, so many people can do them.

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