For Women To Become Leaders, They Need To Focus On ‘Work-Work Balance’

author Linda Babcock
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Getting women to advance in the workplace is all about the difference between non-promotable and promotable work, says author Linda Babcock.

Linda Babcock isn’t focused on the ongoing cultural discussion about work-life balance. Instead, the author of The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work and Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide argues that the key to advancement for women in the workplace is paying attention to “work-work balance.”

Babcock, who will speak on this issue at our upcoming Women in Leadership online event Finding Balance in Work & Life (join us!), talked with StrategicCFO360 about the difference between non-promotable and promotable work, what women can do to move beyond dead-end assignments and why it matters.

Your discussion is about work-life balance.

No, it’s about work-work balance.

Tell me what that means. Why do you like work-work rather than work-life balance?

Well, obviously we know what work-life balance is, right? It’s the balance between what we do at work and the rest of our lives. But work-work balance is the balance between the things that you do at work.

So we kind of divide things into two kinds of tasks at work, what we call promotable tasks and non-promotable tasks. Promotable tasks are the high-profile, important, rewarded, show-up-on-your-performance-evaluation, core job activities.

The non-promotable work is things that you were asked to do that no one will ever know you did. You’ll never get a thanks for it. It won’t show up on your performance evaluation even though it’s really important to the organization. So it can be helping others with their work, filling in when someone’s not there, serving on committees. DEI initiatives often fall into this—solving conflicts between coworkers at work, helping people with their problems. That’s all non-promotable and yet needs to be done.

Work-work balance is how much of the promotable work do you do? How much of the non-promotable work do you do? And are you finding the right balance?

And do you find that women tend to do more of the non-promotable work than men do?

Absolutely. We find that the differences are actually quite large and quite important to their performance evaluation. Obviously, I’m not going to be as productive in terms of how I’m evaluated if I’m not spending as much time as my male colleagues on the work that actually gets evaluated and rewarded.

Why do you think you think women end up doing more non-promotable work? Is it an internal thing? Is it because that’s what they get asked to do it? Are they better at it?

Two things: women are more likely to be asked than men, and they’re more likely to say yes than men. So those two factors really mean that women are going to spend more time on non-promotable work than men. Some people say, oh, well, women should just say no to this work. But there are penalties for women when they say no. Whereas men can typically say no, and that’ll be the end of it. And so the fact that women say yes more is not their fault. It’s because they realize if they say no, there could be some negative consequences to it.

But there probably are ways for both men and women to be more aware of it and for women to kind of push in the ways they can to have less of that. And for men who care about these issues, to stop asking women to do it more than men.

Exactly. There are lots of ways to think about how to solve the problem. And they range anywhere from, like you said, raising awareness, because people don’t think about the world this way. And so they may not realize, hey, when I ask this woman to do this work, it’s actually causing her problems. I should even that out. There needs to be awareness among managers, among coworkers, among everyone to just understand that this is what’s happening in the workplace and it truly means women do not have equal opportunity.

Let’s step back for a minute. How do you see the position of women in leadership today? Do you think it’s gotten a lot better? Are you hopeful?

Obviously, we’ve made progress. No one can deny that progress is being made. But we’re chipping away at it little by little. And I think the actual reality of the situation is out of sync with our narrative about what we think has happened. Because I think most people believe, oh yeah, things are equal now. You know, there’s no discrimination.

Women are ahead!

Yeah, women are getting all these opportunities. And in some ways, many of the things that used to stand in a woman’s way are indeed gone. But these subtle more invisible ways are still really important in terms of affecting women’s advancement. And so we need to start paying attention to those or we’re going to stall progress.

Didn’t Covid set progress back a bit because when everybody had to be home working, women ended up doing more of the home stuff—not to get off the work-work idea…

Yeah, absolutely. In terms of work-life balance, things got more out of whack with Covid and that intersects with my lens on this problem: work actually became invisible. And if women were doing a lot of [the work for the home], it could further cause problems. During Covid when a lot of people’s work did become remote, your boss didn’t necessarily know what you were doing. And if women aren’t advertising their accomplishments, then that invisible work just may not be counted.

So what are some of the other barriers and your tips or advice for getting over them? Is it asking for advancement? What are some of the ways women can push through this to the extent it’s in their control?

It’s a challenging question because you don’t want to portray the situation as this is women’s fault. Like, women should just do things differently and then everything would be okay. Because the world is actually set up so that it’s not equal to women. And so I think the question we should be asking ourselves is what can our organizations do to actually make things fair?

Also, changing the way that work is allocated, potentially having things less subject to negotiation. One of the other sets of work I do is on gender differences in who negotiates. That work shows that men are a lot more willing to negotiate things like salary and advancement than are women. That holds women back. But if we had organizations that were less negotiable, and employers set salary based upon productivity and external factors, then it would be less subject to these biases.

There certainly are things that women can do by paying attention more, being more cognitive of how you’re spending your time. You know, deciding that a B+ job on a non-promotable task is just as good really as an A+. It’s really about thinking more strategically about how you’re spending your time in order to minimize this problem.

Why should male colleagues, and companies generally, care?

Companies are spending a lot of money on DEI initiatives and many of them are not solving the problems as quickly as they would like to solve them. Many companies are really trying to find ways to enhance women’s advancement. And this is one that’s actually pretty easy to do. It’s not very complicated just to take a good look at the way that work is allocated and make that more fair. It’s a way to—this term is overused, but—level the playing field.

You’re handicapping women here by having them do non-promotable work. And so they can make more progress on those initiatives. You’re also not using your women workers to their full capacity if you’re loading them with non-promotable tasks instead of promotable tasks that use their unique skills. Their time is much more valuable doing other things that they received training for and have experience and expertise in.

I keep thinking of World War II and how women just took over the labor force. When society wants to do it, we can.

Oh yeah. If we really wanted to, we could change so much about this tomorrow. The times that I get really discouraged about women’s progress is when I think about things like implicit bias stereotypes, which are so hard to change. Those just move at glacial speeds. But when I think about something like a manager thinking, I could reallocate the way I do work instead of asking this woman to do it. I could ask a guy. That’s not hard to do. It’s a matter of understanding the problem—and having the will to change.

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