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Redefine “Promotable”

I only wrote one post in 2019.  It was not for lack of inspiration or important topics, but rather because writing op-eds is a “non-promotable” task for me. Other examples include serving on a committee, speaking on a panel, and talking to the press about research. So what is promotable,” you might ask?  For an economics professor, it’s research. Actually, not so much the research itself, but publishing said research. (Somewhat tangential, here is a piece on bias in publication in economics and how it relates to promotions.) At some institutions, teaching counts too, as long as you aren’t doing it “too well” or too much, so as to not get pigeon-holed as “teaching faculty.” In the world outside of academia, non-promotable tasks may include things like organizing a social event for the firm or serving on a committee.  Broadly defined, these are tasks that benefit the organization but likely don’t contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement.  It turns out, women are significantly more likely than men to volunteer and to be asked to volunteer for such tasks.

Because we see large and persistent gender gaps in representation at senior levels of the economics profession and in the workplace in general, some scholarly efforts are dedicated to finding ways to “nudge” women away from engaging in these so-called low-promotable activities.  

Let’s take a step back.  Tasks where men stereotypically dominate (management, STEM, working long inflexible hours) are highly rewarded – i.e., they are defined as promotable. Tasks in which women are stereotyped to excel (communication, service, care work, and community-building) are defined as non-promotable. But these tasks are not useless.  Per the definition, they are valuable to the institution and to society, which means that nudging (forcing?) women not to do these tasks would be detrimental to well-being. Recognizing this fact, more recent work offers an alternative: men should be forced to “share the burden” and perform these non-promotable tasks as well (presumably while women are “leaning in”).  I agree to a large extent, but what’s with all the forcing! Can we shift the dialogue to choosing? Economics teaches us that if someone (a woman or a man) has a comparative advantage in a particular activity which is socially valuable, it would be optimal to incentivize her or him to pursue it. So why can’t we make all socially valuable tasks “promotable?”

I will end with this. Parenting unfortunately is the ultimate non-promotable task in our society. In fact, women are actually penalized for having children.  So, when is the focus going to shift away from “fixing women” (and men) toward fixing the institutions and incentives to reward the activities women choose and excel at?  Instead of giving advice to force us away from low-promotable tasks like motherhood, service, and building relationships, it’s time to redefine “promotable.” 


Guilty of engaging in a low-promotable task: Speaking on addressing gender stereotypes in STEM fields at the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association leadership event

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