Beware the Non-Promotable Task!

How the Inequitable Distribution of University Service Affects Faculty Success in P&T and Beyond

In the typical tenure-track faculty role, faculty are usually expected to complete work in three general areas: research, teaching, and service. The trio of responsibilities are well-known by faculty, though assigned effort distributions into each of the three can vary greatly by college and department. There are many different tasks that fall into the bucket of service, and research shows that some of these tasks are regarded more positively than others by promotion and tenure (P&T) committees. Cue the non-promotable task: Service work essential to keeping the university running smoothly and promoting a positive workplace culture that receives little recognition and credit in annual evaluations and P&T conversations. It’s in the name! Non-promotable tasks seldom help a person reach their next career milestone and achieve promotion at their institution even as these same tasks serve essential functions for the university.

Non-Promotable Tasks and Inequitable Service Loads

Research into the distribution of academic service has long documented the uneven service loads between faculty with different identities. Results from a 2017 study found that women faculty were 44% more likely to be asked to volunteer for academic service work and 50% more likely to respond positively to these requests compared with male faculty. Another study found that the types of service requests faculty receive are different based on gender, with male faculty receiving more requests related to research and professional or campus-wide service and women receiving more requests related to teaching and student advising. While women perform an outsized service load in their institutions, other research shows that there is no different between men and women’s external service—service where there is greater potential for rewards and recognition. Other research shows that women, faculty of color, and especially women faculty of color are much more likely to experience high service loads when compared to other faculty. Women faculty of color are also more likely to report that their departments do not provide them with appropriate credit for their important service work. These differences in service distribution often intensify over time, with women faculty at the associate rank experiencing even higher service loads and expectations. Taken together, the evidence suggests that women and female faculty of color often find themselves “taking care of the academic family,” dedicating time to tasks in ways that can delay forward progress in their own careers.

Of course, there are important implications to the non-promotable, less prestigious “token” service that women, faculty members of color, and women faculty of color are asked to perform. By spending more hours on service work overall, female faculty often have less time to dedicate to their research. One study found that male faculty were able to dedicate 16.13 hours per week towards their research compared with 10.21 hours per week for women faculty. These findings coupled with research showing that women faculty who have children also spend less time on research as they allocate that time towards caregiving responsibilities help illuminate the toll that non-promotable tasks can take, ultimately contributing to the “leaky pipeline” of women in higher education. As the authors’ of the 2022 Chronicle of Higher Education article summarize:

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?

Addressing the Division of Non-Promotable Tasks to Promote Equity

What can departments and faculty do to address the inequities present and perpetuated by non-promotable tasks? There are steps faculty can take to try and manage their workloads, and some individuals just encourage faculty to say “no” when asked to do this service work. However, the research shows that the “just say no” approach does not work for several reasons, including the fact that gendered expectations mean that women who say no are more likely to be punished for their no (“She’s just not a team player”). Along these same lines, evidence also suggests that, when a women says no, the requester is likely to turn around and ask a different woman to do the service work, doing little to address gender disparities in non-promotable task distribution. Finally, not all faculty are empowered to say no. In fact, research into non-promotable tasks shows that women faculty of color are more likely to have their no disregarded. Ultimately, the advice to “just say no” proposes an individual solution to a systemic issue and ignores the fact that some faculty find certain types of service incredibly important sites of meaning and resistance in academic work.

A better approach to address non-promotable tasks is one that focuses on changing policies and structures. Some clear-cut strategies that institutional leaders can implement to try and address service inequities include:

    • Stop asking for volunteers in service assignments. Women are more likely to volunteer because they are expected to do so and because they fear negative repercussions if they don’t volunteer. Instead, leaders should consider implementing clear service rotations for non-promotable tasks that don’t rely on volunteers.
    • When volunteers are needed, be aware of who you ask. The data is clear: Women are approached to take on non-promotable tasks much more than men. Departmental leaders should work to be aware of who they ask to take on non-promotable tasks, and they should make a greater effort to distribute their asks more broadly among the whole faculty.
    • Recognize and reward service work. A significant challenge implicit in non-promotable tasks is that they take time but do little to contribute to a faculty member’s career. Leaders should work to recognize, value, and reward service work more thoroughly through the annual evaluation and P&T process. Departments might also think about when significant and important non-promotable tasks might merit reduction in another part of a person’s workload (i.e., reducing a faculty’s teaching load when they serve on a particularly time-consuming committee).
    • Document the service work and redistribute it, as needed. Taking careful stock of the service that needs to be done and who is doing it can be an important place to start reckoning with non-promotable tasks. The American Council on Education has created great resources to help departments think about equitable workloads and ways to fairly distribute service work. Using these documents as a guide, departments can recognize their own inequities and then work to address them.

Service and non-promotable tasks make universities and departments function. It’s essential that campus stakeholders consider when, how, and why certain people take on an outsize proportion of this work, and they should work to address the inequities in this labor so that all faculty can make meaningful progress in their careers.

Author Information: This blog post was written by Meara Faw. Meara is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and the Provost Leadership Fellow working with the Faculty Success team.