At work, our leadership team was flying in from across the country for an annual meeting. I was asked to make reservations for the team to go out for a happy hour a week before. I obliged without even thinking for a second. By the end of the week, I got the news that I had to travel for work and would miss the happy hour. And yet I held the responsibility to make reservations. I can’t believe I went through with it despite sitting miles away and drowned in client meetings! What was I thinking? Why did I not hand it over to others who were there?
I know better now, but I had no idea there was a term for this type of work – Office Housework. According to Joan Williams and Marina Multhaup, office housework is everything from administrative work that keeps things moving forward, but work that’s usually not tied to revenue goals, so they are far less likely to result in promotion than, say, chairing an innovation or digital transformation committee.
Why do women get stuck with office housework?
Women receive requests to perform chores that are not considered important. According to research, when male and female leaders asked to perform administrative tasks, 76% of the women accepted compared to 51% of men.
This happens in academic settings as well. Women professors tend to perform more service work and less research work when compared to their counterparts.
As a woman of color, I have felt the need to take on admin tasks to make an impression on the team as a team player. But it was not getting noticed by the team at large and leaders. It did not add any credits for my work to seek promotion. Then why did I and so many other colleagues continue to do this?
Many survey reports suggest that women of color overcompensate with office housework at a higher rate.
What is noteworthy is the opportunities missed while performing non-conforming tasks. While male counterparts worked on career transforming work, women were asked to take notes, set up meetings, and shut doors. These may seem trivial but when you account for all the time and energy get drained in performing these activities. We can invest that time to transform our careers instead.
What happens when women say NO
Women penalized for saying NO to requests for office housework. The consequences can range from being called unreliable to reinforcing gender stereotypes and losing out on promotions.
The company’s turning a blind eye to this behavior is causing more problems over the long term than seen. If managers and leaders can be thoughtful about assigning trivial activities to women employees disproportionately we wouldn’t see as many women leaving their employers in search of credible work.
How to fix the problem
Make sure to regularly speak to your manager and set expectations on what your role is on the team and what tasks are critical for your career growth. You can also have verbal agreements for your manager to support you when you are asked to do office housework.
If certain tasks are essential like taking down minutes of the meeting, setting up team events, then ensure to have the team agree on taking on this responsibility in a cyclic manner. That way everyone on the team is involved in these activities and they know the time and energy involved in conducting them.
Let’s face it, saying NO doesn’t come easy to most of us. We want to be complicit every chance we get without evaluating its long term effects. Having a peer group to review such tasks and collectively make decisions has proven effective. At Carnegie Mellon University a group of women professors formed an ‘I can’t say NO club’ to help each other refuse office housework requests!
I’m going to leave a list of common tasks that are Office Housework. If you receive requests to perform any of these, think twice the next time and see if it’s worth your time and effort to take them on.
- Organize company/team events
- Make arrangements for team lunch
- Managing distribution lists
- Preparing a slide deck for a meeting
- Taking notes during the meeting
- Closing meeting room doors
- Picking up mail for the team
- Picking up gifts for team celebrations
- Performing system maintenance
- Random data entry
- Head committee for DEI, company-wide initiatives
Want to add other Office Housework to the list? Hit reply