Planning parties, ordering food and taking notes in meetings are just a few of the thankless tasks that women more often shoulder at work. Often called “office housework,” these responsibilities contribute to the smooth operation of the workplace but go unnoticed when it comes to promotions or pay raises. Fortunately, there are strategies to help you avoid getting stuck with these obligations.
Office housework includes all the administrative tasks, menial jobs and undervalued assignments needed to keep your workplace running smoothly. Although they consume time and energy and need to get done, they’re generally considered trivial or unimportant contributions to the workplace. It’s estimated women do 29% more office housework than white men.
Studies show that women are more likely to be approached to complete these thankless tasks and are more likely than men to accept direct requests to volunteer for them. Even when not directly asked, women are more likely than men to volunteer for these tasks. It’s important to note that women don’t volunteer because they are better at these tasks or enjoy performing them. Instead, women realize that according to deeply held gender stereotypes, women are expected to be helpful at work and home.
To establish that women don’t volunteer because they enjoy these tasks or excel at them, researchers studied groups of three participants in online groups. Participants were told they’d each be paid $1 for their participation, with one catch. If one of the three participants clicked a button on the computer screen, that person would receive $1.25, and the other two would receive $2. Women were 48% more likely than men to volunteer to press the button. In other words, women took a hit so that everyone came out better. No skill was involved in pushing the button, and women don’t have any increased interest in pressing buttons, so this study eliminated those explanations.
The researchers repeated the same study with one exception—the groups were comprised of either three men or three women. In the same-sex groups, the gender differences disappeared, and women were no more likely to volunteer to press the button than men were. In the mixed-sex group, men held back on volunteering, and women realized they had to volunteer to ensure that the task was completed. “Women realize when men are present, women are expected to do what’s necessary to improve the situation for everyone,” the authors write. In groups of only men, men realize they must step up.
When a fourth person, a manager, was assigned to oversee the groups of three, the manager was more likely to ask a female participant to volunteer to press the button. “Our studies demonstrate that although neither men nor women really want to volunteer for thankless tasks, women volunteer more, are asked to volunteer more, and accept requests to volunteer more than men. These differences do not appear to result from gender differences in preferences, but rather from a shared understanding that women will volunteer more than men,” the researchers conclude.
How To Avoid Getting Stuck With Office Housework
For women, avoiding these tasks may not be as simple as declining to volunteer or turning down a request for help. Researchers have found that because women are expected to be helpful, women are penalized more than men when they decline requests for assistance. As former Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and organizational psychologist Adam Grant noted in a piece on office housework, “A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish.’” Fortunately, there are strategies that women can adopt to help reduce the office housework burden.
In their new book Glass Walls: Shattering The Six Gender Bias Barriers Still Holding Women Back At Work, authors Amy Diehl and Leanne Dzubinski outline strategies women can adopt to overcome many gender-related problems at work. Regarding office housework, the duo recommends that if someone asks you to volunteer, you should suggest a policy that involves taking turns. For example, you could say, “I took meeting notes last time; could you take them this time?” Or “I’ll clean out the refrigerator this week, but let’s create a cleaning rotation for the future.”
Diehl and Dzubinski also suggest that you explain to your boss that taking on so much office housework might impact your ability to do the job you were hired to do. In other words, you’re not being selfish; you just want to contribute to the company in the best way you can.
In some workplaces, employees are asked to perform a self-appraisal for their annual review. In this case, the authors recommend highlighting your office housework duties and describing their value in keeping your organization running smoothly.
Male allies who witness women performing a disproportionate amount of office housework also have a duty to step up. Diehl and Dzubinski recommend that these allies not only offer to help with the tasks but also seek out organizational leadership to express their concerns about the division of labor of thankless, non-promotable tasks. An additional advantage of men helping with office housework— the more men are seen performing these tasks, the less these duties will be stereotypically associated with women.
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