We know many women work a “double shift” putting in a full day at paid jobs and several hours of unpaid housework, meal prep and childcare at home. According to the Women in the Workplace Study by McKinsey & Company, women with children and partners are 5.5 times more likely to do all or most of the household work than are men in the same family situation.
The last thing women need is more of the same on the job.
Yet, research from the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California shows that women, and especially women of color, are often assigned “office housework” as well. The researchers define these as tasks that are typically undervalued and not tied to revenue goals. They might include taking notes, coordinating schedules, ordering lunch or even something as simple as grabbing an extra chair or shutting the conference room door before a meeting starts.
Sometimes the tasks are time-consuming enough that they actually impede a woman’s ability to get more mission-critical work done and thwart her advancement. Other times, such tasks, unequally shared, reinforce sexist power dynamics.
No one wants to be so difficult that she can’t help out by grabbing an extra chair, but it is reasonable for women to speak up when such tasks are routinely handed out far more often to women than their male colleagues. If that’s the case, a Harvard Business Review article suggests these responses:
“I’m working on a major project deadline and need someone else to take on this task,” may work when repeatedly asked to perform time-consuming tasks such as scheduling meetings among peers.
“The current discussion is critical to my work so I really need to be present now,” may work for on-the-spot requests like ordering lunch or leaving a meeting to make copies.
If there is a well-entrenched pattern at your organization where men are unburdened by “office housework” it may make sense to track examples and talk to your supervisor about whether something is off-balance.
Among peers, you can also suggest rotating tasks. If you took minutes last time the group got together, suggest one of the guys handle it this time.
It’s not easy to say no when directly asked to handle a “simple” task at work and it often makes sense to comply without complaint. But when it becomes an institutional habit to immediately turn to women, and especially women of color, when it’s time to pick up lunch, tidy the company kitchen or decide how to celebrate birthdays, diplomatically bringing the topic to light can help colleagues see something they may have missed.