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How To End The “Office Housework” Gender Bias

More women than men get stuck taking notes at meetings or planning office parties. Here’s why it matters and how to change it.

How To End The “Office Housework” Gender Bias
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

If you work for a CEO like Sharon Rowlands of ReachLocal, tasks such as taking notes during a meeting (no matter what your job title) get distributed equally among coworkers. That’s because Rowlands has seen too many women who get stuck carrying over the responsibility of covering household duties into the office. So when it comes to taking meeting notes, fetching food or coffee, and other office “housework,” she makes sure it’s not divided along gender lines.

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Chances are you don’t work for someone who is as hyperaware of the disparity of delegating office chores as Rowlands. In a New York Times essay from earlier this year, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant cited several studies showing that not only did women do more of those chores, but when they did, they were not seen as better employees. A NYU study found that when men performed some work-related altruism like staying late to help the team prepare for a meeting, they were rated 14% more favorably than their female counterpart.

As Sandberg and Grant write: “When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish.'”

The two also point out that without that kind of housekeeping, the machine of a company doesn’t run as well. They note that a culture of helping boosts profits, sales, customer satisfaction, and other success metrics, according to at least six different studies.

For Martha Ertman, the key to stopping the offload of office housework on women could be through reclassifying it entirely. Ertman, a law professor at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law, cites the work of UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor on “tending”—that is, the relationship-building activities that happen among family, friends, and colleagues when they are pitching in to help one another.

Seen in the workplace, tending is given value within the company. It includes simple things such as a morning greeting from a boss that helps reduce employee stress and boosts morale, and mentoring that builds skills and creates new opportunities. Overall, these acts add up to increasing productivity, she says, not to mention the work itself will have actual value and add value to those employees who do it.

But until the day workplace mentality universally shifts into this mode of valuing helping tasks, from note taking to mentoring, it’s going to be up to employees to set themselves apart.

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Joan Williams, a law professor and coauthor of What Works for Women at Work, says that it may be as simple as serving up a smart comeback. Those in management or executive level who are called on just as often to handle menial tasks can reply with the words of one lawyer Williams spoke to: “I’m not sure you want someone with my hourly rate making coffee.”

That wouldn’t fly for someone in the rank and file, Williams admits. So if you’re called to take notes, do so, then set up a process to rotate colleagues through the duty. Or, says Williams, play a little gender judo.

When women are asked to do work that’s undervalued, they should try something like this: “I’d love to serve on the paperclips committee. But that’s the perfect stretch assignment for David, our new junior hire, down the hall.” That’s what I call the art of gender judo. You dodge backlash by doing something masculine (saying no) in a feminine way (being nice and showing that you’re a “good team player”).

Simmons College professor Deborah Kolb and leadership and gender consultant Jessica Porter suggest four strategies that can help build your career instead of getting you cast as the grunt.

Turn a request for help into a negotiation. When asked to support a colleague or manager–especially when it requires fulfilling their duties for an interim period while they can’t–Kolb and Porter suggest leveraging that for a promotion in exchange for doing the work.

Calculate your costs. Even taking on the role of secretary during a meeting can cost you, as Sandberg and Grant point out. “The person taking diligent notes in the meeting almost never makes the killer point.” It may not translate into an actual dollar figure, but pitching in isn’t free if it takes more of your time than regular office hours.

Factoring in additional time required to go pick up box lunches or mentor a junior employee can add up. For direct work-related tasks such as helping a colleague manage a workload, that cost can be calculated and result in a drop in salary because of the added hours. Kolb and Porter suggest using that figure to negotiate for more resources.

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Demonstrate the value of your help. When a request to help extends into other areas of the company and impacts it in a positive way, it’s time to start tallying up. Kolb and Porter recommend showing the value of such help to that part of the organization and use it to negotiate a job change and raise.

Build in reciprocity for personal requests. The aforementioned examples directly benefit the business, but you can’t quantify planning the office party in the same way. Kolb and Porter recommend that these requests get countered with a proviso: “I’ll do it today, and next time it will be your turn.” Then you just need to make sure the other person remembers.

If you feel yourself start to waver or question the worth of your help, Kolb and Porter issue this simple reminder:

When you help without conditions, you train people to expect that you will continue to do so. But when you negotiate the conditions of your help, it can be a small win for you. And as we have found in our work, these small wins can start to accumulate into bigger gains.

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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