Cognitive labor. It’s been on my mind ever since I read a New York Times article that outlined areas where women tend to take on more than their fair share of the household’s mental load. Out of the four categories of cognitive labor, women are more likely to anticipate tasks and monitor follow-through than their male counterparts. Both genders take on equal duties associated with identifying potential solutions and making decisions.
Personally, the article made me laugh (and cringe a little) because this sometimes frustrating division of cognitive labor sounded all too familiar. Using a common trope of deciding what’s for dinner every night, anticipating is remembering to defrost meat so we have options for the week; identifying is Googling recipes based on what’s in the pantry; deciding is choosing what to cook; monitoring is adding low inventory groceries to the errand list for the weekend. While anticipating what needs to be done and monitoring the to-do list usually involve small tasks, the invisible cognitive load is exhausting.
However, once I put the gender disparity of cognitive labor into a professional landscape, my perspective flipped. Aren’t advanced planning skills and immaculate follow-through prized professional traits? Shouldn’t working women tout their abilities to anticipate and monitor as benefits, not burdens? And, why aren’t managers scrambling to maximize these natural tendencies in the workplace?
Female professionals should use their inherent qualities as a strategic advantage. And managers should put more consideration behind employees’ innate strengths to build teams of people that complement one another.
Anticipate: The power of list-building
I am a notorious list builder. If I’m preparing for a dinner party, I do a lot of active planning—pre-planning (where will everyone park?) and post-planning (who will clean up?). Some characterize my preparation and attention to detail as a tendency to worry. But this cognitive labor doesn’t just make my dinner parties successful—these skills better me as an employee and manager.
Employees who anticipate tend to be exceptional planners, envisioning tasks necessary to achieve success and staying two steps ahead of just about everyone else. When launching a project, these employees don’t just rush towards the finish line. They ask probing questions like who do we need to engage before we start? What kind of research or data do we need ahead of time? And are there unexpected roadblocks? By thinking through relevant variables before launching projects, teams can identify potential pitfalls in strategies and proactively correct these issues. As a result, project execution and management are a lot smoother.
As a Growth leader, one of my key responsibilities is improving our company’s conversion rates through experimentation across the entire purchasing journey. I could tackle these experiments in a million different ways, but I approach them with my natural impulse to plan. I start by dissecting our sales funnel with data to understand what key parts are causing the highest drop-off. From there, I prioritize experiment ideas based on what will have the highest impact to conversions and then think through all of the internal partners, executive buy-in and resources needed to bring the project to fruition. With the whys and hows figured out, kicking off an experiment already has a leg up on success.
Monitor: The project is never over
Once a project launches, it’s never over. At my dinner parties, I’m vigilant about follow-through. Not only do I want to ensure dinner gets on the table, but I also want to frequently check in with my guests to see if they need another drink and make sure everyone is having a good time. And once my guests leave, I look for stray belongings to return and monitor all necessary clean-up efforts.
The same is true for monitoring ongoing business needs and experiments. Projects don’t just go live. Teams need to measure the project’s performance to understand the overall success of its execution. Is a new marketing campaign bringing in more leads, and are those leads turning into a fuller sales pipeline? Did the new onboarding flow drive a higher paid conversion rate? Is the campaign driving the expected impact on user adoption? And if not, how do we improve results?
Leaders can harness this power
As leaders hire and build out their teams, they should think about people’s inherent strengths. Is there an opportunity to pair an employee who anticipates with an employee who identifies? I have great creative tension with some of my male counterparts who excel at creating a holistic vision for a project. While they talk about overarching themes, my brain immediately breaks down that vision into actionable steps for how we’re going to get there.
I find that a team rounded out by anticipators often come to me with thought-out approaches to problems and projects. In this case, I can empower teams to manage their own projects while I stand by for help and guidance. On the other hand, if a team comes to me with issues and no solutions, we’re at square one and very far from driving a positive impact on the business.
Natural tendencies should also inform managers’ quarterly career conversations with employees. I recommend using a SWOT analysis, or even better, I use a template at Moogsoft that focuses only on strengths and opportunity areas. While creating one-, three- and five-year plans, managers should encourage employees to reflect on the strengths that will get them to their goals. This method allows managers to recognize what employees see in themselves, help teams amplify their soft skills and create opportunity areas for them to grow.
Avoid the pitfalls
Although consistent vigilance and attention to detail can be an asset, taking on all of this cognitive labor can also create unnecessary stress and burnout. If an employee’s anticipation and monitoring start turning into negative emotions like anxiety and stress, that needs to be a stopping point.
Removing stress, even internally built stress can be challenging. The sociologist profiled in the referenced article emphasizes the importance of using “language to talk about these inequities” in the household. This advice is beneficial in a professional setting too. Managers should also create a culture where employees, especially those always-on planners and project managers, feel empowered to lean on colleagues to share the mental load and ultimately prevent burnout.
There’s no solution to gender imbalance when it comes to cognitive labor. I can’t ask someone to replicate my kind of to-do lists in their heads, just as I can’t ask my husband to read my mind about meal planning for the week. But what I can do is recognize why my ongoing to-do list and relentless follow-through are sources of strength that can be used not only at home but in the workplace too. I encourage other working women to also flip the script and show how their inherent “worrying” can actually be their inherent strength.
Minami Rojas is the VP of growth at Moogsoft.