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We need to talk about who is doing the 'office housework'

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
Office staff respecting social distancing during a meeting. Group of business men and women having a meeting in office during corona virus pandemic.
Too often, women end up doing the kind of jobs that no one else in the office wants to do. Photo: Getty

It’s a scenario many women have encountered when working in an office. You’re swamped with deadlines and upcoming meetings, but you can hear your boss talking about planning the Christmas party early this year.

You tell yourself you aren’t going to volunteer to help organise the bash, but before you know it, you’ve been tasked with finding a venue within your manager’s budget. You’ve also been asked to sort out the entertainment and check the menu to see if it caters for everyone’s needs. It’s a time-consuming, thankless task — and it eats into your time more than you would like.

Too often, women end up doing the kind of jobs that no one else in the office wants to do. Research from the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California defines these dead — end tasks as “office housework” or administrative jobs that aren’t going to lead to career advancement. These tasks can range from actual housework, like making the coffee or tidying up desks and communal areas, to organising team events.

Although women in all sectors are tasked with office housework, the University of California survey focused on women in engineering and law to find out more. In a survey of more than 3,000 workers, women were 29% more likely than white men to report doing more office housework than their colleagues.

The research also showed there is a racial dynamic to disparities in assignments. When surveying lawyers, women of colour were the most likely group to report doing more administrative tasks than their colleagues. In fact, they were more than 20% more likely than white men to find themselves doing these jobs. White women were 18% more likely to report doing more admin tasks than white men, the researchers found.

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Moreover, women aren’t doing these jobs because they want to. 

Research published in the American Economic Review in 2017 has shown there is a considerable amount of pressure placed on women to be team-players by taking on “thankless” tasks. Dr. Linda Babcock and Laurie Weingart, of Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Lise Vesterlund carried out several experiments to show how volunteering for office tasks impacts gender equality at work.

They found that in groups of different genders, women tend to be asked and volunteer for what they call "low promotability" tasks like writing reports, serving on committees, or organising office parties. Although these jobs often benefit companies, the researchers found these jobs are not valued as highly as “high promotability” tasks, which include revenue-generating activities.

Although taking on menial tasks at work may seem harmless, Babcock found they may actually set women back in the workplace.

“Gender differences in the frequency of requests and in the acceptance of requests for less- promotable tasks may help explain why women advance at a slower rate,” the researchers wrote.

“Unless women spend more time at work than men, working on less-promotable tasks means that they spend less time on more-promotable tasks. The career consequences of accepting a discretionary low-promotability task may, however, extend beyond the opportunity costs of the assignment itself.”

READ MORE: How the 'entitlement gap' is holding women back at work

In addition, office housework can lead to lower job satisfaction and engagement, which can have a lasting impact on women’s advancement.

Unfortunately, putting your foot down and saying “no” to these tasks can backfire. One 2005 study found that women get rated less favourably than men in their performance review if they do not get seen as helpful. The researchers found that gender stereotyping meant women were expected to be more altruistic in the workplace — and judged more harshly than men if they weren’t.

That being said, agreeing to do menial, time-consuming tasks to keep the peace can be problematic too. Once a worker gains a reputation for being agreeable to these non-promotable jobs, they may be picked to take them on every single time.

To give everyone equal access to important work that will get them ahead in their careers, managers first need to recognise their internal biases about who they pick on to volunteer to do tasks. These jobs might need doing, but it’s important to make sure they are distributed fairly among employees.

And if you find yourself repeatedly being asked to do office housework, framing a “no” answer in the right way is key. Setting boundaries with a manager is difficult, but it becomes easier if you give tangible reasons why you can’t organise a party.

Set up a private one-to-one meeting with your boss and explain clearly and calmly why you need to prioritise your work. If necessary, outline why your time is better spent on your work for the benefit of the company — and any good manager should respond reasonably.

Careers Clinic
Careers Clinic