Imagine that you walk into a meeting. After a few hours of preparation, you’re ready to run through all of your well-planned thoughts about the agenda. However, just as the meeting begins, a superior asks if you’d be willing to take notes for the meeting. Feeling obligated, you say yes. But suddenly you’re not participating in the discussion. Instead, you’re an observer and timekeeper.
This isn’t an uncommon scenario, especially for women in the workplace. Multiple studies (like this one and this one) have shown that women are far more often requested to do administrative and social tasks at the workplace. These are things like taking notes in meetings, being in charge of office organization, or even bringing in baked goods for workplace events. Appropriately, one Harvard professor calls them “office housework”.
While this unequal distribution of tasks may seem like a mild annoyance, it actually can play a big role in continuing workplace gender inequality. Here’s how:
First, frequently allocating office housework to women perpetuates – even exacerbates – the pay gap. Because these administrative duties demand time without removing other work responsibilities, women end up putting in more hours to achieve the same jobs as their male counterparts. Ultimately, that results in women being paid less per hour of work, even before you factor in the current pay gap.
What’s more, you’re more likely to overextend yourself in an effort to perform both your paid and unpaid work. One study found that women were more likely to burnout than their male counterparts. Another challenged that theory, but did note that women were more likely to sacrifice their emotional wellbeing to perform to the same standard as their peers at work.
And even if you don’t burn out, these tasks can be personally detrimental to your career advancement. They can detract from your responsibilities, leading to poorer performance. In less extreme cases, these tasks can decrease your contributions to collaborative meetings. For instance, note takers are less likely to actively participate in meeting discussions or make the “killer point” because they’re focused on the immediate task of keeping time.
Finally, this uneven distribution of tasks can actually hurt your organization as a whole. Not only is it proven that gender inequality can hurt company or agency performance, many studies have found that work sharing can specifically enhance a team’s profitability, engagement, and effectiveness.
Unfortunately, combatting unequal task allocation in the office is difficult because it’s so often unconscious. Many people don’t consider the opportunity cost of asking a worker to take time away from their central job responsibilities to perform additional administrative or social tasks.
This article was originally posted on GovLoop in June 2016,
I’ve been advising other professional women to avoid doing “office housework” for years, and have been met with a surprising amount of resistance. “I want to be seen as a team player” and “How can I say ‘no’ to my boss?” are the most common reasons. My response to the first has been that you’re not on the team if you’re left behind to clean up after the other members. Responding to the second one is trickier. I’m looking forward to next week’s installment on how to do just that.
Just say No and be prepared for the consequence. If the company values what you add to the team, then the organizer will find a way that works for everyone. I experienced on a team of 2 ladies and 3 men. The ladies were asked to take notes in the meeting. We both said no. The workaround became a rotation model. A different person took the meeting notes and sent them out to all participants at the meeting.
What became visible real fast, some people are good at listening while taking notes and some weren’t. But we kept the rotation which helped some strengthen the skill set of listening from all perspectives not just their area of expertise.
Great start however the issue that really needs to be addressed is how to say “no” as an employee and also offering advice to leadership on ways to make sure they are not assigning housework to just women. As someone who’s been in the position of being asked to do the housework, I’d like to know how to say no professionally and still look like a team player. Leadership should also know that it really does feel demeaning when we are asked to do that, especially when they walk by a number of men who also know how to write.
I left a job once and told the SES in my exit meeting that part of the reason was that I felt I wasn’t given the same opportunities as a male coworker (who started a few weeks after me, coming from the same prior internship and the same masters program/year). In addition to mentoring, and steady assignments with important agency travel (meeting other officials ), I cited the office housework that myself and other females always do though I didn’t call it that. His response to me was astounding: “Well, to a certain degree, do you think at least some of these women sef-select into these roles and responsibilities?”. I was floored. I said that even if it wasn’t outright discrimination, and I was clear that I was not making that allegation, there are unconscious biases that need to be taken into consideration, discussed, and discouraged by management. And then I left the meeting 110% certain in my decision to leave that job.
Great article! Really applies to how things really happen in the workplace. Eye opener. Thank you!
Hannah, in your hypothetical meeting scenario it is assumed that there is only one woman in the meeting that was asked to take notes, which sets ourselves up to be victims. Anyone that is asked to take notes will not be able to focus on participating, not just women. The solution is simple, do what I’ve done on occasion, tell your supervisor you will gladly take notes after you retrieve a voice recorder, or start the recording on your phone. This way everyone wins and you can still participate in the discussion. There is usually more than one way to “skin a cat” so to speak. Be creative in coming up with solutions that benefit everyone involved and make the choice to be a victor, not a victim.
Just say NO