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.
In next week’s GovFem post, we’ll explore how to tactfully decline office housework.