Office Housework: Women Do More

by Julie Graber | on 13 Apr 2020

Taking notes, getting a conference room, planning parties and retirement recognitions, straightening up after a lunch meeting - these are all tasks that have to be done, but they are not directly related to core business activities and don't help when it comes time for pay increases and promotions. So why do women end up with these assignments more often than not?

I was supposed to be throwing away unneeded papers - scanning what I wanted to keep into my computer and recycling the rest.

It never seems to work that way though.

The first paper on the top of the stack was For Women and Minorities to Get Ahead, Managers Must Assign Work Fairly, by Joan Williams and Marina Multhaup. I was familiar with the article; it covers research conducted by Williams and Multhaup that showed that women are 29% more likely than white men to report doing the “office housework” on the job. Taking notes, getting a conference room, planning parties and retirement recognitions, straightening up after a lunch meeting - these are all tasks that have to be done, but they are not directly related to core business activities, and women don’t see a benefit in their career advancement for taking these responsibilities on.

At the same time, women also reported having less access to desirable assignments - the “glamour” work according the researchers - that is related to core business activities, and that does count when it comes to decide who moves up the corporate ladder. White women were 20% less likely to have access to these assignments, while women of color reported even greater challenges securing these types of desirable assignments (35% less likely in one engineering firm included in the study).

The problem is that when I went to look up this first article, it led me to a related article: Women of Color Get Asked to Do More “Office Housework.” Here’s How They Can Say No. Again, I was familiar with the article but not sure I had an electronic copy. So I needed a copy of that article as well.

This article was a follow-up to the one by Williams and Multhaup. In this case, though, the article noted that women are in a double-bind when asked to take on the office housework - if they say yes, they’re stuck spending time on tasks that not won’t help their career. But if they say no, they run the risk of being penalized as uncooperative or not being a team player (cue the b-word). This article focused specifically on the challenge faced by women of color in these situations, who confront a very high expectation that they will handle the office housework duties.

Fortunately, the second article comes with recommendations for handling housework requests without jeopardizing work relationships. Those suggestions include:

  • Having a response ready to handle these situations, using current workload or the need to be active in the discussion as reasons for saying “no”. 
  • Deflecting the request with humor (a discrete, tasteful "your mother doesn't work here" sign in a strategic position?)
  • Putting off the request by asking for more info or indicating a need to run it by your manager.
  • Heading these requests off for each other or addressing the issue as a group with an appropriate manager.

If the situation becomes uncomfortable, women can agree to take it on this time, but should use their agreement conditional on finding a more equitable way of handling these tasks in the future - on a rotating basis for example.

Both articles note, however, that this isn't women's problem to fix. Organizations are the ones with the responsibility to address this inequitable distribution of the housework. Managers need to recognize that these inequities exist and implement fair ways to assign both the glamour work and the housework so that bias doesn’t come into play.

And just in case you think it's OK as long as the women volunteer to do the office housework, my search ultimately led me to: Why Women Volunteer for Tasks that Don't Lead to Promotion. Women volunteer because there is a shared expectation and understanding that they will offer, especially in groups with both men and women. This article also attached numbers to the phenomenon: women received nearly 50% more requests to volunteer for low-desirability tasks than their male counterparts, and women agreed to take the tasks on 76% of the time (men: 51%). Again, the authors suggest that organizations find more equitable ways to assign these duties, such as rotating the responsibility. 

And when you do, don't ask a woman to keep track of whose turn it is!