Last week I caught up with a long-time friend and professional connection to hear about her new career move. Over drinks, she told a story I’ve heard in many variations over the years. My (female) friend had been volun-told (read: required to volunteer) to join the Event Planning Committee at her new organization. The kicker? Women are the only ones ever volun-told to join, and the committee is all women.
Women are better at planning parties and throwing baby showers, the rationale went. Men aren’t good at that sort of thing, one colleague argued. You’re a girl, you know how to make things look nice, another chimed in. Even in 2020, this type of interaction is so prevalent that many of us (myself included!) have made the same assumptions or perpetuated the same situations. There’s a lot wrong with this picture – and it’s a symptom of an even deeper issue.
What is office housework?
Planning work parties falls into a category HBR terms “office housework.” The list includes both seemingly innocuous duties (taking notes, buying lunch, or getting everyone on the conference line) and more time-consuming tasks (handling less-valued clients, mentoring new employees, and serving on non-mission-critical committees).
Office housework is often thankless; it takes up time that could be spent on key revenue and business goals as well as on “glamour work.” While office housework happens quietly in the background, HBR explains glamour assignments “[get] you noticed by higher-ups, [give] you the opportunity to stretch your skills with a new challenge, and can lead to your next promotion.” In a perfect world, office housework and glamour work might be evenly distributed across the team. In the real world we live in, that’s just not the case.
Multiple studies show both women and people of color consistently perform more office housework and get fewer glamour assignments compared to white men. As the glamour projects often lead to promotions, this is one more piece of the puzzle when looking at the (lack of) diversity in top leadership roles.
Why not just say no?
A myriad of reasons exist for this disparity. Stereotypes and social pressures, such as the ones my peer experienced at her new company, play a big role. So too does the way that managers assign work, often with the assumption women or people of color are more likely to accept and perform the tasks.
White men are less likely to be assigned office housework. Even if they are assigned it, many employ “strategic sloppiness,” intentionally doing a bad job at a task to avoid that scenario in the future. Strategic sloppiness, while effective for men, is risky for women and people of color. Unlike their counterparts, women and people of color can’t just say no to office housework they’re assigned or stop volunteering for it; such actions from these groups are penalized, resulting in vastly different outcomes. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant explain in a NY Times article, “A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish.’”
This phenomenon isn’t just anecdotal. For example, a New York University study found when men and women stayed late and helped at work, the men were rated more favorably than the women who exhibited the same behaviors. The opposite also held true; if both men and women declined to help, women were more harshly rated than their male colleagues for the same actions.
Chances are, you may have observed similar occurrences in your workplace. I personally remember in vivid detail the times I was the only woman in a conference room where my male peers assumed I would take our meeting notes. One woman in my network is denied for a promotion, while simultaneously expected to “cover” for her senior male colleagues: creating their slide decks, staying late to catch up when they miss deadlines, ordering holiday gifts for their teams. If this woman tries to push back on this work for other departments, she is reprimanded and her competence questioned. A person of color explains how much harder he works to receive approval for a much-needed additional FTE on his team compared to his white colleagues. When he does receive approval, he reports increased scrutiny and a higher bar for success.
Many of the men I’ve talked to don’t notice the discrepancies until they’re pointed out. The white folks in my network don’t intend to receive preferential treatment. The system was built this way over hundreds of years – but the good news is, it can be changed. Now is the time and the impetus is on us. By the way, doing so benefits us all.
How do we fix this?
Brené Brown says it best in her book Dare to Lead: “People are opting out of vital conversations about diversity and inclusivity because they fear looking wrong, saying something wrong, or being wrong. Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.”
Talking about the issue is an important first step, but it has to go further. If we want to solve the diversity crisis around the leadership table and in the board room, we need brave leaders taking bold actions to change the system. Here’s how to start addressing the problem:
- Managers must assign work fairly.
If you manage people, lead a team or project, or run a committee, you have a big opportunity to make an impact in the realm of fair work distribution. When assigning glamour work, consider all employees (not just a few), making sure all have equal opportunities. Also think about the housework to be done; talk to your team about who currently does it and how long it takes. HBR recommends setting up a system to rotate tasks among your employees. Don’t ask for volunteers, as social pressures often cause women and minorities to volunteer first. Perhaps you assign and rotate the note taker for each meeting, for instance. Hold all team members accountable to prevent inadvertently rewarding strategic sloppiness.
- Male and white voices are critical to change.
If you fall into a group that is advantaged in the workplace (male, white, heterosexual, cisgender, etc.), you can choose to use your platform to advocate for your less-advantaged peers. Start by asking and actively listening to those around you – often we don’t really notice when we are the ones privileged. Consider joining resource groups or attending events focused on workplace diversity to learn more about how to help. Seek out opportunities to mentor, sponsor, or advocate minorities and women from inside or outside your organization. Champion women and diversity. Volunteer for some office housework. Even small steps forward are better than none.
- Women, people of color, and other minority groups can refocus their energy and position their work differently.
If you are a woman, a person of color, and/or a minority in the workplace, there are strategies you can keep in your back pocket when faced with office housework or an inequitable situation. Try measuring time spent on office housework, demonstrating your value with evidence. Consider building in reciprocity (“Sure, I’ll get coffee this time; next time, it’s all you” – and hold them to it.) Ask your manager to have your back when you push back on housework. Plus, don’t forget to pay it forward for your junior colleagues as you climb the ladder too. (More resources and strategies for dealing with office housework here and here.)
As for my talented female friend, the Event Planning Committee was just one small part of a bigger workplace picture where women didn’t have the same opportunity as their male colleagues. She started looking for a new job three months in, taking her skills elsewhere as many minorities and women do when facing an inequitable workplace.
Diversity is a big buzzword right now, but the buzz is not enough. Our awareness must lead to discussion, our discussion to action, and our action to systemic change. As leaders, now is the time to lend our voices and energy to the mission-critical objective: supporting minorities and women in the workplace. After all, research shows diversity in leadership is a competitive advantage. Together, we can make it happen. If we don’t, our competition will. Where will you start?