Equally Distributing the Office Housework

Who makes the coffee in the morning at the office? Orders box lunches for a team meeting? Takes notes at said meeting? Collects money for a co-worker’s birthday party or signatures for a “Get Well” card? Is it you? Or another woman in your office? If you, or a female coworker, find yourselves doing a lot of thankless, busy tasks around the office because no one else will, it’s time to stop.

Too many women who get stuck taking the responsibility of covering household duties at home, take these self-imposed responsibilities right into the office. It’s important to point out that taking these tasks on will not necessarily ingratiate you to upper management. In fact, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote in a New York Times essay that when a woman takes on these chores, she is not seen as a better employee. However, an NYU study found that when men performed some of the same work-related tasks, they were rated 14% more favorably than their female counterparts.
Sandberg and Grant point out that without “housekeeping” at the office, the machine of a company doesn’t run as well. They write, “When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish.’”

Yes, it’s a fact. Becoming the office homemaker can keep you stuck right where you are. Researchers Linda Babcock, Maria P. Recalde, Lise Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart, recently reported in the Harvard Business Review that while women tend to volunteer for “non-promotable” tasks more often than men, they are also more frequently asked to take such tasks on. Their findings were based on their recent study, exploring how men and women accepted or volunteered for jobs with “low promotability.”

The simple definition of low promotability is any piece of work that won’t generate anything for you, but which still needs to be done by someone. These include tasks like organizing the office holiday party, agreeing to train new employees, or helping to clean out the supply closet. There’s obviously a wide array of what these sorts of things could be depending on your industry, but a task with low promotability is basically anything that improves your work environment without necessarily leading to more money or a better work review.

This can have serious consequences when it comes to promotion and advancement, and negatively impact gender balanced leadership. If women are disproportionately stuck with menial tasks that have little visibility or impact, they’re much less likely to gain the attention or responsibilities they need to advance. Even if you’re better at a task or more willing to do it, stop and think, are you allowing your biases about yourself and others keep you from advancing as you’d like. Educate yourself about what your industry and your company values as promotable qualities and choose to develop and show your capabilities at doing those instead.

Studies of industry and academia have also shown systematic gender differences in how work is allocated, continuing to show how women spend more time than men on non-promotable tasks. These differences may explain why, despite the advancements that women continue to make, we find vastly different trajectories to leadership positions.

Changing this dynamic and the division of non-promotable tasks has to become a top priority for organizations of all sizes. With most of these tasks automatically falling to women it serves as an example of both external and internalized sexism. Sure, a woman can just say “No” or call out the bias as it occurs. However, it might be more effective to shed some light on the big picture for the department or companywide. By doing so, suggestions on how to address the issue can come from women and men in all positions, and hopefully, move the organization towards change. Whether putting tasks on rotation, setting up a sign-up board with no repercussions, or fully engaging men in the company, once a system is in place, the tasks will not continue to be so disproportionately distributed.

When we identify things that are broken in the workplace and work together to fix them, we get closer to parity. Study after study has proven that today’s businesses gain when women join the top levels of the organization. Let’s commit to doing everything we can to help them get there. And let’s start today.

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