A few weeks ago I had the chance to ask Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria about the continuing inequalities many women experience at work. In response, he noted that “Since 54% of college graduates are women, it is a waste of a valuable resource not to have women have the same opportunities as men.”
We know that increasing numbers of women are graduating from college, earning advanced degrees, and entering the workforce. And we know that when initially hired, women’s salaries are nearly aligned with their male counterparts. But a few years down the line, those same women are likely to be paid less and promoted more slowly (or not at all) than the men around them. And at the highest levels of corporate leadership, women continue to be woefully underrepresented.
There are many theories as to why this is happening. And, as evidenced by Dean Nohria’s comment, there’s a growing recognition in the business world that the treatment of women is not just about “fairness” or nice ideals; it’s about wasted resources.
So what’s happening once these bright, talented women join the job force?
Where are their talents being wasted?
One possible answer is housework.
No, not that kind of housework.
It’s not the laundry or the vacuuming in our homes that’s the problem; it’s the daily “housework” of the office. “Housework” encompasses a wide variety of essential but underappreciated tasks around the office. Everything from making coffee and planning office parties to mentoring younger coworkers or developing internal standards for record-keeping. These sort of “helper” activities are what literally keep the office running day-to-day, and they can also be important investments for the future. It may seem like a tiny thing, but even the occasional office party can do a lot to build team spirit and help motivate employees.
And guess who takes on the vast majority of the office housework in corporate America? Women do, overwhelmingly. They do it, because they are more likely to be asked and expected to, but they also volunteer for these types of activities much more than men do. And that’s a problem, because housework takes time, and—when women do it—goes largely unappreciated. Writing for the New York Times, Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant point to a study that demonstrates this perfectly:
In a study led by the New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman, participants evaluated the performance of a male or female employee who did or did not stay late to help colleagues prepare for an important meeting. For staying late and helping, a man was rated 14 percent more favorably than a woman. When both declined, a woman was rated 12 percent lower than a man. Over and over, after giving identical help, a man was significantly more likely to be recommended for promotions, important projects, raises, and bonuses. A woman had to help just to get the same rating as a man who didn’t help.
Notably in this study, it didn’t matter whether the person evaluating the worker was a man or a woman. Women are expected to do more and in fact have to do more just to achieve the same performance rankings as their male peers. Meanwhile, housework activities are taking up our time and interfering with our ability to do the work that actually does get noticed.
So what can we do about it?
Don’t stop helping. Many women I know are natural “helpers,” and that’s a good thing. Serving those around you is a way of showing Christ’s love at work, and as God’s ambassadors, we are to be clothed with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3:12). Helping and serving others has value even if it hurts your career. But you’ve also been called to the marketplace to do a job, and overextending yourself with office housework impairs your ability to do that job. It also can lead to frustration, exhaustion, and dissatisfaction. Ultimately that’s not a good thing for you or your company, or for the people around you.
Consider gifts and strengths. Office housework is best divided based on the real gifts and passions of the people on the team. As an individual, that means acknowledging that you weren’t made to help with everything that needs to get done around the office. Maybe you’re an introvert and loads of extra mentoring or time spent in committee meetings drains your energy. Maybe you make terrible coffee or—like me—your handwriting is illegible. Whatever the case may be, think critically about your gifts, personality, and passions before you take on any new tasks.
Managers can do a lot more to make sure that the housework (and credit for it) is spread evenly. Just being aware of the existing disparity is a good start. We can also track “helping” activities in a tangible way, so that the help can be meaningfully acknowledged. When feasible, managers should consider assigning more of the housework rather than just asking for volunteers, and doing so in a way that takes into account their employee’s natural gifts. At 4word, we try to divvy-up all of the housework this way. In preparing for last year’s Fall leadership retreat, there were countless items and details that needed to be looked after. I’m naturally goal-oriented and have a mind for finances, so I took on all of the goal-setting and oversaw the financial reporting. Another member of the team is a born communicator, so she took charge of preparing most of the actual presentations. And then there’s our “details expert;” she took on the organizational challenges; who arrives when, where does everyone sleep, who is riding is whose car? We all worked together to make the retreat happen, and it went so much more smoothly than it would have if our roles had been different.
As women in the workplace, we all need to approach the issue of housework with humility, acknowledging that we are all equal in God’s sight, and that, just like at home, the office housework has to get done. Someone has to take notes during the meeting. Maybe you really are the best person for the job, but maybe you’re not. Deflecting can be uncomfortable, especially when people in the room seem to expect you to take on a particular task, but it might be the right thing to do for you and for your company. If you keep volunteering, no one else will.
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