Women are frequently asked to take on non-promotable tasks
But office housework requests can have a negative impact on your career
One of the biggest gripes from women in the workplace and a frequently raised question in coaching sessions and conferences, is how to draw the line at “office housework” requests. This includes such high-powered activities as note taking during meetings, serving coffee and drinks, organizing lunch, syncing diaries, or taking charge of office social activities such as baby showers or birthday gifts.
We all hope that the situation is changing, but sadly these gender coded expectations still exist and office housework requests are as common now as they were decades ago.
Laurie Weingart, Interim Provost at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper calls these “non-promotable tasks.” She maintains that women are three times more likely than men to volunteer to do these jobs or be asked to take them on. This leads to what is called “vertical gender segregation,” This is academic speak for making a bad career move. Instead of getting bonus points for being collaborative and caring or a good team player, it literally means that all these intrusive “office housework” requests, reduce the time these lovely volunteers can focus on their real jobs. They can serve to hold your career back.
Why do women agree?
There are lots of reasons for this. For some women they are so used to carrying out these service requests in their own homes or relationships it’s embedded into their psyche. They think it’s normal. Others women feel a need to be helpful and enjoy getting recognition (strokes) from others. It’s their dopamine hit. Another group is women who would really prefer to say no, but do it anyway under duress. They fear that they will be penalised in some other way or lose the trust of their co-workers. The fall into the gender trap of wanting to be liked or fear of being disliked.
It’s therefore important to set boundaries and say no. It’s also possible to refuse but in such a way that it doesn’t reflect badly on you.
For career success try our Self Confidence Coaching as confidence matters as much as competence.
5 ways to refuse office housework requests
#1 Think strategically
There are some office housework tasks that can actually benefit you if they put you on the radar of key stakeholders. You clearly don’t want to be consigned to some menial role in their eyes, so it’s critical to think strategically and long-term. WIFM – what’s in it for me? If the answer is nothing – move on to tip 2.
#2 Use humour
This will depend on how well you get on with your colleagues and your own personality. One woman said she teased her co-worker who asked her to fix coffee for the group with “is it your maid’s day off?” Another said “I wouldn’t even do that for my teenagers at home, so I’m not going to do it here.” A third asked why the gentleman thought she was uniquely qualified to carry out the task, or perhaps others might also share this key skill.
A friend told me how one day a sign mysteriously appeared on the wall of the coffee-room saying “Your mothers don’t work here. Clear up your own mess”
In all cases the messages were well received.
#3 Make a business case
If the list is extensive write it down and observe how this compare to male colleagues. It may be necessary to flag it up to your manager. If it is the manager making the requests be sure to have your data to hand. Make the point about the task taking you from your regular work. “If I focus on x task it means I am not working to capacity on y project and will fall behind”
#4 Communicate constructively
Rather than flying off the handle and becoming combative keep the tone of the discussion civil and respectful. Don’t assume that the person who is making the request has bad intentions. They simply may not have thought it through gender coded expectations are so deeply embedded. Simply ask for a rotation “I think I took the notes last time – someone else should take responsibility for it this time.” Make sure it’s not automatically assigned to a female co-worker. If the task is a required on a regular basis, propose a schedule so that everyone can participate equally.
Don’t forget that these things happen because they can. And by participating you are giving that person permission to continue – and they will do as long as they can, until someone points out alternative solutions.
#5 Use the shine tactic
Back up any female colleagues who may get lumbered with the job. Use the bystander tactic “I don’t feel comfortable with a woman being asked to serve coffee. Why don’t we make this an agenda item”
If you can’t say no to repeated office housework requests, and keep getting dumped on despite your best efforts, be willing to escalate the problem. Perhaps other women who are impacted in a type of class action will support you.
If that fails – leave.