Women’s Careers are Being Hindered by Office Housework

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With Christmas fast approaching, Vicky’s workload has doubled. As the internal comms manager, she’ll need to interview the CEO for the end-of-year edition of the staff newsletter, she has joint projects with Finance and HR to round up, and it’s time for her direct reports to complete the annual staff engagement report. Yet, she has been asked by her boss, the director of her department, to organise the team Christmas lunch because as he puts it, she “did such a good job last time”. 

Already feeling the pressure of her workload, she cannot fathom the idea of also having to research restaurants, keep track of dietary requirements, and continually update the team and on the ‘what and where’. Vicky wants to decline her boss’s request however she doesn’t want to come across as obnoxious or difficult. 

Workplace gender bias

In offices across the UK there are women like Vicky being asked to organise lunches, make cups of tea and coffee, onboard new staff, and clear out the stationery cupboard. These are examples of non-promotable tasks, or office housework. According to research commissioned by Samsung, women are more than twice as likely as their male colleagues to do them. However, there is enough evidence to also suggest that women’s careers are being hindered by office housework. 

In 2017, a study published in the American Economic Review found that women were 48% more likely than men to volunteer for a task that would penalise them financially while benefiting the group overall.

The statistics are symptomatic of a wider issue at play in our workplaces. Gender bias refers to a person receiving different treatment because of their gender. For women in the office, gender bias comes with more problems such as being on the receiving end of harassment, pay discrepancies, less access to opportunities and promotion, and discriminatory language. In the same study from Samsung UK and Ireland almost half (46%) of the respondents revealed that gender biased language is showing up at work.

So exactly how could office housework be slowing down your career?

  • It erodes your time – although making one cup of tea is unlikely to do much harm, spending extra hours on multiple errands each week will eventually lead to you falling behind in your job.
  • It leads to burnout – undertaking tasks that are outside of your scope of work adds little value to your career and will lead to you feeling overworked.
  • It leads to unhelpful assumptions about you – the more office housework you do, the more you’ll be put forward for them. Like Vicky, people will just assume you don’t mind doing them. 

Women of colour are more likely to perform office housework

For women who are non-white, the negative bias becomes two-fold as they also have to navigate racial discrimination. A study conducted at five different organisations showed that women experienced more sexual harassment than men,  whilst ethnic minorities experienced more harassment than white employees. Minority women experienced more harassment overall than all men and white women.

Imposter syndrome has a role to play. Imposter syndrome is described as feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence despite education, experience, and accomplishments. According to Laura Newinski, KPMG’s U.S. Deputy Chair and COO, women may experience imposter syndrome more than men due to differences in how boys and girls are raised in childhood. And those feelings could be leading women to go the extra mile to impress their boss or prove their worth. 

There is nothing wrong with volunteering to take on additional tasks now and then, but the problem arises when specific staff members are expected to perform them all the time. “Stop doing this 10% extra work if it’s not going to help you advance or get a raise,” said Elissa Sangster, executive director at Forté Foundation, a non-profit in San Antonio, Texas.  It is likely that saying ‘no’ may cause tension initially. But in the long run it will help your career. 

How to say no

  • Say no with evidence – the next time you are asked to induct the newest team member, inform your boss that you did it the last two times. Or point them to your current projects and diary and let them know you currently have no capacity. 
  • Advocate for rotation – for fairness, suggest that minute-taking duties, or organising the sweepstake is done on a rotational basis, so everybody has their fair share. 
  • Speak to your manager – if the request is not coming from your line manager, let your colleague know that you will need to speak to the person you report to before you accept additional work.  
  • Get rewarded for it – there will be times where saying no is impossible. In that case, make sure you get the recognition you receive, or are rewarded with some time off, or perhaps sponsorship towards a course. 
  • Speak to an external mentor – if you don’t want to speak to someone in your company but want to learn how to build confidence or understand the right time to say no, you can use a mentor for guidance. Apply now to be matched with a mentor in our BYP Mentorship Programme.

There is no doubt that women’s careers are being hindered by office housework. It is one of many factors that are increasing the gap between male and female employees. Although there are ways for women to navigate the problem, the onus shouldn’t be solely on the employee to change aged attitudes in the office. The participation of leaders is also instrumental in changing workplace culture. 

About the author

Madeline Wilson-Ojo is a children’s author and content writer whose corporate background is in B2B and Internal Communications. She currently writes about careers and workplace culture to help professionals in the marketplace make better choices. Find more about Madeline at madelinewwrites.com

If you are interested in being a guest writer, please get in touch.

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