It’s a Monday morning and all around the conference table, your colleagues are still carrying a bleary look from the weekend. Suddenly someone with authority says: “Guys, someone has to take charge of the upcoming office party. This would mean coordinating with other teams for convenient dates, speaking to HR about budgets, fixing out fun and interactive games and of course, coming up with a great menu.”
There is an almost eerie silence in the room for maybe a second, followed by the bustle of everyone being supremely busy in whatever ‘work’ they are assigned – hoping and praying that their name isn’t called upon. The silence becomes uncomfortable and drags on, until a voice peters through: “I’ll do it”. You look up, and there are no surprises. The voice belongs to a woman.
So it goes. Women in the workforce, from the CEO to the new intern, feel a compulsion to volunteer for the extra work that no one else seems to want to pick up. The categories that this work falls under typically includes: planning office parties, making slides, taking notes for the minutes of a meeting, getting gift cards signed and reminders sent, giving office tours, taking out the time to show the new kids the workflow, planning activities to keep the office morale up...and the list goes on. While these activities aren’t what we would consider as ‘redundant’, they won’t reward the person taking charge in any substantial way.
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) defines this as “office housework”.
“Office housework happens outside of the spotlight. Some is administrative work that keeps things moving forward, like taking notes or finding a time everyone can meet. Some is emotional labor (‘He’s upset — fix it.’). Some is work that’s important but undervalued, like initiating new processes or keeping track of contracts. This kind of assignment has to get done by someone, but it isn’t going to make that person’s career,” the report states.
Women More Likely to Take On Office Housework
Now, here’s the problem with office housework. It’s mostly always the women in the workforce who volunteer for it. Another HBR report written by economics professors Linda Babcock, Maria P. Recalde and Lise Vesterlund found that women were asked to take on such tasks more frequently, as compared to men, and that they were also more likely to agree to it. It is also suggested that while men offer to volunteer more for this “office housework” when it’s a team consisting only of men, the percentage decreases when the workforce becomes co-ed. Men accept requests 51 per cent of the time while women agree to it around 76 per cent of the time. These numbers itself are telling.
A New York Times opinion piece written by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant credits the automatic assigning of office housework to women, to—you guessed it—conditioning. Men are deemed more proactive and ready to dominate in work-related activities that have everything to do with the business of the company.
Women, on the other hand, are assumed to be more ‘nurturing’ and ‘compassionate’ by nature, expected to take out the time to help others get better at their work, cover for their shifts and inspire a sense of harmony in the workspace. In short, men like to take on responsibilities which will place them in the public eye, while women’s contributions are believed to be more behind-the-scenes.
However, the same article credits a series of reliable reports which back the claim that the overall productivity in the workspace and organizational success comes when both men and women share the total load of responsibilities—those that directly help advance their career and those which are done without claim or credit.
Quitting an analysis of 183 different studies spanning 15 countries and dozens of occupations, the report further claims that: “...women were significantly more likely to feel emotionally exhausted. In their quest to care for others, women often sacrifice themselves. For every 1,000 people at work, 80 more women than men burn out—in large part because they fail to secure their own oxygen masks before assisting others.” Hence, unloading the lion’s share of the “office housework” on women can lead to a psychological toll on them.
Ladies, You Need to Stop Volunteering
We understand that this is simpler said than done. Given all the prejudice Women employees face, they are determined to do what they can to show that they’re not slacking and more than capable of donning multiple hats.
While their efforts are commendable, it doesn’t serve their purpose in the long run. Eventually, the “office housework” that a woman employee had to take out time to do last month will be forgotten by the next. It is especially forgotten when appraisals are around the corner.
The report by Sandberg and Grant emphasises on this, urging women to take cognizance of their own priorities before shouldering the responsibilities of the entire organisation. Similarly, the report also encourages men to start sharing the load and making space for their female counterparts to also gain some spotlight moments.
What Can Organisations Do?
Change, as we know it, begins from the very roots of a system. While assigning tasks that fall under the purview of “office housework”, organisations can ensure that there is a fair division between male and female employees. More importance can be given to these tasks as they take up time of employees – either from their working hours and their personal lives. Most importantly, organisations should encourage their male employees to volunteer to take on the “office housework” and not automatically assume that his female counterpart will pick it up anyway. Times are changing. And the load needs to be shared.
(Edited by Neha Baid)