Ever find yourself wondering, “How did I end up taking on another thankless task at work?” You’re not alone.
Women are often expected to do the “office housework,” which can include anything from taking meeting notes, to serving on an undervalued committee, to buying a condolence card for everyone to sign.
During the holiday season, the office housework tends to go into overdrive with parties to be planned, cards to send and families to be asked after: “What are your plans for the holidays?”...”Oh, that's lovely that you'll get to see Aunt Gertrude.“
Whatever the time of year, these are roles that are usually time-intensive and undervalued. But, when women aren’t willing to take on these roles, we can face sanctions. People think we’re “not being a team player.”
Sure, if you’re junior level or your role is secretary or office manager, some of these things may be in your purview. Or maybe you like this type of work, and you’re happy to take on these tasks in addition to more substantive assignments.
If, however, your role didn’t have party planner in the job description (and you never wanted it to), here are three strategies to navigate the office housework:
1. Suggest another way to get the work done.
In one of my favorite books on workplace dynamics for women, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey write a lot about this issue. A woman they interviewed convinced her group leader that taking notes in a meeting was a good educational opportunity for junior associates (several of whom were male). This diplomatic approach allowed her to still be perceived as a team player while ensuring a more equitable division of labor.
2. Change the policy.
A female attorney I interviewed described tedious, undervalued work that she and her colleagues regularly found themselves doing on case teams: creating task lists, making sure the work got done and “generally keeping the plates spinning.”
She said, “Guys were thinking brilliant legal thoughts and women were figuring out how to get the work done.” No surprise here, she told me, “The brilliant legal thoughts got celebrated.”
A policy change improved the situation. Originally, case assignments were a free market in which anyone could get an assignment from anyone in the firm. Under this system, she told me, “Men talked themselves up and worked the system to get the best assignments, while women took the grunt assignments like awful document review to ‘take one for the team.’ Men would say, ‘I’ve got a full plate,’ which of course left their plate open for the good stuff.”
Once the women's committee at the firm raised this pattern, the partners created a formalized assignment system that ensures the grunt assignments, as well as the meaningful opportunities, get distributed equally.
If you're considering requesting a policy change and don't have a women's committee, you could start by asking questions about how decisions are made and how the leadership views the current process. Depending on your rapport with the decision-maker, you could suggest tracking who's getting what roles to see if there are any patterns, mention what you've observed, and/or offer a new approach.
3. Identify how it can advance your career.
Sometimes there’s no getting around it — the housework has ended up as your responsibility. That doesn’t mean it has to negatively impact your career. Another attorney told me she was asked to make the office holiday card. In the end, she was the only associate on the holiday card that went out to all of the firm’s clients. It was great exposure.
For more work-oriented projects (think committee work, not holiday cards), Williams and Dempsey suggest getting a higher status team member involved, whether as the person you report to or as a collaborator on the project. You can frame his or her involvement as key to the success of the project by saying something like, "Alex has done similar work in the past, which could give the committee context and direction. Could we add Alex to the committee as well?" In addition to giving you exposure to a key decision-maker who will get to know the quality of your work, this gives the project greater prestige.
Even when it doesn’t advance your career, office housework isn’t always problematic. Sometimes it’s work that just needs to get done. Personally, I love planning parties and the other social aspects of my work. It becomes problematic, though, when you feel like you (and potentially the other women in your company) are regularly relegated to the thankless tasks, hindering your ability and availability to take on more important ones.
Worst-case scenario, take a note from Shel Silverstein who wrote,
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore!
If you find yourself begrudgingly planning the end of year party, you could always try throwing a disastrous blowout bash inspired by your favorite holiday movie. Whether it be the airport scene in Love Actually or the epic final conflict in Die Hard, you’re unlikely to be asked again. (Don't really do that.)