Women at Work: We're Doing All the 'Office Housework,' Too

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Question: Who brings the cupcakes at your office, is more likely to toss the moldy leftovers from the communal fridge, or gets stuck organizing the office b-day shindig? Answer: Hey guys, I can make reservations at the bar for today's post-work drinks. It's no problem, really!


In a Sunday NYT opinion piece, crouched-ever-forward Facebook exec Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton School prof Adam Grant co-author a look at what anyone who's ever held an office job can tell you, summed up in one sober sentence you'll want to just linger over with a sad haunted look. They write:

This is the sad reality in workplaces around the world: Women help more but benefit less from it.

Help more, benefit less. Do more stuff, get less money and maybe less respect. Cool reality, guys. An example:

Late one Friday afternoon at a leading consulting firm, a last-minute request came in from a client. A female manager was the first to volunteer her time. She had already spent the entire day meeting with junior colleagues who were seeking career advice, even though they weren't on her team. Earlier in the week, she had trained several new hires, helped a colleague improve a presentation and agreed to plan the office holiday party. When it came time for her review for partner, her clear track record as a team player combined with her excellent performance should have made her a shoo-in. Instead, her promotion was delayed for six months, and then a year.

Of course, on a case-by-case basis, sexism thrives in the vague amorphous swamp called Who Can Know for Sure? Only, we can know for sure. Sandberg and Grant write:

In keeping with deeply held gender stereotypes, we expect men to be ambitious and results-oriented, and women to be nurturing and communal. When a man offers to help, we shower him with praise and rewards. But when a woman helps, we feel less indebted. She's communal, right? She wants to be a team player. The reverse is also true. When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn't help is "busy"; a woman is "selfish."


This whole she-wants-to-be-a-team-player thing really struck me, because when I think back over the sorts of things women handle around the offices I've worked in, from remembering to bring the napkins for the potluck to organizing a better system for delivering the inter-office mail, the recurring attitude is exactly that: Hey, don't women like doing this stuff more, anyway? Aren't they naturally better at it? Why not let them make these office events nicer, since it's such a breeze for them. We'll just muck it up anyway.

At this point, someone will argue: So what's the big deal? Sure, maybe women do more of this stuff, but they do this stuff their whole lives, so they're better at it, so why can't they just handle what they're better at?


Because they aren't "naturally better," they're conditioned. And they're quite literally penalized for it, which is a lot like being set up to fail. NYU psychologist Madeline Heilman recently conducted a study that asked participants to rate men and women employees who did or did not stay late to prep with colleagues for a big meeting the next day. When both agreed to stay late, the man was still rated 14 percent more favorably than the woman for no good reason. When both refused, the woman got dinged by 12 percent more than the man for no good reason. From her report:

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.


This rings true to a maddening degree, and it clearly has to do with the same thing that happens to women on the domestic front—whatever work women are doing is simply valued less, so doing it can never count for much. It's necessary; things can't run well without the administrative systems working smoothly. No one thinks it takes much brainpower to get the cake right, but that flowchart outlining the office phone tree? That takes initiative.

Joan C. Williams, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, finds that professional women in business, law and science are still expected to bring cupcakes, answer phones and take notes. These activities don't just use valuable time; they also cause women to miss opportunities. The person taking diligent notes in the meeting almost never makes the killer point.


But I gotta say: Even if a woman isn't bogged down with pointless administrative tasks and manages to make that killer point in the meeting, it's just as likely that point will be repeated by the guy sitting next to her and then he'll be praised—or that later, and when it really counts, it will be credited to another man anyway.

And I think what we're talking about is also no different than how women are conditioned to perform femininity in the first place: To put a lot of invisible work into something but make it look effortless. This old dress, that five-minute makeup, that spotless house and those marvelously well-behaved children? I did it in no time and still made it to hot yoga. It's ridiculous to think this expectation of women to be everything, and poised and charming to boot, would magically disappear at the office.


Men, on the other hand, are allowed to be hard-charging, naked careerists who are expected to know better than to waste their time doing dumb shit that won't get them noticed. And if they step on a few toes or come off as domineering or arrogant in the process? Well, you can't just slap a bridle on that kind of ambition. Everybody knows this because it's telegraphed from day one—girls learn to tone it down; boys learn that rambunctious show-offy aggression is just being a boy. We make space for them to realize their full boyness. We condition women to minimize everything.

Watch out, this one stings:

When men do help, they are more likely to do so in public, while women help more behind the scenes. Studies demonstrate that men are more likely to contribute with visible behaviors — like showing up at optional meetings — while women engage more privately in time-consuming activities like assisting others and mentoring colleagues. As the Simmons College management professor Joyce K. Fletcher noted, women's communal contributions tend simply to "disappear."


Question: Where on a resume do you put how often your colleagues have asked you to read their work, help brainstorm ideas, or give them feedback in your downtime with no credit whatsoever? There's no "Shit I Do Quietly That Proves I'm Respected and Capable But Can't Really Back Up" section.

And it's not just that women are viewed less favorably for the work they do. They are more likely to burn out doing it. Sandberg and Grant write that "Research shows that teams with greater helping behavior attain greater profits, sales, quality, effectiveness, revenue and customer satisfaction. But doing the heavy lifting can take a psychological toll."


The toll is that some 80 more women than men will burn out per 1,000 workers due to this behind-the-scenes helping. Women "sacrifice themselves" to help others, another learned behavior.

But this wouldn't be Sandberg without some pragmatic ideas about how to fix this problem. She and Grant ask why corporations don't track acts of helping in tandem with an individual's performance. They ask why these communal tasks aren't assigned more equitably in the first place. This may sound cynical, but it's all but impossible for me to imagine this ever happening. There is deep deep bias among men and women, too about the roles we are meant to play but more specifically how those roles are valued. In my experience, usually when women are hard workers who also pitch in with these sorts of tasks, this simply becomes the standard by which other women are measured, but never other men.


They offer other solutions. For starters, women should take better care of themselves to avoid burnout. Agreed. Second, women should reprioritize how they mentor or help others to better help themselves. And this makes sense, too. In the earlier example, the woman with the delayed promotion chose to make some changes to her helping. She began mentoring others in group lunches, which gave them a built-in network with each other. She stopped answering so many one-on-one calls for advice and wrote an FAQ. She didn't say she was too busy when she couldn't take on a new task—she said she couldn't stretch her team. That way, she still looked caring! And giving! And eventually, she made partner.

Ladies, never forget these emotional contortions which are essential to your Making It. Dudes, of course, are still encouraged to bluster straight to the top. Men can help, too, though, by speaking up and pointing more directly to women's contributions. By stepping up and doing more of the office work. Great ideas, but please tell me how many guys angling for more money or a better title are going to go out of their way to make sure a woman's ideas are highlighted or to do menial tasks?


The answer, I think, is much more difficult to pull off: It's to raise boys differently from the start. The answer is not to teach women to care less; it's to teach men to care more. It's to teach boys how to care—with detail and empathy—so that as adults, men and women no longer have a gendered notion of what it means to pitch in in the first place. So that when everyone is doing a little bit of menial work, everyone is just as capable of reaching for the brass ring with their big ideas, if that's what they are after. No cupcake fetching required.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.


Luckier (sometimes Luckless, sometimes Luckiest)

I can cite so many examples of this, but my favorite was the male attorney who asks me to fix the copy machine when it jams. It took me years to finally come up with the proper response, "Ray, I went to the same law school as you, and they still don't offer any office equipment repair classes."