Sticking women with the office housework

In the February 2013 issue of Cosmopolitan, “Morning Joe” cohost Mika Brzezinski had a message for the magazine’s young readers. She recounted a conversation she once had with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who told her that as a Harvard Law School professor, there were too many years she had ended up “holding the mop” for her male colleagues. In her early days of teaching, Warren said she took on too many bad teaching shifts because all the men had said no to working those hours.“There’s a fine line,” Brzezinski warned, “between paying your dues and knowing when to say no.”

Whether it’s called the second shift or the double burden, research has long shown that the unpaid housework women are traditionally expected to do at home can hold them back in their careers, leaving them with fewer hours to devote to their jobs or to their own well-being.

But housework isn’t just something women are expected to do at home. In interview after interview with professional women for my recent book, “What Works for Women at Work,” I heard stories about what I call office housework: the administrative tasks, menial jobs and undervalued assignments women are disproportionately given at their jobs. They were expected to plan parties, order food, take notes in meetings and join thankless committees at far greater rates than their male peers were.

Such office housework holds women back, too — and not just because it undercuts their authority and devours time they could spend on more valued projects. It’s also a political tightrope for women. Saying no without seeming touchy, humorless or supremely selfish is a particularly tricky balancing act.

Some office housework is, quite literally, housework. In my research, successful professional women — lawyers, academics, executives, scientists — repeatedly said they’ve been expected to bring cupcakes for a colleague’s birthday, order sandwiches for office lunches and answer phones in the conference room, even if their job description is far up the ladder from such administrative tasks.

One female marketing director we interviewed, for instance, said that senior men at her firm would frequently expect their female colleagues to take notes during planning discussions. And a Latina science professor said she’s regularly asked to play the role of mother hen. “I’m the one who has to make sure everyone fills out their paperwork, and I’m the one who takes care of things, sets up meetings and things like that,” she says. “It’s assumed that I’ll take care of it because no one else will.”

In other cases, what I’m calling office housework may be less overtly menial, but it’s just as undervalued. Women are often asked to play the selfless good citizen, as Warren was, by taking on assignments that men don’t want or that the organization doesn’t highly reward. They’re asked to lead the mentoring program, manage the women’s initiative or coordinate the interns. While these may be vital for a company’s long-term health, they don’t directly increase the bottom line or, as a result, lead to bigger jobs.

study of women lawyers, for instance, found that 70 percent of women surveyed reported having either no women on their firms’ powerful compensation committees or only one. The women in the study also reported feeling that the committee work to which they were typically assigned — such as developing talent — did not count when comp time came.

So how should women ditch these tasks? Some have figured out a smart or sassy comeback. A California lawyer told me she’s learned to smile sweetly and say, “I’m not sure you want someone with my hourly rate making coffee.” Another woman, who was asked to order lunch for a meeting, reminded her colleague that the receptionist was sitting right out front.

But while such zingers may work for women in charge, true moxie is too costly for most employees. So rather than being snarky about answering the phone, it’s probably easier just to sit far away from it during the meeting. If you’re asked to take notes, do it once, efficiently, and then set up a rotation before the next meeting so that everyone — or at least all junior staff members — takes a turn at the job.

And when women are asked to do work that’s undervalued, they should try something like this: “I’d love to serve on the paperclips committee. But that’s the perfect stretch assignment for David, our new junior hire, down the hall.” That’s what I call the art of gender judo. You dodge backlash by doing something masculine (saying no) in a feminine way (being nice and showing that you’re a “good team player”).

Navigating that minefield may not be fair, and it may not be fun. But we have to get women out of office housework and onto more projects that really matter, both to them and to their companies, if we want more women to be successful in reaching positions of influence.


JCW-headshotJoan C. Williams, a law professor, is the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law. She is the co-author, with Rachel Dempsey, of the book “What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know.”


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