By Jessica Lindsay , Lifestyle Reporter
Next time you’re sat in a meeting twiddling your thumbs, have a think about the steps it took to make that happen.
A lot of work has gone on behind the scenes, from booking the room you’re using to ordering in refreshments and corralling attendees.
These tasks are the cornerstone of a smoothly-run office, but ones we rarely acknowledge unless they’re not done: office housework.
According to Brenda Lorraine Peyser, co-author of The No Club – Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work, these duties ‘are found in every job, at every rank, and in every organisation.’
She tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Office housework is part of a bigger issue that my co-authors and I call “non-promotable tasks,” which are tasks that matter to the organisation, but do not benefit the person who does them.
‘It is work that isn’t central to the organisation’s mission, is often done behind the scenes, and is a task that can be done by many people.’
Like its regular, in-the-home counterpart, office housework often gets done by women – and often without so much as a thank you. Just instead of clean socks and pants that seem to magically appear in your drawer, it’s minutes and action items appearing in your inbox.
According to Brenda, examples of tasks that are non-promotable include, ‘serving on committees, compiling the work of others, resolving conflict among co-workers, handling a time-consuming but low revenue client, or helping new employees settle in.’
These jobs need to be done, but the issue is who ends up shouldering the burden.
A study in the American Economic Review found that in mixed sex environments women volunteer for ‘undesirable’ tasks twice as often as men – although only when it’s clear that no one else will.
Additionally, both men and women are 12% more likely to ask women to volunteer to take the non-promotable task than they are to ask men.
Women of colour are even more susceptible to being lumbered with office housework. Research by Harvard Business Review revealed that non-white female engineers were 35% less likely than white men to report having access to desirable tasks, while white women were 20% less likely.
It seems like no coincidence then that just eight of the UK’s top 100 companies are headed up by women, all of whom are white, and that the gender pay gap still sits at 15.4%.
After all, how can you move up the ladder when you want to be in the boardroom but you’re stuck helping the work experience kid learn Excel?
Existing biases and stereotypes feed into why this is the case. Women in the workplace are expected to be warm, obedient, and considerate of others, yet the traits most commonly associated with men are assertiveness and dominance.
Katy Murray, diversity specialist and author of Change Makers: A Woman’s Guide to Stepping Up Without Burning Out At Work, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘In a room full of white males it will unlikely be the highest status male who will clear away the cups at the end of the meeting.
‘We’re socialised that this is a low status job and therefore it falls to the person we judge to be lowest status in the room.’
These assumptions then feed into how we see ourselves and act as a result, constructing the overall perception that all we’re worth is dogsbody work.
‘By fulfilling this expectation, whether its unconscious or conscious, we are steeping into that “low status” role,’ says Katie. ‘We are playing the part of the lower status person in the room which affects how others view us and our potential, adding to our invisibilising.
‘If we’re always the one taking notes, for example, others will assume and expect that to be our role and will not expect to hear our strategic or creative opinions.’
The repercussions for refusing office housework differ between the genders too. Women who are perceived as not possessing ‘communal characteristics’ (like helping others and being ‘nice’) may be penalised socially.
‘They may face backlash,’ says Brenda, such as ‘being thought of as someone who isn’t a team player or a considered a “difficult” woman.’
Men, on the other hand, are praised for helping due to the ‘taking platypus phenomenon’, where someone’s achievements are seen more favourably if they’re outside of what’s usually expected of them.
For businesses, office housework being delegated unequally doesn’t just harm employee wellbeing.
Brenda says: ‘Organisations do best when the right people are put on the right job. Wasting women’s talents doesn’t achieve that goal.
‘If women are sidelined by non-promotable work, they’ll look elsewhere for opportunities, and organisations can lose talent and experience in their ranks.’
Since unconscious bias plays such a role here, affecting whether staff feel able to speak up if they’re being treated unfairly, the responsibility for monitoring employees’ workload lies in the hands of management.
Bosses must be cognisant of how they’re assigning roles so that women and PoC in their employ aren’t overloaded with non-promotable ones.
‘Rather than asking for a volunteer, draw names from a hat or take turns for recurring tasks,’ says Brenda.
‘Anyone can serve on the website committee – not just a woman. Making changes to how work is allocated can help organisations better utilise their workforce and become more productive and profitable.’
Unfortunately these best laid plans are reliant on executive cooperation, which is rarely forthcoming or speedy.
If you’re looking to push back on office housework, Katy’s advice to is to take an audit of who’s doing what in your workplace. For a week or so, write down the non-promotable tasks you and others are doing, including how they’re rewarded or penalised.
Speak to your colleagues and use ‘us’ and ‘we’ statements rather than directly accusing anyone of shirking. Then, if you can, let these tasks go uncompleted for a shock to the system.
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Katy says: ‘Let everyone notice that the notes are not up to date, the agenda is not shared on time, at the end of a meeting leave the room with the empty cups uncleared.
‘Allow people to see the impact of this work not being done. Allow colleagues to notice what actually is happening behind the scenes to make their lives run smoothly.’
If this method fails, you need to start compiling evidence to bring to your superiors.
As an example of how to approach the conversation, she recommends something like this: ‘I’m noticing that it’s usually me or X who does X task. This is not part of our key deliverables, I’ve added up the time it’s taking me each month and it’s X.
‘We know from the data that its really common for team office housework to fall onto women and PoC. I’d like us to be able to do things differently here. Can we have a conversation about this as a team and see how we can share out this office housework?’
This should open up a dialogue about non-promotable work and your career progression, but there will be cases where your request falls on deaf ears.
Under the Equality Act 2010, employees are protected from discrimination based on protected characteristics, meaning you can take action if you’re treated differently due to your race or sex.
Visit Citizen’s Advice to check if your problem at work is due to discrimination, and always ensure you keep records of your communication (just in case you need it for a tribunal).
Whether you’re an employee or an employer, simply being aware of office housework and the prejudices that influence non-promotable jobs can positively impact company culture.
‘We need to shed light on the way these biases play out in our workplaces,’ says Katie. ‘And help all of us to find new ways to be together that don’t perpetuate these unhelpful stereotypes.’
Do you have a story to share?
Get in touch by emailing MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk.
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