Bringing cookies to work won’t help you get ahead. Yet when it comes time to celebrate a co-worker’s birthday or plan the holiday party, it’s often women who step up to the plate. While those who are willing to take on such office housework may be rewarded with a hearty “thank you,” such labor is unlikely to earn them a promotion.
Study after study has shown that women take on more work chores than their male colleagues. The split mirrors the unequal division of labor women face at home, where they tend to take on more household tasks than their male partners.
Aside from the casual sexism of expecting female employees to be an office’s de facto party planners and clean up staff, the unequal distribution of office labor hurts women in more subtle ways. For one, office housework can also encompass caring tasks and emotional labor, from mentoring younger employees to communicating bad news, which puts additional stress on female employees and can lead to burnout.
Worse, if a woman tries to shrug off office housework, it negatively affects how people perceive her. “[P]eople like her less and her career suffers,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, a professor at Princeton University, wrote in an article for the New York Times.
The idea that women are shouldering more than their fair share of menial burdens at the office isn’t new. Rosabeth Moss Kanter drew attention to the dynamic way back in 1977 in her book Men and Women of the Corporation. The problem hasn’t gone away in the intervening decades, even as more women have entered the workforce.
Resisting the pressure to take on office housework can be tough. Yet chances are the gendered division of labor won’t disappear until women make a concerted effort to push back against expectations that they are the office caretakers. Looking for a reason to say “no” the next time someone asks you to serve on the party planning committee? Remind yourself of these four ways doing office housework holds you back.
1. You have less time to do your actual job
Office housework is a time suck. If you’re stuck organizing the holiday potluck and making sure the CEO’s wife gets a gift for her baby shower, you have less time to do whatever it is you’re really being paid to do.
How much time are you really wasting? A lot. Women spend an average of five hours per week on office housekeeping tasks not directly related to their jobs, Laurie Weingart of Carnegie Mellon University told Money. The more time you spend on “non-promotable” tasks, the less time you have to focus on your real work. In a worst-case scenario, extra assignments leads to falling behind on more important projects or a poor performance review.
To get your time back, you have to speak up. “Maybe you recommend a peer who is a male,” Weingart said. “If you’re concerned about raising the sexism piece of it, you can send the same message indirectly by saying, ‘I’m not available to help out this time, but maybe Joe can.’”
2. You’re more likely to burn out
Completing an endless list of work chores requires energy and effort and tends to result in small rewards. You may start to feel unappreciated and overworked, which can contribute to exhaustion. That’s especially true if you’re being handed the office’s “emotional labor,” such as having to communicate bad news. Jane Cranston, an executive and leadership coach, recounted in a LinkedIn blog post how her boss picked her to tell the staff about an employee’s murder. His reason? He “figured a female would be better at this.” Women pay a price for taking on those and other office housework tasks.
“Workplace housework is thankless and constant, and contributes to burnout. It is exhausting, leading to compassion fatigue. It can make you bitter and resentful. It is a waste of your talents and skills, and costs you and the organization,” Cranston wrote.
3. You’re less likely to be heard
Sharing your awesome idea in a meeting is difficult when you’re the one taking notes on everyone else’s big ideas. But too often, women take on helping tasks that keep them out of the spotlight and off the promotion track.
“[P]rofessional women in business, law, and science are still expected to bring cupcakes, answer phones and take notes,” Sandberg and Green noted. “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.”
Women may also be more likely to end up with important but low-profile assignments like mentoring younger colleagues or overseeing the internship program. But keeping track of this year’s crop of interns means you probably have less time to rub shoulders with the more senior employees who could help you get ahead.
Getting out of these tasks without seeming “difficult,” can be a challenge, Joan Williams, who’s studied women in the workplace, wrote in the Washington Post. Sometimes, humor can help, as can proactively setting up a rotation for notetaking, birthday duty, or kitchen cleanup.
4. You won’t actually get ahead
Some women take on thankless office tasks because they assume it will eventually pay off. But those hoped-for raises and promotions may never appear.
When researchers studied how agreeing to help out a co-worker affected how people viewed an employee, they discovered something interesting. Men who volunteered to assist experienced a bump in their favorability ratings, while people’s opinion of women who offered to help out didn’t change at all. When men declined to help a colleague, their favorability ratings didn’t change. Women who said “no” to supporting a co-worker were viewed much less favorably. Doing these extra tasks at work didn’t make women seem more competent or more like leaders. They had to do them in order to avoid falling behind their male colleagues.
However, women can fight back against the pressure to pitch in without reward. Helping others can benefit your career, Deborah Kolb, the coauthor of Negotiating at Work, wrote in the Harvard Business Review, but you need to make sure your contributions are recognized. If you’re being asked to do more, see if you can negotiate for a better title and benefits, or even more resources to do you job.
“When you help without conditions, you train people to expect that you will continue to do so,” Kolb explained. “But when you negotiate the conditions of your help, it can be a small win for you … these small wins can start to accumulate into bigger gains.”