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Employment

The sexist traditions of ‘office housework’ – and how to end them

Researchers behind new book The No Club found in one organisation female employees spent 200 hours more each year on dead-end tasks than their male counterparts.

Volunteering to take minutes of a meeting, nipping out to buy a birthday cake for a colleague or making time to give a careers talk at a local school – these are all tasks many working women undertake without batting an eyelid.

But the more time that’s taken up doing these unremarkable odd-jobs, the less time is left to do actual work, and it’s holding women back from bagging that promotion. Plus, it’s exhausting. 

A group of American professors are aiming to change that with a new book that highlights the additional, invisible burden professional women are expected to bear at work, challenges them to learn to say no, and calls on managers to rethink who does what. 

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In February 2010 Laurie Weingart, sat down with three friends Brenda Peyser, Lise Vesterlund and Linda Babcock, to try to figure out why their schedules were always so much more cramped than their male counterparts.

Over the following decade, the researchers studied the inner workings of individual organisations and conducted experiments to find out the true scale of how much invisible labour women are taking on at work – and why. They found that in one large consultancy firm, women were spending on average 200 more hours per year on dead-end tasks. That’s an entire month of work. 

Their findings have recently been published in The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work.

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“As we’re rethinking work and where we work from, we should also be rethinking work in terms of what we’re doing, and who’s doing it,” co-author Laurie Weingart tells The Big Issue.

Here’s what you need to know about office housework and other dead-end work.

Laurie Weingart, Linda Babcock, Lise Vesterlund and Brenda Peyser, authors of “The No Club: How to Free Women from Dead-End Work”. Image: Sally Maxson

What are office housework and non-promotable tasks?

Consider all the tasks you do each day at work, how many aren’t actually part of your job description? Those bits and bobs that keep everything running smoothly, but go largely unnoticed and taken for granted are essentially “office housework.” 

Think of it this way –  has anyone ever been promoted for doing a really great job organising a meeting? Or successfully negotiated a raise by highlighting that they refilled the coffee canisters? 

These are “what we think of as housekeeping,” explains Weingart, but the problem of invisible work runs much deeper than disproportionately doing the coffee run. There are dead-end jobs to be done in all industries, not just those that occupy office space, which is why the authors of The No Club wanted to expand their research to all tasks that “do not advance an individual’s career”. 

These are designated “non-promotable tasks” – and they found that women are doing the lions’ share. 

These are important tasks that need to be done, but those tasks aren’t assigned to an individual as part of their job. Rather they’re left to be doled out, or volunteered for, and here-in lies the problem. 

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Why is sexism to blame?

First off, women are more likely to be asked to take on a non-promotable task, primarily because they’re more likely to be asked. The researchers found that all of us, including women, are more likely to ask a female colleague to perform a non-promotable task than a man – 44 per cent more likely. 

Because women are more expected to say yes when asked, it simply seems like a better chance of getting a positive reply. Secondly, they found that women are more likely to take on invisible labour at work. Even when the researchers put out a call for volunteers to take part in their research about women’s dead-end labour, women were almost twice as likely as men to volunteer. The irony was not lost on them.

“The expectations of doing non-promotable work applies to all women,” says Weingart, but didn’t break down their findings to account for the differing experiences within that category, such as by race or physical ability. 

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But given the evidence that people of colour can face backlash for behaving assertively, they hypothesised that there are even stronger expectations for a woman of colour to agree to taking on a non-promotable task. 

As well as being more likely to agree to the task and get on with it without complaining, “there are problems with the assumption that this is work that is best done by women, and that it is costless to them,” continued Weingart. 

In the same way that thinking of a carpenter conjures up the image of a man, the authors say that non-promotable tasks are seen as “more congruent with women.” This is because we see women as more communal, more naturally supportive and helpful of others whereas men are expected to be assertive and independent.

In essence, the same sexist stereotypes that see women as more naturally suited to cooking and cleaning, are simply extended to office housekeeping and non-promotable tasks. And to add insult to injury, if a woman agrees to it, and does a good job, she’ll probably be asked to do it again. 

“We’ve already questioned the distribution of work at home. Let’s start questioning the distribution of work at work,” says Weingart. 

What managers can do to end this this sexist tradition

The first rule for managers is to stop asking for volunteers, the book says. Instead, randomly assign those tasks that no-one really wants to do by, say, drawing names out of a hat. 

Just because a woman is currently the best person at completing a task, doesn’t mean she is the only one that can, say the authors. Train new people to take over some of the non-promotable tasks that women are currently doing. 

And since non-promotable tasks are jobs that, really, no one wants to do, the authors suggest providing incentives for whoever draws the short straw. Or at least make sure that when a person does one their efforts are publicly acknowledged and rewarded, to encourage others to follow suit.

How to say no to dead-end labour at work

So women just need to start saying no to office housework and non-promotable taste, right? 

Well, kind of. The No Club began as the I Just Can’t Say No Club, set up by women who wanted to support each other refuse work when it was deemed not beneficial to their careers.

But “if you’ve always been the yes person, and then you all of a sudden start saying no, there might be a bit of a disconnect,” says Weingart. “At your job you’re in relationships with lots of people and not only do we get worried about backlash, but we also feel guilty when we say no.”

The No Club book contains a playbook for tactics on how to say no in the way least likely to cause negative reactions. These include: asking for a justification for why you have been asked, pointing out that task would take up more of your time so asking for more resources, or setting a time limit for when the task should become someone else’s responsibility. 

A good few of these ways of saying no are really ways of saying yes while saying no, and the authors are careful to advise that “saying no in the wrong way can negatively affect your relationship with the requester, as well as your reputation”.

“The occurrence of negative repercussions is real, but it’s not as bad as you think,” Weingart says somewhat reassuringly. But in essence, while women should say no more often, they will continue to face backlash for this unless there is structural change. 

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