Women are often tasked with the unrecognised roles that keep an office running smoothly. But is it holding back their success, asks Matt Chittock
Making coffee for visiting clients. Taking notes at the weekly planning meeting. Buying Friday treats to keep morale up after a hard week. These are just a few examples of “office housework” – the apparently menial tasks which nevertheless hold the fabric of office life together.
As pioneering CEO and author of Lean In Sheryl Sandberg points out, these jobs help businesses run smoothly, but don’t usually carry any particular kudos. And, shockingly, in most offices they’re often done almost exclusively by women.
Sandberg highlights the work of Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, who’s outlined how women now do the lion’s share of office housework. This is a serious issue, since not only is the contribution women make through office housework not properly recognised, jobs like getting the coffee also prevent them from making a more valued contribution.
Or as Sandberg puts it, a woman busy taking minutes in a meeting isn’t going to be able to make the killer point which puts her in the spotlight and moves the business forward. Dr. Sandi Mann, senior lecturer at the School of Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, says that this situation is a reflection of the way gender roles are set up in the home.
“I think it’s simply socialization,” she says. “So, you’ve got a situation where men and women do this in their home lives. For all the equality, women still take on most of the housekeeping roles at home. If you’ve got children it’s often left to the mother to be responsible for the housekeeping and organising dentist appointments, and probably taking the kids to them – all that kind of stuff.”
Mann acknowledges that in some homes women and men are becoming more equal. Yet, at work most people’s attitudes haven’t caught up with this evolution. “This is damaging because taking on office housework is recognised subconsciously as a kind of subservient thing to do,” says Mann. “It reinforces the view that you are in a subservient, helpful role and don’t ‘put yourself out there’”.
“It’s something that women are so used to doing and men are so used to having women do that it’s just carrying on without people really thinking about it.”
The existence of this bias is borne out by a study Sandberg cites, led by the New York University psychologist, Madeline Heilman. She analysed how male and female employees were perceived by others when choosing whether to stay late and help a colleague prepare for a big meeting.
She found that a man staying late was rated 14% more favourably than a woman. What’s more, when female employees declined to help, they were rated 12% less favourably than a man making the same decision. The assumption seems to be that men command more respect for supporting others in a task which won’t directly benefit them, while women are simply expected to stop everything and help.
Mann sees another parallel between home and the office here too. “If my husband produces a lasagne it’s as if he’s found a cure for cancer!” she laughs.
“And it can be similar if a man’s in the school playground collecting kids. Women are expected to do these things – but sometimes when men do them it’s like they’re an all-conquering hero.”
Finding a balance
So how can businesses start to re-balance? As Sandberg points out, rotas are a great start. Allocating jobs for people each week not only acknowledges that these jobs exist – it also ensures that it’s not just women that do them. “Most places have rotas for chairing meetings and things like that – so why not do the same for housekeeping matters?” says Mann. “It doesn’t need to be a feminist thing – it could be a fairness thing too. There are always people in an office who are volunteering and there are always people who aren’t – so we’ve got to rotate these jobs.”
But the first step to solving the problem is admitting there’s a problem there in the first place. It’s all too easy for managers to ignore the situation as long as all the work gets done. And yet the status quo benefits nobody – while women get frustrated at their lack of recognition the business misses out on their higher-level input. “If we don’t think about it, we don’t challenge it,” says Mann. “Women need to challenge it and men need to challenge it. That’s the only way it’s going to become more equal in future."