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Who is doing the office housework?

Updated: May 23, 2023

Office Housework: Work predominantly done by women that contributes to the business but isn’t formally recognized in performance reviews, typically does not lead to advancement, and isn’t usually compensated. Image courtesy Getty.




"I do more administrative work compared to my male peers.”


This quote is a classic among our Nordic female clients at Female Leadership. Without any hesitation we hear this answer over and over again, when we ask our female clients directly.


“Are you performing more administrative work compared to your male peers?” Women do more office housework, and these administrative tasks are appreciated but do not pay off according to Harvard Professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s observations. We can unfortunately only echo that, office housework is often invisible or taken for granted and is one of the hidden barriers for women. Being Ms. Fixer can become harmful for women’s career progression and is not sustainable for themselves, the team or organization. Always volunteering to help others comes with a cost of missed opportunities. Men are more likely to contribute with visible behaviors like showing up at optional meetings while women engage more privately in time-consuming activities like helping others with their work, volunteer for extra task, and coaching colleagues. According to Simmons College Management professor, Joyce K. Fletcher, women's communal contributions tend simply to "disappear". When men happen to perform office housework it is more likely to be regarded as altruistic of them to go out of their way to help by performing a function that is considered a natural duty of their female peers. Gender stereotypes, are still part of most organizations' culture where we expect men to be ambitious and results-oriented, and women to be nurturing and communal and not "too ambitious". Women are conditioned to be helpers from childhood, and therefore often experience an internal sense of pleasure when they can help others. Men are conditioned to be celebrated when they help and expect praise in return for helping. According to New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman’s research that evaluated the performance of male and female employees who did or did not stay late to help colleagues prepare for an important meeting. For staying late and helping, a man was rated 14 percent more favorably than a woman. When both declined, a woman was rated 12 percent lower than a man. After giving identical help, a man was significantly more likely to be recommended for promotions, important projects, raises and bonuses. A woman had to help just to get the same rating as a man who didn’t help. Women are held to a different standard of likability and experience double standards that act like a glass ceiling. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton professor Adam Grant noted in a New York Times article, “When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers,” “But when a man says no, he faces no backlash. A man who doesn’t help is “busy”; a woman is “selfish". Can women be powerful and likable at the same time? A study carried out by the Norwegian think tank Agenda and the Oslo School of Management document that women are held to a different standard than male executives. Students were asked to read two identical stories, where the only difference was the gender of the main character. In one of the world's most equal countries, respondents ranked the female person much lower on likability and "good-leader" scores. Similar study has been executed by Harvard University with the same results. We want to have more women in leadership and board positions. But women are more likely to be asked or expected to perform administrative work that is unseen and unrewarded and not leading to bonuses, promotions, or a helpful network. However, it is still beneficial to the company. It is vital that sponsors, mentors, and leaders are aware of this bias trap and help women set healthy boundaries before burn-out, resignation or misses out on a promotion. Be aware that research suggests that both sexes are more likely to ask women to volunteer for office housework. Be an ally and stop asking only women to help with admin work. Call it out. Allocate the admin work deliberately or volunteer yourself. If you notice that one female colleague is regularly or repeatedly asked to execute the same admin work, speak up or say you’ll do it this time. This is a fundamental step that leadership needs to be aware of and work deliberately towards in the creation of an equal workplace for all. It begins at the top. Break the bias. Women leaders on manager level are more likely to support wellbeing, diversity, equity, and inclusion than men. All qualities we expect are capabilities of leaders today and are seen as vital for companies that want to be a leading employer for especially the new generations. The research Women in the Workplace 2021 report, by McKinsey & Company and the women’s campaign group LeanIn.Org, document that women are more likely to provide emotional support, checking in on overall well-being, navigating work/life challenges and helping with actions towards burnouts. However, many companies do still not formally recognize actions within these areas as vital even though many of them now accept the need to focus on the exact same areas to attract and retain their people. It is not enough to post glossy employer branding images of a culture that act accordingly with especially Millennial and Gen Z’s expectations. This window dressing strategy can soon become an achilles heel. Employer branding campaigns must be embedded in the company culture and live up to the fair expectations for the people who choose to invest their time and apply their capabilities to make a difference for the company. We all need to own our career and claim our results. Don’t wait and assume that after some years of work it will finally be your turn to be promoted. It is vital that women make a conscious choice to own not only their career but also their work, collaborations, and results, and make sure that office housework is a deliberate choice which value is appreciated. Don’t just volunteer and expect that it will lead you anywhere. Look at your male peers, how much more are you doing compared to them? Be critical and don’t assume. Be aware that getting coffee, baking cakes and planning office parties and events are more regarded as a personal investment. It will probably increase your likeability but not secure important projects that will lead to promotion. Women tend to adhere more to the rules and underestimate their own capabilities, skills, talents and results. When we ask, “why did you deliver a great job?” Men will tend to say internal factors like ”I am fantastic, brilliant etc.” Women will tend to mention external factors like ”Because I was lucky, somebody helped me, I worked really hard etc.” Own your work and claim your success. No one gets the promotion if they don't understand their own results and women are not promoted just because they are women. Don’t assume. Ending gender bias at work begins with a fair share of the office housework. We know that the only right thing to do is to foster a workplace culture that promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is not only the right thing to do, but also good for business, creativity, and innovation, attracting and retaining talent. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the effect of the unseen and unrewarded office housework is even worse for non-white women. Many men believe that there is a bias against male leadership and male promotions. But men still hold the leadership positions in most organizations. Equal opportunities, diversity and inclusion lead to better performance and will be more productive. It is not a zero-number game. We all have an interest in having more women in leadership and board position. We know that representation matters - be an ally. From unconscious bias to conscious inclusion. Female Leadership, coach leaders to become authentic inclusive leaders who help people flourish and create followship. We elevate leaders to be courageous and be the positive change of kindness and hope. Being even better at influencing and making an impactful difference. Creating sustainable transformation aligned with their strengths. Lead with a growth mindset attitude who includes others and focuses on wellbeing.


Written by Charlotte Søndergaard the 8 of March 2022



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