Who Does the Office Housework?
Mastery, Executive Function, and Disruption of Workplace Bias
This is the third in a series of four articles about taking steps to build audacity. Read my first article, The Unfiltered Life, in which I describe how women of color filter out their difference in unsafe company cultures, and my second article, Six Tenants of a Safe Company Culture.
Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s senate testimony on September 28 was such a clear display of a professional woman’s mastery and executive function. You could see it through her obvious stress and anxiety of having to speak about her sexual assault. Even as she recounted how supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her, she demonstrated incredible control and command of not only her story but of her expertise in psychology.
I commend Dr. Ford for her testimony. It was a public glimpse into how professional women’s mastery and executive function are put to the test every day. Let me explain the complicated parallels between professional women everywhere and Dr. Ford.
Mastery is the Price of Our Ticket into the Corporate World
Like filtering, mastery and high executive function are a double-edged sword for professional women. While both can get you where you are today, they can also threaten to hold you back if you’re not careful and aware.
Mastery is our default position. It’s just how professional women, especially professional women of color, show up. We would never dream of functioning at any other level, even though we watch others do so with entitlement and confidence.
Back to our example, we saw Dr. Ford appear prepared and willing to engage in the hearing process. Judge Kavanaugh, on the other hand, whose judicial experience and expertise should have blown away any hiring committee, gave a mediocre and largely unprofessional performance. One that no one without his set of privileges could have gotten away with.
This is the truth about women in the corporate world: we master our fields and our management skills beyond expectations, yet it doesn’t buy us any more credibility than men get for just showing up.
Your Sphere of Mastery is not Office Housework
A Harvard study defines office housework as tasks that are “time-consuming, unlikely to drive revenue, and probably won’t be recognized or included in your performance evaluation.” The study continues, “If [women] are disproportionately saddled with work that has little visibility or impact, it will take them much longer to advance in their careers.”
Women do take on (or are given) more of this unrewarded work. I get why we say yes, and I have done it myself. We want to contribute. We want to make a positive impact. And yes, we succumb to the pressure to maintain our credibility and legitimacy by performing tasks that don’t offer reward, recognition, advancement, or opportunities—let alone any extra time to get them done.
Often, I see women take on the office charity drive, holiday party, team retreat, meeting minutes, intern training, or filling in for an absent colleague simply because they’re organized, responsive, detailed, meticulous, and savvy. Because they can get it done. Because others ask them. And, the kicker: because no one else wants to do it.
Let me clearly say that I’m not against contributing to a healthy company culture. I’m not against holiday parties or charity drives. But we all know that if men were called upon equally in these arenas, I wouldn’t be writing this.
Just Because You’re Good at it Doesn’t Mean You Should Do It
Like you, I’m good at a number of different things, including it turns out, cleaning the bathroom. When our home cleaning service recently cancelled unexpectedly, I scoured our bathroom myself before my mother-in-law arrived. I did such a good job my husband questioned whether we actually need a cleaning service. For me, however, it’s not a question.
The analogy I’m trying to draw here is that all too often professional women’s capacity for a certain task gets equated with her responsibility for it. We take on this responsibility regardless of whether it advances our career trajectory, is a good use of our talents, or is something we actually want to do.
At some point in our career, we must realize that just because we’re good at something doesn’t mean we have any business taking on that work. We must decide to focus our energy on what we want and what truly matters.
You’re Too Distracted to See Real Opportunities
The effects of office housework on women’s careers are real. When women with high executive function get distracted or bogged down by unrewarded work, it undermines their capacity to excel in areas that matters, stealing time that should be spent developing expertise or crucial skills, and ultimately stagnating their careers.
Mastery and executive function are what you need to leverage to be more audacious in your career—to seize opportunities, to make bold moves. If your time is continuously diluted by office housework, you will not be able to see opportunities right in front of you—the ones that will truly use your expertise to build a meaningful career.
And missed opportunities are not just one-time losses. Those hits you take in advancement or earning potential compound over time and grow more difficult to surmount.
Your task right now is to hone and leverage your expertise in what matters and strip away what clutters your time.
Saying No Can Be Risky
The pressure and expectations of traditional gender roles means that women face more risks in saying no. You may worry about not looking like a team player, or about the overt and hidden consequences of declining. Women are much more often the first ones looked to or asked to do office housework. So, if we say no, we feel guilty for pushing the work onto others, even though it wasn’t our sole responsibility in the first place.
And consider this. The risk of saying no is real, but the risk of saying yes to extraneous work is just as jeopardizing. When you take up work that no one else—especially men—wants to perform, you are seen as less than. And you will continue to be taken advantage of.
If you’re going to take a risk, why not take it in the direction that refuses unequal status and unfair division of work?
So, Say Yes Instead
As a practical career strategy, you can reframe saying no into saying yes.
Here’s what I mean: Saying no to unreasonable unrewarded work can be a way for you to assert the value of the work you’re already doing. You can’t run the canned food drive this year because you have brought on three new clients that need your attention. You can’t keep track of office birthdays because you’re engaging a new international partner.
What you can do is say yes to more resources for your work, which directly impacts profitability. And you never have to apologize for profitability, for doing your job, for saving space for your opportunities and passion.
Embrace Your Refusal as a Necessary Disruption
Disruption is recognizing a bias as it’s happening and not allowing it to stand. This article is about your ability to disrupt the assumption that you’ll be the work housewife. Saying no is one form of disruption and simply not volunteering is another.
In my next article, I’ll dig deeper into this and many other forms of necessary bias disruption in the workplace. I’ll show you how disruption is the key to moving past disenfranchisement, and what to do after disruption.
Stay tuned for the fourth and final part of this series. Your audacious career is asking you to stop filtering, demand a safe corporate culture, disrupt bias, reconcile, and lead.
Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity.