Replacing coffee filters, taking meeting notes, drafting agendas or arranging chairs for a meeting – all of these are considered crucial to ensure a productive workplace. But this workplace “domestic” labour tends to fall to the women, most often women of colour.
Women are often given on-the-spot requests to quickly do a menial task, whereas their male colleagues are left to do what they’re being paid to do.
Many women of colour are being tasked with this unpaid support work outside of their job description and fearing repercussions if they refuse office housework requests. This is one of the ways in which the stereotypes of women of colour in the workplace are being reinforced.
This article discusses the impact of office housework on women of colour, including how it affects office dynamics, promotion potential and how women of colour are perceived. It also provides actionable suggestions on how allies of women of color can stand up to this dynamic and change the expectation that women of colour perform these duties that – despite playing an important role in driving the business day-to-day forward – aren’t recognized, valued, or compensated for.
Office housework and inequality
Have you ever been asked to take minutes, clear the whiteboard, brew the coffee before a meeting, find out why someone is late for work or plan a team-building or celebratory event?
If you’re a woman in an office setting, odds are these responsibilities landed on your shoulders and not those of your male colleagues.
There’s an obvious inequality in workplaces around who the non-revenue generating tasks fall to.
And while these workplace chores are considered to not directly generate any revenue, they’re still important – albeit indirectly – to the success of the company. Nevertheless, these tasks remain burdensome and disproportionately fall onto the shoulders of women of colour in the office.
While women of colour may be asked to be present in a meeting for a very important project, they are – more often than their male or white female colleagues – tasked with taking notes and scheduling follow-up meetings.
This inequality stems from stereotypes and implicit bias around the sorts of functions women are “better” at serving, as well as how women are perceived in office settings. It’s having a significant impact on the careers of women of colour who are struggling to get promoted despite working as hard as their white female and male peers and going above and beyond with unpaid support tasks as well.
Gender, race and impact on promotion
When unpaid service work is delegated to women of colour, they are kept from the work they have been appointed to do. This could impact their deadlines, which reflects badly in performance reviews.
Further, when women of colour are seen doing office housework, it reinforces stereotypes that they are “meant to be” or “better suited to” doing the office housework.
Someone who’s focused on taking notes won’t be keeping up with the ongoing conversation. This means their input into what is being said will be minimal, which others may perceive as not being as valuable to the company
This places women of colour at a distinct disadvantage. However, power dynamics are such that saying “no” might feel impossible. So, saying “yes” has the additional effect of creating an ongoing expectation. Leaders or colleagues might start to expect these women to perform the office housework, and will continue to administer these tasks to the women who repeatedly agree to do them.
Once this image has been created, the odds of promotion are slim. Male colleagues in the same role who aren’t doing unpaid work but rather focusing on their assignments are more likely to get a raise.
A Women in the Workplace report from 2021 found that women of colour continue to be underrepresented in management and leadership positions. Only 4% of executive-level managers are women of colour.
Although the systemic biases and inequities that inhibit women of colour from achieving their full potential are to blame for these low leadership rates in Black women and other women of colour, women who are asked to do low-level tasks cannot adequately show their leadership abilities.
Whereas many women are aware of the glass ceiling, women of colour face what has become known as the concrete ceiling – impenetrable and with no chance of breaking through. According to a Women of Colour in the Workplace Report (2021), this concrete ceiling offers no glimpse of advancement or hope for growth opportunities.
So, why can’t women just say no? Women are perceived as being difficult or emotional when refusing to do office housework, whereas men are often rewarded and thanked for doing the same tasks.
Perceptions of women of colour in the workplace
When unpaid tasks and invisible labour falls to women of colour, it reinforces the race and gender stereotypes and biases that few people are conscious of holding, but that nevertheless influence work and decision-making, in addition to attitudes and behaviours in the workplace.
Once these stereotypes of women of colour have been accepted, the odds of these women climbing the corporate ladder are slim.
Take, for example, the backlash that Black women face when they voice their opinion in a way that is perceived as aggressive; they face the unfavourable stereotype of the “angry Black woman”. Should a Black woman refuse to take on unpaid support work, she risks triggering and reinforcing this stereotype.
Similar stereotypes are often applied to other women of colour as well, and impact the perception of them in the workplace. This includes examples of Latina women being mistaken by clients for the secretary when she’s a manager, or East Asian women being perceived as “less warm” than their white female counterparts because of cultural stereotypes.
By staying quiet and continuing to do non-promotable work, these women are often reducing their odds of advancing in the company and being adequately compensated for the extra work they are doing around the office.
Office housework and office dynamics
Unless unpaid workplace labour is equitably distributed across individuals and groups, it runs the risk of continuously falling to women of colour, and as a result, the entire culture in the workplace risks shifting toward a norm of a disproportionate burden being placed on people and groups who already experience inequitable barriers to advancement in the workplace. From inequitable task assignment to inequitable compensation… the road is a slippery cultural slope.
The 2021 Women in the Workplace report indicated that during and after the pandemic, like so many inequities that were exacerbated, even more of these tasks have fallen to women. Many of their male colleagues are no longer asking women of colour to take on these tasks but rather expect it of them, which has significantly shifted workplace dynamics and sometimes results in micro-aggressions towards women of colour, not to mention the risk of burning out is higher thanks to the increased workload.
How can allies ensure women of colour aren’t disproportionately burdened by office housework?
It’s time to take a look around and see who is responsible for doing the unpaid support work in the office.
Allies in the workplace can assist to disrupt the norm and the expectations placed on women of colour in the following ways:
1. Rotate tasks
Allies that are part of ongoing meetings should recommend that chores and tasks be rotated amongst the staff. This includes taking turns to take meeting notes, time-keeping or preparing the meeting room.
2. Delegate work amongst the entire team
Team leaders should delegate the tasks and spread them among the team.
If one person is always stuck doing administrative tasks such as scheduling meetings, assign that to someone else. Give the first person the responsibility to lead mentoring activities.
3. Find ways to reward or compensate
As a team, list the “office housework tasks”. Perform a sort of stocktake.
How can these be rewarded, recognized, or compensated? Do KPIs include a measure of “team service” or “workplace labour”?
Work with your team to find creative and effective ways to evenly and equitably distribute the burden.
4. Never assume someone likes doing office housework
If one of your female colleagues continues to volunteer to do or say yes to office housework requests, don’t assume it’s because they enjoy doing these tasks.
The odds are that they fear the repercussions of saying no.
5. Men need to step up
Male allies need to volunteer to do their part and step in when it comes to office housework tasks. Next time a meeting needs to be scheduled, take the lead and get the job done before a Black woman gets asked to do the job.
Should women say “no” to office work?
Women have the right to say no to anything, including office work; however, it shouldn’t be up to them to say no. Solving the uneven distribution of office housework can be mitigated with the help of allies. For example, allies can help by volunteering to take the burden of office work and supporting their decisions when they say no.
Non-essential work continues to fall to women of colour, and these tasks not only change the office dynamic and enforce stereotypes but can also impact the chances of a Black woman getting promoted.
Allies in leadership positions can play a supporting role in breaking norms and assisting women of colour to achieve their potential by delegating work equally among the staff.
Race and gender equality in the workplace will be achieved when everyone has access to equal opportunities, rewards and resources, no matter their race or gender.