It’s a scene that’s probably familiar to many women who work in an office: a meeting convenes and a male in the group looks to a female and says, “Hey, Jane, how about if you take meeting notes today?” Worse yet, after the meeting adjourns, the majority of the meeting participants leave the room littered with cups and food wrappers, expecting that someone (“Mommy?”) will clean up after them. This is a subtle form of discrimination in the workplace, and too often we women buy into it.
The office, just like a home, needs tending. There are countless tasks – some of them administrative, most of them tedious – that require attention if an organization is to run smoothly. Unfortunately, it’s the women in the office who often pick up the “housekeeping” issues, whether it’s cleaning up workspaces or attending to what a former colleague calls “administrivia.” Historically, women in the workforce were assigned these tasks when they were primarily limited to secretarial roles. Although many women have long ago left the steno pool behind and ascended into upper echelons of leadership these niggly administrative tasks hang on with annoying tenacity.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Professor, coined the phrase “office housework” to describe the labor intensive, yet behind-the-scenes activities that happen in a workplace. Often seen as an element of collaboration, woman still typically shoulder this burden in disproportionate numbers.
The question is, why?
Do our workplaces remain so chauvinistic that men won’t step in to help? True, there are undoubtedly still some workplaces out there stuck in the Mad Men era where discrimination in the workplace was openly accepted. Yet I think there’s also another element at play. It’s more subtle and therefore more difficult to address.
There’s a term in the relationship counseling world called “over-functioning” and it’s one reason why some women struggle with being saddled with an unreasonable amount of office housework. People are said to over-function when they assume more responsibility for a situation than is warranted. So, in our example of a meeting room left cluttered by exiting participants, a person who stays to clean up others’ litter (when it wasn’t an agreed-upon task) is over-functioning. All other meeting participants are under-functioning.
Here’s the thing about over-functioning: eventually you’ll become resentful. It’s a toxic emotion that can lead to all sorts of unhealthy behaviors. Nobody likes to feel they’re not appreciated. So whether you are being asked to do more than your fair share of literal “housekeeping” or you serve on numerous office planning committees, it’s important that you learn to set appropriate boundaries so you have time to tackle projects and tasks that provide you with more career satisfaction, and possibly future opportunities.
If you find yourself over-functioning and ready to give up the habit for good, here are three ways to help you pull back your contribution to a more balanced level:
- Enlist the support of a well-respected leader. If you don’t have a formal leadership title, it can be difficult to get the ball rolling on apportioning administrative tasks. Ask a leader to help you set boundaries for specific tasks, such as taking meeting notes and cleaning up communal office spaces. I once worked for a VP of HR who would light-heartedly remind everyone after meetings, “Your mother doesn’t work here, so please be sure to clean up after yourself.”
- Stand up for yourself. If you suspect you’ll be asked to take on administrative tasks, work proactively. Before the meeting starts, ask the meeting leader to appoint someone other than you. Often times leaders, don’t give much thought to the tasks; they want to them to get done. They might not even be aware that one person is shouldering the brunt of the job.
- Examine your behavior. Are you unwittingly contributing to being “dumped on?” Perhaps your colleagues think you don’t mind doing the housework. Or, since you haven’t spoken up and said, “I’ve done it for 4 weeks in a row. Who’s going to take over for the next month?” they figure “better her than me.” It’s not fair, but people will take advantage of someone who doesn’t speak up for herself.
When your work day is relegated to minor tasks, it’s tempting to jump on the soap box and bemoan the injustice.
INJUSTICE An opportunity to complain or take a stand.
Yes, it’s unfair (and just plain annoying) but resist the impulse. Instead, plan ahead and prepare to stand up for yourself when you’re assigned an unfair share of office housekeeping tasks. When you take this approach, you’re seen tackling a challenge in a businesslike way, which is sure to win you points down the road.