Episode 125: Saying No to Office Housework

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…ever been asked to do a bit of office housework?

“There was a time when I was asked to order lunch and I just said, I’d rather John ordered lunch as I’m already in charge of meals at home.”

Great comeback. But it’s not always easy to push back on those requests.  

Coming up…why women and particularly women of color end up doing so much extra-curricular work, and what we can do about it.

Ruchika Tulshyan lives in Seattle, one of several cities she’s lived in over the years.

“I was born and brought up in Singapore, and I identify as a Singaporean. My parents were immigrants from India so you know, I speak the language, I also identify as Indian.”

She went to university in the UK, spent a little time working in India and Singapore, and later moved to the US. She’s in her early 30s, married with a little boy. She’s a journalist and a professor, and an author – her book is called The Diversity Advantage – Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace.

And over the years Ruchika has found herself involved in tasks at work that aren’t strictly speaking anything to do with what she was hired for. They’re more administrative tasks, extra stuff she’s been asked to take on to help out, to make sure things run properly. And you might say well look, who doesn’t end up doing stuff at work that isn’t in their job description? It’s called mucking in, everyone does it.

Well, maybe not everyone.

Ruchika recently wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review called Women of Color Get Asked to Do More Office Housework. Here’s How They Can Say No. I asked her when she first noticed these requests.

“Where I really started feeling it was when I was a woman in technology, where I was asked to do some things that were not at all part of my job description. I was hired as a content strategist, as a manager, and within the first week of my job there was this big conference the organization was putting on, and I was expected to be there, to help set up, and tear everything down, and be part of everything. It was sold as ‘all hands on deck,’ but I couldn’t help thinking all the people doing the all hands on deck work were largely women.”

Ruchika’s experience is borne out by research.

Joan Williams is a big name in the women and work space – she’s a professor at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Her research has shown that women and people of color (both sexes) are more likely to do these kinds of unsung but necessary tasks than anyone else. They also report having less access than white men to top assignments.

People expect women to be helpful and focused on others – they also, according to Williams, expect women to say ‘yes’ to this stuff more than men. Which we often do because we don’t want to be labeled difficult. And all sorts of racial stereotypes can play in here too.

Ruchika says she wanted to write her article because when we talk about women and work we don’t distinguish enough between the experiences of women of color and white women.

“Even in other work that I’ve done, so when I’ve interviewed Asian women or Asian American women, they’re expected to defer and be submissive and always say yes, and do all the hard work but not really have leadership capabilities. And I’ve had women tell me this and show me performance review examples where these sorts of words and this sort of terminology was used. And I’ve had multiple African-American women over the years who’ve told me instances of being called angry black women or being perceived in that way, or receiving feedback that would call them aggressive, or difficult to work with. So just talking to women of color about the stereotypes that exist beyond being women, I think that’s an extra layer we don’t see nearly enough being written about, being talked about.”

AM-T: “What would you say are some of the most common examples of this office housework? I mean the one I think about most often is the being in a meeting and being asked to order lunch.”

“Oh, definitely. So I’m also interested in breaking down the stereotype of what office housework is. So yes, there are typical, common examples such as being asked and expected to order lunch or load the dishwasher or do a little cleanup after a meeting, rearrange the chairs or whatever it is. So there’s actual, physical office housework you can equate to housework you’d do at home. But there’s office housework that goes beyond that and that’s why sometimes…after this article I got a lot of feedback from men and women saying no, I’ve never been asked to order lunch, or a man would say, well I’ve never witnessed a woman being asked to order lunch. And I think the dynamics at every organization are very different. So in academia, which is a path I’m increasingly familiar with, it depends on the institution but it’ll be rare that a female professor of color will be asked to load the dishwasher or order lunch. But where you really see it play out is sitting on academic committees which do not lead to promotion. Which would not lead to tenure track.”

There’s research in this area too. A study by two female academics showed that women professors do more work on committees than male professors do, but they do less research – and new research in your area of study, that’s what can turn a professor into a star. So the men are doing more of the work that can boost their academic careers.  

The women are doing more of the every day stuff.

 “This is the work the organization needs to keep chugging along. So I want to clarify that office housework, yes it equates to tasks you could equate with housework you could do at home, but also to tasks you wouldn’t equate to actual housework. So mentoring for hours a week but never having that reflected in a performance review or never having that be considered when it comes to time for promotion. And women are disproportionately expected to do the heavy lifting when it comes to this kind of work.”

AM-T: “So what can people do about it? How can you elegantly refuse a request or sort of push back an assumption that you’re gonna be the person to do whatever it is?”

“Yeah, so one thing I really wanted to put out there right away, is that I don’t at all think it’s the woman and woman of color’s job to figure this one out. It’s always tricky and that’s why I wrote my book in the first place, I think a lot of the existing literature, including things like Lean In, focus on expecting and asking women to change their behavior, so negotiating better, leaning in, etc. and I think a lot of the way we’ll really see changes that are quantifiable and that will change the way organizations operate is when people in leadership positions, who are overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly and white, turn around and say, this is a problem, and here's how I’m going to change it.”

Obviously that would be great. And I’m going to post an article by Joan Williams that has recommendations for managers and executives on just this topic, under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com But in the meantime there are some tools at your disposal.

“Having a very, very strong refusal in place and saying…I was hired to do this and I don’t think that’s gonna be helpful, or it’s going to take time away from the work that is really important to this organization. Collecting data, right…so evidence of what you’re asked to do, what does office housework really look like?”

In her piece she talks about a woman who keeps a list of all the revenue-generating tasks she’s responsible for as well as all the other, non-revenue generating expectations that are put on her. She also created lists for the men at her same level at her company, and took them to her boss. That made it easier for her say, look, I’m already doing X and Y…those are important to the organization…I don’t have time to take on zee. Or even zed.

“By the way not only was that really useful for that. But I see men do this more often than women. Is make a list of all the work you actually are doing. I learned this from working in tech. I had a male boss who was extremely supportive, and he would ask me on a regular basis to list of the work I was doing, positive, revenue generating work too. And I got into the habit from that role where every couple of weeks I’d sit down and list…here’s what I was able to do, to accomplish. So I think that’s super important anyway, any time you’re making a case, for promotion or whatever it is, that then gives you that leg up when you’re being asked to do those things that are not necessarily relevant to those amazing, glamourous things you are responsible for that you are achieving.”

Or even the unglamorous things that are still a big, important part of your job. Also, if you’re racking up office housework tasks, Ruchika says start keeping a record of how often it happens. It’s much harder for a manager to think of you as petty or difficult for declining to take notes at a meeting IF you have a record of the number of meetings you’ve already taken notes at. That’s his or her opportunity to set up a rotation for taking the meeting minutes.

AMT: “Just going back to the first point you made, and saying look, I was hired to do X, and I can’t do Y… I can’t imagine saying that and I’m in my 40s, I think it’s really tricky, it’s a fine line, a difficult communication, it’s going to depend on the person you’re speaking to, and what your relationship with them. Unfortunately, women do have to soften things…and just baldly stating, I was hired to do this…I can’t do that…I can see that not working for a lot of people…especially in certain countries.”

“Yeah absolutely, and for me, personally, depending on the situation, certainly earlier in my career I couldn’t go up to someone and say I was hired to do this, and it would take time away from that. But what I’ve found to work for me, and bear in mind I was born and brought up outside the United States, so being here in the US and the very sort of open culture and where the direct in many ways culture is new to me. I grew up in Asia, which is very different and where hierarchy by both age and gender really exists. So in the past what I’ve used here in the US to really good success has been, ‘I’m working on this very important project and I am worried I won’t have the bandwidth to be helpful for this situation.’”

So turn it around and in womanly fashion make it about your concern for the project. She says the way you push back has to be authentic to you, and this way feels very her.

“I do speak in a way that’s a little more, um, ‘I’m worried this won’t work out’ or ‘I’m not sure that’s right for me’. And that’s just authentically who I am. And I’m sure we could have a whole different episode about how women are perceived when we speak, but that seemed to work for me.”

So for another view, here’s Jen Yip…she’s been on the show before, in episode 57, Women, Work, and Stress. And she responded to a post about this topic on the Facebook page…she left me a voice memo afterwards talking about how she came to handle these requests. She says she got this a lot earlier in her career in tech. Then she started thinking of ways to push back.

“It required finesse and increasing confidence over time. I did not want to be tagged difficult or not a team player.

Prime examples were…ordering lunch, scheduling meetings, booking conference rooms, sending out meeting recap notes even if they were not my meetings. Often as the only woman in the room or on the phone I was asked to do these things. It was like reverse conditioning to break the assumption and habits.

My go to response—this would be best handled by ‘insert name here’ who owns this project or meeting or agenda. If they need support, insert appropriate resource here, can probably assist.

 I realized saying this unapologetically and in a way that is not asking for permission was critically important. Being affirmative made a big difference in not only delivering the message but also setting perception. There was rarely a second or third instance where I was assumed or asked to take on administrative chores.”

OK so that method worked for Jen – though as she points out, it took some years to feel comfortable saying that stuff.

But of course there are other options. Ruchika says she’s not exactly Ms. Humourous in her daily life, but if humor’s your thing, it can be a great way of deflecting expectations.

“There was a time when I was asked to order lunch and I just said, I’d rather John ordered lunch as I’m already in charge of meals at home. And sort of shrugging it off, laughing it off.”

Humor also tends to puncture any tension and it keeps everyone on side.

“I know humor in somewhere like the UK or Australia and a few other countries would really resonate well and would probably be seen in a very positive way. In the US from my observation I think it’s very industry and organization specific.”

I agree. And humor in email in America? Sarcastic Brits, Irish and Aussies should stay away unless you know the person well.

Ruchika says it may seem obvious, but you might just want to confer with a bunch of colleagues.

“In those situations having a sort of board of directors, allies, who you can turn to and say, what do you think, how can I respond to this? I mean some of the women I interviewed literally talked about having these conversations with women and getting feedback. I mean we need to understand how egregious and widespread this problem is. It’s ridiculous to me that women have to go the extra mile to cultivate a network to practice saying no and yet when I mention this and when I wrote the article for Forbes years ago, and now when I mention it, women immediately say, ‘that’s a great idea, I think I’m gonna do that.’ So if we’re talking about gender inequity there are the large, huge issues, like pay inequity, difficulty to get promoted, etc. but a lot of these seemingly innocuous discrimination and things that happen, I think that’s also very much to blame. And we don’t talk about these issues nearly enough.”

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you about how you handle any expectations to take on work that doesn’t lead to glory and may keep you away from the stuff that would get you promoted. Particularly if you’re a woman of colour.

Send me a voice memo so I can include you and your tips in an upcoming show – or you can email me or tweet me post on the Facebook page. I love including listeners in the show.

Thanks to Ruchika Tulshyan for being my guest on this show. I will post show notes and a transcript under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.