May 27, 2014 Practice Points

Rejecting Office Housework Is Hard but Necessary

By Allison Kernisky

Saying yes to seemingly harmless, menial tasks such as ordering food for a group or taking notes during a meeting can hurt a professional woman’s career, according to University of California Hastings College of Law Professor Joan C. Williams.  In a Washington Postcolumn, “Sticking Women with the Office Housework,” Williams discusses her new book,What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know, coauthored by Rachel Dempsey. In the book, Williams and Dempsey extol women executives and lawyers to be bold and say no to the “office housework”—the administrative tasks and undervalued assignments that are disproportionately asked of them. 

In interviewing women for their book, the authors found that, even if a woman’s job description is far up the ladder from tasks such as bringing in cupcakes for a colleague’s birthday or answering phones in a conference room, they are still commonly asked. And they argue that  always agreeing to take on the office housework not only undercuts a woman’s authority but it takes time she could be using on something more valuable. The book also cautions women to be wary of the “political tightrope” they walk in deciding when and how to say no while still being regarded as a team player.

Another type of office housework that is just as undervalued, according to Williams, is when women are given committee assignments that men do not want or that are not highly rewarded by the organization. While important, women need to be diligent to ensure that their hard work in these roles is being noticed and rewarded because these are not the sorts of assignments that will necessarily lead to recognition or promotion.  In the article, Williams recognizes that getting on the right committee can be fruitful but she cites a sobering study that indicates that 70 percent of women lawyers surveyed reported having either no women or only one woman on their firms’ compensation committee. 

So how is a woman to avoid a disproportionate share of the office housework without seeming ungrateful or worse? Williams provides some examples of snappy comebacks, including one woman lawyer who responded, “I’m not sure you want someone with my hourly rate making coffee.” Her other suggestions include sitting far from the phone in a meeting, setting up a rotation so that you are only one of many people responsible for taking notes at meetings, or deflecting the question by suggesting someone else better suited to the job—a junior associate for example. Williams refers to this last tactics as “gender judo”—dodging “backlash by doing something masculine (saying no) in a feminine way (being nice and showing that you’re a good ‘team player’).” In order for women to reach the coveted positions of influence, such an approach is essential to “get women out of office housework and onto projects that really matter, both to them and their companies,” Williams says.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, "office housework"

Allison Kernisky works at Holland & Knight in Miami, Florida


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