When Women’s Work Goes Undervalued

When a team leader calls a meeting, someone has to take notes. When a company hires a new employee, someone has to show them the ropes. When an executive launches a new initiative, someone has to serve on the committee.

This kind of work, termed “office housework” in a recent New York Times op-ed by Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg, is essential to running an organization. But, they argue, it often goes unnoticed and unrecognized — as do the women these tasks typically fall to.

“Women help more but benefit less from it,” Grant and Sandberg write. “We expect men to be ambitious and results-oriented, and women to be nurturing and communal … A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish.’ ”

Joyce Fletcher, a distinguished research scholar at the Simmons School of Management, has long studied the phenomenon, which she calls “relational practice.”

“Aspects of work get associated with femininity or the role of women and mothers and the domestic sphere,” Fletcher said. “They’re not seen as valuable in the workplace and yet they do add a lot to the workplace. Especially if women do them, they don’t get credit for them.”

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor at Harvard Business School and the director of the Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Initiative, compares the gender dynamic in the office with that of the domestic sphere.

“In my book, ‘Men and Women of the Corporation,’ I showed that wife-like relationships could arise in the office, with women expected to do the extra maintenance work, which is unrewarded and doesn't build careers,” Kanter said. “The ‘extra’ work that can build power and influence involves bringing new resources, relationships or respect from the outside world — like getting customers, serving on an important board. This often is harder for women because it takes time beyond the work day.” 

Though Fletcher said office culture has changed since she first wrote about this dynamic 17 years ago, with a shifting focus toward emotional intelligence and increasing value placed on teamwork, the idea of office housework “unfortunately still does resonate with people.”

“That hasn’t been the kind of behavior that has been rewarded in the workplace or is behavior that will get you promoted or will get you ahead,” Fletcher said.

This problem of undervalued work often lies in the way “office housework” is perceived.

“This kind of behavior, even when it’s done because it’s good for the work, gets misunderstood,” Fletcher said. “The motives for doing it is seen as they want to be liked or they want to be seen as good as opposed to they’re doing it for the sake of the work.”

The language women use to describe helpful work they contribute outside of their actual job description as well as the association of this type of work with femininity also contribute to the “disappearing” of their contributions, Fletcher added.

“If a woman helps someone or takes time out of her day to teach someone a new skill or bring them up to speed or fill them in on what happened at a team meeting, the reaction is she’s a nurturer; she’s just mothering, she likes to do this,” Fletcher said.

On the other hand, Fletcher said, if a woman refuses to complete “office housework,” she is seen as cold or unhelpful.

“The woman is really caught in a double bind,” Fletcher says. “If she is relational than her work gets disappeared and not valued. If she’s not hyper-relational, then she’s seen as bossy or too pushy.”

Fletcher said the best solution is to ensure that this type of work is recognized for the essential contribution that it really is. Discussing contributions — both your own and those you’ve seen from others — in terms of how they benefit the work itself as opposed to just being “nice” or “helpful” can help create a culture where relational work is truly valued. Fletcher also recommends that women negotiate when taking on extra tasks and ask for recognition up-front.

“A lot of women are asked to take on tasks that are valuable like teaching a class or working on a committee,” Fletcher said. “They end up filling up a lot of their time with these being on committees or mentoring and doing a lot of things that are valuable to the organization. So they can negotiate the terms of that and make sure that when they do it, they’re getting compensated for it or that there’s a recognition of the monetary value that they’re adding to the business.”

Though it is important to ensure, as Sandberg and Grant argue, that it is not just women who are responsible for “office housework,” Fletcher said it is even more important that the work itself is valued, regardless of who does it.

“For both men and women, this work, if it were valued, our workplaces would be not only better but more effective places to work,” Fletcher said.