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Office Housework
Women of Color Are Asked to Do More Office Housework Than Anyone Else — And It Hurts Their Careers
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AnnaMarie Houlis
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The office mom: She's expected to do so much more than is delineated in her job description. She's supposed to buy coffee for the team. To manage everyone else's schedules. To plan the coworker get togethers. To do all the "motherly" tasks that seem both subtle and simple but, in reality, detract from her actual job responsibilities. She does it all and then some — and for far less money than her male equals.

She's usually an older woman, sometimes even a senior executive. And new research says that she's often also a woman of color, too. 

Research from the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law suggests that people of color often wind up with worse assignments than their white male counterparts and other white women, which hinders their ability to be promoted. Because, you know, they're busy doing everyone else's work. 

Office housework isn't just an unfair time drain. It also keeps women of color from doing higher-impact work.

Often, office housework is the busy work no one else can be bothered to do. The researchers for this study, Joan Williams and Marina Multhaup, define it as everything from “administrative work that keeps things moving forward, like taking notes or finding a time everyone can meet” to “work that’s important but undervalued, like initiating new processes or keeping track of contracts.” Generally, it's work that is “usually not tied to revenue goals, so [these efforts] are far less likely to result in a promotion than, say, chairing an innovation or digital transformation committee.”

For example, a study of academia, by Cassandra Guarino of UC Riverside and Victor Borden of Indiana University, found that female professors do more committee service work and less research than male professors do; while committee work is indeed important work, no one gets tenure for it.

This new research focused on the fields of engineering and law, and Williams and Multhaup developed a tool, called the Workplace Experiences Survey, to test for racial and gender bias in business systems, such as assignments. In a national study, their Center for WorkLife Law and the Society of Women Engineers gave an early version of the survey to over 3,000 engineers. It found that women were 29 percent more likely than white men to report doing more office housework than their colleagues.

Moreover, when they surveyed a nationwide sample of lawyers, women of color were the most likely to report doing more administrative tasks than their colleagues — over 20 percent more likely than white men. 

White women were 18 percent more likely to report doing more admin tasks than white men. And, when it comes to housework like cleaning up the coffee cups, women of color again were the most likely group to say they do more than their colleagues — 18 percent more likely than white men.

Selena Rezvani, VP of Consulting & Research at Be Leaderly and author of Pushback, for example, was in an all-day strategy session when she faced a challenge many women of color are intimately familiar with: she was expected to arrange lunch for everyone present, according to Ruchika Tulshyan, author of The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace and founder of Candour, an inclusion strategy firm. Tulshyane writes about Rezvani in the Havard Business Review.

"No one seemed to consider asking the white guy next to me who was my same age and level," Rezvani, the only non-white person in the room, recalls to Tulshyan. “The silent agreement in the room was unnerving.”

Tulshyan interviewed many women of color who shared similar experiences — situations in which white coworkers displayed an "unwavering conviction that it was the woman of color’s duty to do less-important tasks around the office." One woman even expressed to her: “I’m often asked to shut the door in a meeting, even if I’m sitting far away from the door. I did it earlier in my career, but these days I just say no.”

These aren't just anecdotal experiences. Research supports the notion that, while white women face challenges to advancement in every industry, the statistics for women of color are worse. 

Women of color face a “double jeopardy,” in which they experience bias related to both their gender and their race.

"Shutting the door or ordering lunch doesn’t take a lot of time but doing these tasks negatively reinforces the power dynamics that place women of color in lower positions," Tulshyan writes. "And they’re faced with two unappealing options. They can either do the task and risk being constantly expected to complete these tasks, which Williams’ and Multhaup’s research has shown to impair their ability to get promoted. Or they can say no and risk being penalized."

We’ve accepted the “mother/manager syndrome” as the norm when, in fact, women (and, particularly, women of color) have responsibilities that actually pertain to their positions to which they need to be prioritizing. But because they're doing so much office housework (and not expected to be above it), they're success is stalled. 

This all serves to  widen the gender pay gap even more.

In 2016, women who worked full time in the United States were typically paid just 80 percent of what men were paid — that's a pay gap of 20 percent, despite the fact that women are typically tasked with more work than men. As of now, women are not expected to reach pay equity until 2119. And it's even worse for women of color.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, white women on average make 79 cents for every dollar made by a man, while black women make 63 cents, Native American women make 57 cents and Latina women make 54 cents. Asian-American women have the highest pay on average, 87 cents to every dollar made by a man, but there is significant variation among different nationalities of Asian women, with some groups making far less than the average.

Sung Yeon Choimorrow, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Hill that “despite the calculations that determine an ‘average’ pay gap for women, many women of color experience wage gaps that are far greater — in some cases double — the average gap.”

Studies, including Williams’ and Multhaup’s research, show that women and people of color do more office housework and have less access to glamour work than white men do. And if leaders are going to make a dent in their organizations’ diversity issues, they have to address this debilitating disparity by looking at both gender and race.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.

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