How Women of Color Can Stand Up Against the Unpaid Workload

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Zenica Chatman10
May 19, 2024 at 5:23PM UTC

“You can handle it!”

I could feel my facial muscles clench at the sound of those words. 

I was being assigned yet another administrative task that even my sixteen-year-old niece could handle with ease. 

I’d worked so hard to obtain advanced degrees, and build a successful marketing career and yet, here I was spending hours a day resizing images for the leadership team’s powerpoints.  

Whenever there is menial, low-level, “somebody’s-gotta-do-it” work, the default is to obviously appoint the Black woman in the office to fix it.

Copy machine broken? I’d get called. 

Did someone need to join a random committee, with no opportunity for growth? My name was added to the list. 

Create the time-sucking report that nobody’s ever going to read? Somehow I got assigned to that too. 

I wish this was an isolated event. 

In every office I’ve stepped foot in, it was the women of color’s responsibility to perform supportive tasks like cleaning the refrigerator or serving as the “back-up” manager without any acknowledgment or pay. Time and again, it was women of color who were handed unimportant assignments while the shiny new ones were given to our white counterparts.

In corporate America, women take on an extra 200 hours of unpaid work each year (an extra month of labor annually). Research done by the University of California shows that people of color often wind up with worse assignments than their white male colleagues. Thus, women of color often fare the worst due to a combination of sexism and racism — which hinders our chance of advancing up the career ladder.

For many of us, it feels like we have only two choices that can be made in response: continue chipping away at your intuition that tells you this shouldn’t be happening, or become the Black person who’s pulling the race card in the office.  

I didn’t like either of those choices. 

Instead, I decided to take my career into my own hands and learn how to create opportunities that were both challenging and uniquely positioned me for more quality assignments down the road. 

1. Volunteer strategically. 

We’ve been taught that the only way to get noticed in the workplace is to bury our heads in our work and hope that someone notices. Hope is not a strategy. If we want those shiny “career-making” projects, we have to ask for them. When I heard that something new was coming or a team was being formed to support a big company effort, I’d schedule time with my manager and make a strong case of why I should be considered for those projects. 

2. Leverage strengths. 

There are times when you just can’t get out of doing low-value work and there are times when volunteering for these projects can add value to your team. But let’s face it: sometimes these projects are just plain boring. The best way to get around this is to apply your strengths. When you are working from your strengths, you are more creative, productive, and fulfilled. Leveraging your strengths also helps delegation and speaking up easier.

3. Delegate expertly.

You don’t have to do it all. We have to learn to ask for help or reinforcements when our workloads get too heavy and be clear about it. Ask directly if there is someone else on the team who can support that effort while you make space for other projects. Or assess what role(s) you are able to support and assign the rest to others accordingly. Even if you are not in a leadership position, setting boundaries with your colleagues on what you can and can’t do will go a long way in managing your energy and preventing burnout.  

4. Push for change.

While there are things you can do to shift things in your favor and improve your own mindset around doing unpaid labor in the workplace, it’s also important to use your voice and influence to push for change within these corporate environments. One of the best ways to push for change is to lock arms with other colleagues through an employee resource group (ERG) or forming  your own collective if your company doesn’t have an already established ERG program. These groups provide insight from the frontlines to the C-suite and are often trusted resources for senior leadership. They provide a great opportunity to bring attention to the lack of diversity in leadership positions and help more women of color obtain mentors and sponsors within your company. 

In our current economy of quiet quitting and shrinking budgets, we’ll all have to take on some additional responsibilities. However, women don’t have to take on all of those responsibilities: the work should be distributed equitably across teams. After all, women have way more to offer than trying to fix the copy machine! 

This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
Zenica Chatman is a certified personal and executive coach, helping busy professionals take control of their lives and rediscover their inner strength and confidence after encountering a workplace bully. As a trained journalist and communications strategist, Zenica uses her unique background to help her clients identify what’s no longer working in their lives, discover their unique strengths and design an action plan to create a life they love. You can connect with her on Instagram at @z_chatman.

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