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Escaping the Office Housework with Being a "Prima Donna"

02/09/2015 02:06 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

So delighted that Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant explored a key problem women face at work: the office housework. I'll just add a few words to flesh out the issue.

What's office housework?
There are two kinds: literal housework, and work that's important--but undervalued.

Planning parties and picking up cups. One is literal housework: party planning's the best example. When I give speeches, I always ask who's planned a party; it's the women's hands that shoot up. And then there's making coffee and cleaning up after people--which includes not only dirty cups but messy emotions the men would rather you handle so they can get on closing that deal. A woman who works with Silicon Valley venture capitalists told me, "I just say to them, 'Unless your mother is here, you'll need to pick up your own cups."

Bathroom details? The other is undervalued work. If you ask a corporate litigator what's the office housework, she'll answer: "I do the task list." Women keep the trains running and manage the paralegals while men go to court and discuss strategy with the client. Women bankers, they tell me, tend to get the small deals (and the small bucks they bring), while men get the big deals, and big bucks. Women architects design elevators and bathroom details; men design the building.

Admin work. Undervalued work includes admin work. One Ph.D. scientist told our research team that she was expected to do the work of an admin, filling out forms and arranging meetings. My recent co-authored report, Double Jeopardy?: Gender Bias Against Women in Science, illustrates what happens to women scientists. "They treat you like their mother," said a Latina in biomedical research, "like they can get whatever they can from you, and there's no limit. Like, if you keep helping, they keep asking." Another Latina scientist was literally treated as an administrative assistant. "I think there are times when I am asked to be kind of the mother of the group," she said. This included tasks like making sure everyone filled out their paperwork or setting up a meeting. "I play many roles that...could be done by a competent administrative assistant," she told us. She had tried to get rid of these "administrative duties [that]...eat into my time," but without success.

What to do about it? Three easy lessons
Studies show that women are expected to do more office housework, but they get less credit for doing it (see Men and Women of the Corporation, by Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter). So you need to put your foot down. But how? A man who turns down the office housework knows his own worth. A woman risks being called a prima donna or not a team player.

1. Literal housework or admin work? Do it once, then set up a rotation
If you, or other women, seem always to get stuck planning the parties, getting people on the conference call line, or ordering the lunch, do it once--do it graciously--and then work behind the scenes to set up a rotation, so that the junior people takes turns doing it, or the task is handed over to an admin.

2. Smooth comebacks for rough moments. It's happened again. You're sitting there trying to pay attention at a meeting so you can position yourself for a key role....and you're asked to make coffee. In What Works for Women at Work, my co-author (and daughter) Rachel Dempsey came up with these:

These are some things you can say when asked to do things way below your pay grade. Of course, if you're more of a minimalist, there's always a classic "Sorry. No."

COMMENT: "It's Stephen's birthday tomorrow. Can you bring in cupcakes?"
COMEBACK: "Do you really want somebody who's being paid what I'm being paid to make cupcakes?"
COMMENT: "Hey, the coffee's out. Do you think you could make another pot?"
COMEBACK: "Let's make a rotational list. We can put all our names up and take turns."
COMMENT: "Can you order sandwiches for the meeting today?"
COMEBACK: "The receptionist's right out front. She knows where we usually order from."

2. Undervalued work?
If you are getting a steady stream of undervalued work, don't just wait until you are overwhelmed.

Instead, proactively seek out one or two housework tasks you can make work for you. Say you'll head the women's initiative if you can co-chair it with a prominent male ally, use it as a way to cement a relationship with a key client, or if it gets you known among the organization's leadership group.

Then go out and get some high-value work. The next chance you have to serve on the paperclips committee, say, "I would love to continue on the paperclips committee. These last six years have been a real stretch for me. But I am helping Rick on this important strategic initiative. You know who would be perfect for paperclips? Peter down the hall."

Tips for managers
Women who get stuck with large loads of office housework often quit. Or they are simply underutilized, because they are working below their skill set or potential. How can managers avoid this? Three tips.

1. When assigning less valued tasks, don't ask for volunteers. If you do, women will be under subtle pressures to step up, lest they be seen as "not team players." In one organization I worked with, women were praised for office housework, while men who did it were criticized as getting bogged down in low-value work. The simple solution is not to staff low-valued but necessary tasks by asking for volunteers. It puts the women in an impossible position.

2. Who plans parties? Admins. When someone joins your team, say, "We're excited to have you. Don't forget to give your birthday and cake preference to my admin. She plans the parties."

3. Keep track. For a month or two, keep track of who does the office housework, and who gets the career-enhancing assignments. If you notice a gender imbalance, adopt more formal assignment procedures. This is a good example of a new, evidence-based model of organizational change called "Metrics-Driven Bias Interrupters" (see pg. 49 of the report).

Many thanks and kudos to Sheryl and Adam for bringing this important issue up in the New York Times. If you want more individual strategies, check out What Works for Women at Work. If you want to know more about Bias Interrupters, check out "Hacking Tech's Diversity Problem."