Workplace

Who’s taking notes in your meeting? Here's how tasks get unfairly distributed at work.

For marginalized employees, doing “glamour work” as opposed to office housework is the key to succeeding in the workplace.

“Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized” by Alan Henry.

"Dissecting who gets what work, why, and how both employees and managers can assign work more fairly is essential to making sure everyone has the opportunity to bring their fullest selves to their jobs."

Image: Rodale; Protocol

The following is an excerpt from “Seen, Heard, and Paid: The New Work Rules for the Marginalized” by Alan Henry. The book is available June 7.

RULE 5: Office Housework Will Never Get You Ahead (Getting the glamour work)

Think about your previous jobs. Have you ever had someone who everyone in your organization looked up to as the “office mom”? Was it you? Maybe that person scheduled the meetings, organized the calendars, ordered lunch for those meetings, took notes or minutes, and sent out agendas before and after those gatherings. Maybe they kept the supply closet stocked, kept pain medication on hand in case a coworker needed it, or knew the best place to get the good coffee. Maybe it was this individual’s job to know and do all these things, and the person was an administrative assistant for your team. But maybe — and, sometimes, more likely — they were a team member who just picked up those additional responsibilities on top of the work they were already doing.

Now think about those previous jobs again. Odds are, you never had an “office dad,” whose job it was to do all those same things, unless he really was an administrative assistant. Before we go too much further, think about that for a moment. Why is it so often the women on your team who are responsible for making sure guests have access to the Wi-Fi, for taking notes during the team meeting, or for coming in early to bring bagels and coffee? This story may be familiar to some of you, and it has happened to more people than I can count, especially women of color and other women in the workplace.

Ruchika Tulshyan, CEO of Candour, has written extensively about the dichotomy between office housework and glamour work. She explained why you’ve probably never seen an office dad. It is, she told me, “very much due to prevailing gender expectations of women being helpful and nurturing. It’s harmful and unnecessary; we need managers to keep an eye out for office housework and ensure it’s being assigned fairly, not along gender and racial lines.” That kind of housework — the note taking, mass emailing, snack getting, calendar managing, and so forth — is all work that keeps the team running smoothly, so someone needs to do it. And it’s still seen as women’s work.

Joan C. Williams and Marina Multhaup, writing in the Harvard Business Review about research from the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, are credited for coming up with the term “office housework” to refer to the kind of admin work that “keeps things moving forward, like taking notes or finding a time everyone can meet” and “work that’s important but undervalued, like initiating new processes or keeping track of contracts.” And, of course, office housework is work that needs to be done but doesn’t make the company money. And because it is seldom directly tied to company goals or performance indicators, it’s “far less likely to result in a promotion than chairing an innovation or digital transformation committee,” say Williams and Multhaup.

Contrast office housework with work that earns people promotions, is noticed by management, and makes the company money. Williams and Multhaup call that kind of work “glamour work” and describe it in Harvard Business Review as work that “gives you the opportunity to stretch your skills with a new challenge and can lead to your next promotion. It’s the project for a major client, the opportunity to build out a new team, or the chance to represent the company at an industry conference.” In other words, glamour work is work you want to spend your time doing. It’s the stuff you want to do, as opposed to the stuff you have to do, and it’s the work that truly deserves your time.

I contacted Williams to talk about the concept of office housework versus glamour work, and she explained that it was actually her daughter’s idea. “My daughter and I coined the term office housework in 2014,” she said. “Little did I know that seven years later, male reporters would be calling me and knowing all about it. I was going like, ‘Well, that’s successful dissemination.’”

Glamour work contributes to reaching superstar status

So in short, office housework may be the things that have to get done, but that work is often in the background, away from the eyes of decision makers. And while it may keep the organization or team working smoothly toward the group’s collective goals, office housework is highly unlikely to be the kind of thing brought up at your next performance review. Nor will it earn you accolades from your colleagues (at least, not until you leave the job, and everyone says that they don’t know how they’ll get by without you).

Glamour work, on the other hand, gets you promoted and earns you fame either on your team or across the company and even potential appreciation across your whole industry as a subject-matter expert. It turns individual contributors into valued “superstar” workers with more job security than others, because managers will actively notice the superstars’ absence and will have to fill the hole they leave behind if they exit the company or are poached by a competitor.

Williams and Multhaup’s research also indicates that women and workers of color are often assigned the office housework. Unfortunately, scheduling appointments, drafting memos, and taking care of the collective needs of the team always seem to fall to the women team members, including women of color and younger women. Meanwhile, white and male coworkers are often given (or assume for themselves) the glamour work, regardless of whether their qualifications or desires are appropriate. So dissecting who gets what work, why, and how both employees and managers can assign work more fairly is essential to making sure everyone has the opportunity to bring their fullest selves to their jobs.

Adapted from SEEN, HEARD, AND PAID copyright © 2022 by Alan Henry. Used by permission of Rodale Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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