A new report by Harvard Business Review found that women, and in particular women of colour, are more likely to be assigned ‘office housework’ than their white male counterparts.

A tool called the Workplace Experiences Survey was developed by Harvard to measure racial and gender bias in business systems. They rolled out the test to the Center for WorkLife Law, and tested 3,000 engineers.

Results found that women were 29 per cent more likely than white men to report doing more office work than their colleagues.

More damning still, results from a nationwide sample of lawyers who took the survey found that women of colour were the most likely to report doing administrative work – over 20 per cent more than white men.

Household tasks like cleaning coffee cups also fell disproportionately on women of colour, with 18 per cent saying they do more than white men.

‘Glamour’ versus ‘household’ work

The report also distinguishes between work that gets you noticed in the workplace, and menial, background work.

Glamour work gets you noticed by higher-ups, gives you the opportunity to stretch your skills with a new challenge, and can lead to your next promotion.

Office housework happens outside of the spotlight. Some is administrative work that keeps things moving forward, like taking notes or finding a time everyone can meet.

In the test with engineers, female engineers of colour were 35 per cent less likely than white men to report having equal access to desirable assignments, and for lawyers, that number was 30 per cent.

In practise, this suggests that not only are women of colour more likely to participate in menial jobs, but they’re less likely to be given the opportunity to be up for promotions.

How can you fix the problem?

The report has a few ideas:

Don’t ask for volunteers when assigning these tasks, whether they’re housework (ordering food, setting up meetings) or mundane projects (leading the committee to decorate the office lobby). People can be under social pressure to volunteer. Instead, establish a system for making sure everyone takes a turn at these dull jobs.

Hold everyone accountable for the tasks they’ve been assigned.

For new glamour work assignments, consider all eligible employees, not just the ones who come to mind first or who ask to do it. Formalise the pool of employees with the requisite skills by writing it down. Establish a rotation of plum assignments with the pool.


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