Unfortunately, we know that we have not yet achieved equity for all genders in the workplace. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is an ongoing journey in our society and we still have a long way to go. In this article, we unpack a recent study that dives into the concept of office housework and the gender inequities associated with it.
A quick note: this study treated gender as binary, and thus looked at differences between men and women exclusively. Unfortunately, this is common in the research and more needs to be done to understand the impact on other genders.
What is Office Housework?
Office housework is a concept that was discussed in media and conversation before it hit the research realm. Definitionally, it is the time and energy consuming activities that are viewed as trivial and unimportant in the workplace. These are activities are not part of an employee’s job but rather on top of their daily job duties.
In addition, researchers split office housework into two types – social maintenance and object maintenance. Researchers define social maintenance as the type of activities that are completed around an office to keep the social structure going. In other words, it includes things like:
- Organizing office parties,
- Bringing in food for others in the office,
- Cleaning up communal spaces like office kitchens,
- Making copies for others for meetings, and
- Buying cards for coworkers to sign for celebrations or condolences.
Object maintenance refers to activities making sure office machines and tools are working properly. It includes things like:
- Fixing broken office machines and furniture,
- Moving large or heavy objects, and
- Setting up new office machines and furniture.
The Impact of Gender
As you can probably imagine, office housework impacts men and women differently. Not only do women spend more time on housework at home, they also do more housework in the office! Women spend more time doing office housework than men do. In addition, women do more of the social maintenance work in the office. In my own experience, I’ve seen that women are much more likely to organize the birthday cards and social outings. We can probably all relate to this in our own experiences. Interestingly, men do more of the object maintenance tasks. This split in the type of housework by gender falls right in line with gender norms. Women do the social work and men do the heavy lifting.
Unfortunately, even though men do some of the housework, the impact is still different. First, object maintenance comes up less frequently so women are still spending more time on housework. Second, men benefit from doing social maintenance! While women do the majority of social maintenance, men get more promotions when they do that type of work. In other words, men get rewarded for doing the same things women do. Women do not get the promotions and no other benefits were found for women in the research so far.
What To Do
Luckily, there are some easy steps that we can take to help solve the gender inequities related to office housework! First, leaders need to pay attention to who is doing the work. Do you notice women are always the ones bringing in lunch for your lunch and learns? Are the women always organizing the birthday cards or donations for gifts? If you are a leader, take some time to reflect on the types of ‘extra’ work your team members are doing. Then, think about how to make any inequities disappear! You can create a ‘chore’ list that rotates around the team to make sure everyone is pulling their own weight. You can ask team members that do less to step in and help. As the leader, you have the power to change the norms and make sure everyone is pitching in.
If you aren’t a leader, you can still help! If you rarely do any office housework, volunteer and take the tasks off of your peers’ plates every once in a while. Doing most of the housework? Ask your peers for help – especially those that never do any of it. Talk to your leader and see if you can encourage them to split up the work fairly. Make sure your leader knows the work you are doing and ensure they are aware of the work your peers are doing too! You can try to change the culture around office housework and make the workplace more equitable.
And finally, men, we are calling on you to help! Since you benefit from this type of work while the women around you don’t, be an ally and recognize their work. If you are getting recognized for social maintenance, don’t forget to raise up the women’s work too! In addition, you can step up and do more of the housework! It’ll be a win-win. You will be seen more positively and set yourself up for promotion while allowing women the time to focus on what will help their careers. We all need to work together to make more equitable workplaces!