Women of Color Get Asked to Do More “Office Housework.” Here’s How They Can Say No.

Hayon Thapaliya for HBR

Selena Rezvani was in an all-day strategy session when she come up against a challenge multiple women of color are intimately familiar with: she was likely to arrange lunch for everyone present.

Simultaneously, seven heads in the room turned towards her, the only non-white individual in the room, to place the order. “No one appeared to consider asking the white guy next to me who was my [same] age and level,” recalls Rezvani, now VP of Consulting & Research at Be Leaderly, and author of Pushback. “The silent agreement in the room was unnerving.”

The women of color whom I interviewed for this facts shared similar experiences: situations where white coworkers displayed an abiding conviction that it was the woman of color’s duty to do less-important tasks around the office. One woman signified to me: “I’m often asked to shut the door in a meeting, even if I’m sitting far away from the door. I did it prior in my career but these days I merely assert no.”

These aren’t merely anecdotal experiences. Research from the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law has portrayed that women and people of color often wind up with worse assignments than their white male counterparts, hindering their ability to be promoted. In their article about this research, Joan Williams and Marina Multhaup define “office housework” as anything from “administrative work that keeps stuff moving forward, like taking notes or finding a time everyone can meet” to “work that’s important but undervalued, like initiating new processes or keeping track of contracts” and work that’s “usually not tied to revenue goals, so [these efforts] are far less likely to result in a promotion than, say, chairing an innovation or digital transformation committee.”

Research shows that white women confront challenges to advancement in every industry. However, the statistics for women of color are worse: we confront a “double jeopardy,” where we experience bias related to both our gender and our race.

Shutting the door or ordering lunch doesn’t take a lot of time but doing these tasks negatively reinforces the power dynamics that place women of color in lower positions. And they’re come up against with two unappealing options. They can either do the task and hazard being constantly likely to complete these tasks, that Williams’ and Multhaup’s research has portrayed to impair their ability to get promoted. Or they can assert no and risk being penalized.

Caty, a manager at a technology company who requested I not share her last name, says, “As a visibly black woman in the workplace, I am often caught in a double-bind where if I don’t accept the office housework, I’m considered an ‘Angry Black’ woman.”

The professional women of color I communicated with signified to me they’ve been characterized as aggressive, out-of-character, or too emotional when they advocate for themselves in the workplace. While all women walk a tightrope between being liked and respected, for women of color, the experience is specifically egregious.

The best obvious solution in this place is to change the culture of these organizations so people in power don’t make these requests. But that takes time. And although I hesitate to put the onus on women to fix the problem, I want to offer tips to help women of color who find themselves in these situations, although we continue pushing leaders for equity.

Below is a roundup of advice from successful women of color on how to angle down these office housework requests without being penalized.

Have a watertight refusal in place. It’s smart to have a sturdy argument ready. You might say: ”I was hired to do X and doing Y would take away time from completing X well.” For on-the-spot requests like ordering lunch, I’ve used, “I honestly require to be present concurrently this talk as it’s critical to what I’m working on.” For longer-term requests, like constantly being asked to lead mentoring activities (which research has portrayed is one of the time-consuming “organizational citizenship” tasks that women are asked to take on), I’ve stated something like, “I’m working on [very important project], and I’m worried I won’t have the bandwidth to be helpful to [said mentee.]”

Arm yourself with evidence. Most people make these kinds of requests without realizing the impact on women of color. Evidence can help them grasp the cumulative effect. Olive Goh, a director in the financial industry, signified to me that a friend of hers made a list of revenue-generating tasks she was responsible for, as well as all the non-revenue generating expectations that were placed on her. She created similar lists for men at the same level in her organization, and took those lists to her boss. This made it easier for her to decline the housework tasks, or to at least make the case for splitting them more evenly with the men in her office.

Offer a “no” and a “communal give.”Women confront less backlash in negotiations when they make their request communal (“it benefits us”) rather than personal (“it benefits me”),” says Rezvani. She coaches her female clients to consider saying no to lower-prestige tasks – planning a meeting, for example — and then offering a “yes” to higher-caliber ones that would give your group an edge, like performing a competitor analysis.

Check with your manager. In previous jobs, I would regularly double-check with my managers if I was asked to take on non-essential work. Getting them to sign off on whether the task was necessary aided me ahead grasp whether saying no would get me labeled as “difficult.” Rezvani advises setting up expectations in advance with your manager. “Contract verbally with your manager that they will back you up and bring cover,” she says. If your boss agrees that the task isn’t necessary or worth your time, it’s easier to avoid the backlash from saying no.

Ask for more information. You can ask the requester why they’re specifically encouraging you to do this extra labor, says Caty. “Have them tell you what unique and/or specific traits make you best suited to do this work. This will help the requester think critically about why they requested you do the labor as opposed to others who are further capable.”

Use humor. Acknowledge, with a few levity, the absurdity of women doing more office work than men, says Rezvani. “You can assert to a man: ‘Research shows that I’m more likely to get asked to do this kind of thing than you, and that you’re going to like me less when I decline. But guess what I’m going to do?’” I’m not humorous by nature, but making light of the situation has aided me in my own career. I once responded by saying “I’d rather [male colleague] ordered lunch as I’m already in charge of meals at home,” then cracked a smile. Rezvani further heard one woman quip, ‘My answer is no, that is, if it’s okay with you.’

Rotate tasks. If you’re on a group that meets regularly, propose that you all rotate tasks like facilitating, taking notes, scheduling, etc., advises Rezvani. This sets the expectation from day one that everyone has equal financial worth to contribute.

Practice saying no with allies. With practice, saying “no” will become easier. I’ve previously written about a group of female professors at Carnegie Mellon who formed an “I merely can’t assert no” club to help them refuse what they called “office favors.” Cultivating this network of allies becomes specifically important for women of color as we progress. Enlist colleagues to help you figure out collectively how to refuse office housework requests in a manner that feels authentic to you.

If you can’t assert no, at least get credit for the work. Sometimes there’s no way to decline the work. In those cases, find a way to acknowledge that this work is “extra labor,” says Caty, especially in performance reviews and in conversations with your manager. You want people to grasp that you’re taking on extra responsibilities and not assume these chores are part of your job description. Caty advises however: “If the labor continues to not be recognized or rewarded, I’d either stop doing the work or leave the group or organization.”

Use your influence to break norms. As you climb the ranks, make sure to pay it forward. Rezvani says: “When someone suggests that the smart female manager you happen to mentor can do the booth set-up at the expo, call out that it’s below their pay grade: ‘I don’t think it’s a fantastic use of Camilla’s technical experience and ability to deploy her that way.’”

There’s growing evidence that women of color toe a narrower mark between being respected and liked. It’s imperative that leaders grasp and work approaching mitigating the impact of office housework on the careers of multicultural women. In the meantime, I encourage more women of color to assert no to these requests.

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