Women do the most ‘invisible work’ in the office – and it’s getting us nowhere

“If you’re running this, Kelli, you’ll be so exposed to upper management,” my manager told me.

Each year, the organization I worked for held an annual fundraiser and selected a person to chair the effort. One year, my manager let me know that her boss was going to be the executive sponsor of the initiative and asked if I would chair the committee responsible for organizing the nonprofit’s fundraising events.

I answered him honestly, “If I’m telling the truth, I’m not really interested in directing it.”

As soon as those words left my mouth, I felt a pang of guilt in my stomach and a lump in my throat. I was a relatively new leader at this point in my career and eager to move up the corporate ladder – I was flattered to be asked, but hesitant to commit. I knew the amount of tasks and meetings required to lead an organization-wide effort like this.

My manager supported my feelings of hesitation but encouraged me to reconsider because saying no could reflect poorly on my desire to be a team player and prevent me from being considered for future promotions. Taking his point on the exhibition and future opportunities, I agreed to lead the initiative.

As soon as the annual fundraiser started, I started devoting at least five hours a week to the project. Not only did I have to select department heads, set goals, and communicate with my contacts within the fundraising organization, but I also had to attend meetings to coordinate fundraising events and think of ideas to encourage people to donate money.

My time was wasted writing emails to department heads about status checks and goal updates. I wrote ghost emails that the executive sponsor would send out as their own. I spent time every day sorting out fundraising event logistics, from how to decorate the event space to door prizes to hand out.

It wasn’t just the work itself that consumed my time – worrying about work, answering questions, and dreading meetings also zapped my energy. Despite the energy balance of the leadership of the initiative, I did my best. Because if my name was to be attached to anything, I wanted to exceed the goals I had set for myself. We collected a little more than our target number.

At the final fundraising celebration on the company’s executive floor, all executives and people involved in fundraising efforts came out to celebrate the money that was raised. I still remember when the executive sponsor stood up to make his remarks. As everyone circled around him, I tried to get a glimpse of a group of mostly male leaders and executives. The sponsor spoke about the importance of fundraising and the amount of money raised, and thanked everyone for their involvement and support.

“Oh, and thanks also to Kelli for coordinating this event.”

After weeks of planning and stress, the “exposure” I was supposed to receive barely amounted to a two-second mention. I felt like a deflating balloon. I had spent over 50 hours, and no one was going to leave this event and remember my name or my face.

However, I was hoping that one day maybe this exhibit would pay off financially or in my career progression (spoiler: it didn’t), and I felt relieved that the fundraiser was over and could be led by someone else next year.

It wasn’t until eight years later, when I left corporate America, that I got a name for what I had experienced in those previous years – the unpaid workload of women. Studies show that women spend two extra hours per day outside of their normal shift for cleaning, carpooling, cooking, laundry, parenting, family support and more. They do the extra work that isn’t actually paid but is essential to society — and that extra work takes up our time, energy, and effort.

In addition to the two hours of unpaid work women do at home, Harvard Business Review research found that women receive 44% more requests than men to volunteer for “unpromoted” tasks at work. Unpromoted tasks are those that benefit the organization but are unlikely to contribute to a person’s performance appraisal and career advancement.

These tasks include traditional office “housekeeping,” such as coordinating office parties and events, as well as backing up co-workers and serving on low-level committees. Men tend to receive requests and take on more strategic projects with higher level networking or visibility. When requests for unpromoted jobs are made, according to HBR, men say yes 51% of the time and women say yes 76% of the time.

The toll of this unpaid work has real costs. Owomen contribute more, but often receive less recognition, according to McKinsey’s 2021 Women in the Workplace Report. Burnout is at an all time high. While women have shown resilience over the past two years, leading the emotional response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as diversity and inclusion efforts, the report found that 4 in 10 women had considered quitting their company or changing jobs, and revenue data in the months following that report indicated that they had acted on it.

Organizations should continue to evaluate their policies to keep working mothers and other women in the office, ensuring a fair distribution of unpaid office work and volunteer opportunities. Women’s work deserves to be rewarded, whether through extra paid time off, a one-time bonus or a higher performance rating.

Women also shouldn’t feel like they have to be the person who constantly rushes in and volunteers to save the day, at home or at work.

For all the women who are overwhelmed by an unpaid workload, it’s not about jostling to be seen or hoping someone will recognize our efforts. There’s still no price for how much you can tolerate. In fact, as you accelerate through your career, saying yes to too many things will keep you stuck in the weeds, not leading at the strategic level of which you are capable.

But ultimately, the responsibility for change lies with companies and patriarchal systems that keep female employees overworked and overwhelmed.

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