5 Tried-and-True Scripts To Refuse Office Housework

It’s never up to you to “fix” systemic problems.

Racism is not your fault. Sexism is not your fault. And neither is this unfortunate phenomenon at the intersection of both: women of color are overwhelmingly expected to do more “office housework” than their white and male peers.

Office housework is the important but unthanked (and unpromotable) work that every organization needs — taking meeting notes, scheduling meetings, ensuring there are snacks in office...etc. The opposite of it is glamour work. Sound familiar? In fact, new research shows the non-promotable work for women has been supercharged in the pandemic.

Last week on LinkedIn I wrote about how overburdening women of color with office housework holds back our careers and leaves us with two unwelcome options:

1. take on the housework and reinforce unfair expectations, or

2. say no and risk being penalized. 😒

The solution is to change the culture of our organizations. To make them truly inclusive so office housework is shared and compensated equitably among everyone, without question.

But that takes time. And in the meanwhile, we still have our jobs to do!

That’s why I’m sharing this roundup of advice from successful women of color with scripts to turn down and negotiate office housework requests without being penalized: 1. Have a watertight refusal 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 need to be present during this discussion as it’s critical to what I’m working on.” For longer-term requests, like being asked to lead mentoring activities, I’ve said, “I’m working on [very important project], and I’m concerned I won’t have the bandwidth to be helpful to [said mentee.]” 2. Ask for more information. You can ask the requester why they’re specifically asking you to do this extra labor with, “why do you think I’m a good fit for this?” Having them tell you what traits make you best suited to do the work forces them to pause and consider why they requested you do the labor in the first place. It also gives you some time and space to gather your thoughts so you don’t feel pressured to say “yes” right away. 3. Rotate tasks. If your team meets regularly, suggest that you all rotate tasks like getting lunch, taking notes, and following up. You could say, “I took notes last week, so let’s set up a rotation.” This sets the expectation that everyone has equal value to contribute. 4. If you can’t say no, at least get credit for the work. Sometimes there’s no way to decline the work. When that happens, find a way to acknowledge that the work is “extra labor.” You want to make it clear in performance reviews and conversations with your manager that these chores are not part of your job description. 5. Use your influence to break norms. As you climb the ranks, make sure to pay it forward. When someone suggests that the smart new manager you’re mentoring could set up the booth at an expo, call out that it’s below their pay grade: “I don’t think that’s a good use of her experience and skills.”


I hope this advice helps you in real-time. But it bears repeating: it’s imperative that leaders understand and work toward mitigating the impact of office housework on the careers of women of color. It’s not up to you to change the system. Nonetheless, I encourage all of us to exercise our right to say no to these requests. I’d love to hear your feedback: do you have a favorite suggestion? Have you used any on the list? Do you have any to add?

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