When I worked in corporate, it took very little time for me to realize I was expected to do a disproportionate amount of “office housework.”
Whether it was ordering lunch, sharing meeting notes, or scheduling, I — often the only woman of color in the room — was like the de facto secretary, as if we were in an episode of Mad Men.
(I’m not throwing shade on any person who works in these important roles, by the way. It is vital and valuable work! The problem? It wasn’t my role.)
If you’re a woman of color, you know this all too well. And while I refuse to put the onus on us to “fix” this problem, I want to help women of color confidently say “no” in these situations at work.
Without further ado, I’m sharing advice from successful women (of color) — including some of your comments! — to say a strategic “no” to office housework requests without being penalized:
1. Arm yourself with evidence.
Make a list of revenue-generating tasks you’re responsible for, as well as all the non-revenue generating expectations placed on you. Create similar lists for men at the same level in your organization, and take those lists to your boss.
2. Check with your manager.
You can always double-check with your managers if you’re asked to take on non-essential work. If your boss agrees that the task isn’t necessary or worth your time, it’s easier to avoid the backlash from saying no.
3. Use humor.
I’m not humorous by nature, but making light of the situation has helped me. I once responded, “I’d rather John ordered lunch as I’m already in charge of meals at home,” then cracked a smile. My friend Selena Rezvani had this suggestion for a humorous comeback: “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?” 😉
4. Practice saying no with allies.
Unsurprisingly, it gets easier to say “no” with practice! Cultivating such a network of allies becomes particularly 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.
5. Virtual office housework is still...office housework.
The usual suspects like ordering lunch and planning office birthdays went away, and were swiftly replaced by organizing virtual happy hours and sending calendar invites for team meetings. Take stock if you're disproportionately getting stuck with the virtual (often even more invisible than the in-office kind) office housework. Then suggest a rotation system. This could look like: "I've been scheduling all the virtual meetings this week, I'd like to rotate through each team member to take it on weekly. John, you in for next week?"
In a previous Inclusion Is Leadership, readers shared some of their own tips for refusing office housework. I’m sharing them here!
Say “no” and give a reason - Uma Thana Balasingam
If you’re asked to take on office housework, do it once graciously, then work behind the scenes to ensure the task is rotated among your coworkers. Then, seek out career-enhancing assignments. Filling your plate with high-value work empowers you to turn down undervalued work. You might say, “I’d love to help, but I’m working with Ted on an important strategic initiative. Joe would be perfect for this.”
Stand up for others first - Dr. Jacqueline Kerr
If you don't have the confidence to do it for yourself, stand up and point it out when it happens to others. This might be an easier first step, and maybe another woman will see your example and do the same for you or someone else.
Advice for white men - Paolo Gaudiano
My advice to other white men is to start paying attention and you will be surprised to realize how often this happens. If you witness this, you are in a position to speak up! "Hey, it doesn't always seem fair to ask XYZ to do this, how about if we do a signup sheet and take turns?" or "Here, let me do that!" And if you are in charge of performance reviews, compensation or promotion, ask yourself: is this person contributing something that is not in the job description, but that is clearly beneficial to the company? What would we lose if they left the organization?
If you’re asked to do a disproportionate amount of “office housework” at your job, it’s not your fault.
This truth needs to be repeated, especially in a power structure that feeds off making you feel bad about the challenges you face. Pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mythology is very good at making us feel like we’re the problem when we repeatedly hit roadblocks.
Not on my watch.
We must never stop calling for leaders to understand and work toward mitigating the impact of office housework on the careers of multicultural women.
Nonetheless, I encourage all of us to exercise our right to say no to these requests.
What’s your most-used tactic to say a firm “no”?