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When Women of Color Get Asked To Do Office Housework

You’re in an all-day strategy session with your team. It’s coming up on the lunch hour. Without fail, all the heads in the room swivel towards you, the only woman of color present.

Their expectation is clear: obviously, you’ll be ordering everyone’s lunch.

Every woman of color I know has stories like this. Whether it’s arranging food and beverages, taking notes, or coordinating meeting times, women of color are disproportionately expected to shoulder “office housework.”

No wonder so many of us have no interest in returning to the office!

Office Housework Rarely Gets a Raise

And it’s not just anecdotal. Research has shown that women and people of color often end up with worse assignments than their white male counterparts. In their article about the research, Joan C. Williams and Marina Multhaup define these “worse assignments” as:

  1. administrative work like the examples above,

  2. important but undervalued work, like keeping track of contracts, and

  3. work that isn’t tied to revenue goals.

In other words, tasks that are far less likely to result in promotion.

While I certainly cannot speak for all women of color, I feel confident that we share these experiences: situations where (white) male coworkers blithely assume that it’s a woman of color’s duty to do less-important work around the office.

Not only is it harmful, it’s straight-up ridiculous! One woman told me: “I’m often asked to shut the door in a meeting, even if I’m sitting far away from the door.” (Emphasis mine.)

Research shows that white women face challenges to advancement in every industry. However, the statistics for women of color reveal that we face the worst game of jeopardy: double jeopardy. We experience bias related to both our gender and our race.

Two Unappealing Options

Sure, shutting the door or ordering lunch won’t derail your day. But do these tasks repeatedly and the time adds up. Even more harmful? Office housework negatively reinforces the power dynamics that place – and keep – women of color in lower positions.

So we’re faced with two unappealing options: do the tasks and risk being expected to always do them, or say no and risk being penalized.

A manager at a technology company I spoke to put it plainly. “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.”

What’s the solution?

Let’s be clear: the culture of these organizations must change so people in power don’t target women of color with these requests.

Inclusion is leadership, and we must continue pushing our leaders to see it and practice it. But that takes time, and waiting for change doesn’t help you right now.

I always hesitate to put the onus on individuals to fix the problem. Systemic racism and sexism are not your fault, so why should you be in charge of solutions?

But I want to offer tips to help women of color who find themselves in these situations. If these tips can help you say no to office housework and yes to that stretch assignment that will earn you a promotion? Then we all win.

How do you cope with being assigned office housework — especially in the era of remote work? Got any handy scripts or comebacks or communication tips?


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