How women can say no to ‘office housework’

Too often, women get volunteered to do the thankless tasks that no one else in the office wants to do. Research from the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California defines these dead-end tasks as “office housework,” or work “done by someone, but it isn’t going to make that person’s career.” It can range from actual housework like making the coffee to operational or administrative work like organizing team off-sites and serving on low-ranking committees.

Women are not doing these tasks out of the goodness of their hearts. The pressure to be a good team player is not just an internal pressure women face. Managers instill this pressure. One study found that a manager is 40% more likely to ask a woman to volunteer for tasks “with low promotability,” regardless of whether the manager was a man or a woman. Who gets chosen to do the tasks no one else appreciates is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Managers subconsciously think that women will be more likely to answer the call, so they end up picking on them first. Once a woman gains a reputation for being agreeable to doing these non-promotable tasks, she may get asked again and again to take them on.

To give everyone more access to important work that will get them ahead in their careers, managers first need to recognize their internal biases about who they pick on to volunteer to do thankless tasks. Employers have a corporate responsibility to give employees good challenges to keep them engaged instead of saddling them with busy work.

That is why employers and managers should shoulder the responsibility of distributing glamorous work assignments fairly. But on an individual level, reluctant volunteers are not helpless to say yes. They can use these proven strategies to avoid taking on thankless tasks. Here’s how:

How women can say no to office housework

To stop from getting roped into needless tasks, women first need to recognize why they need to say no. Agreeing to summarize meeting notes may seem like the most painless way to get a thankless task out of your way, but it is holding you back from doing the work that will actually help you learn and grow.

On the Women at Work podcast, economics professor Lise Vesterlund, one of the researchers behind the non-promotable task study, advised reframing your no as a yes to something else more important. “It’s not just a question of saying no, no, no. It’s saying no to things so that you can do the things that you really care about,” she said. Recognizing your priorities can be the motivation you need to keep quiet when the call for helpful volunteers comes across your desk.

But women need to be careful about how they frame their refusal to their boss. Saying no may backfire. One 2005 study found that women get rated less favorably than men in their performance review if they do not get seen as helpful.

To soften the blow of a flat-out rejection, Vesterlund said that employees should meet in a private setting with their boss about the office housework request. It may help your case to avoid publicly challenging your boss.

Once an employee get her boss in a room alone, the employee can then push back on an office housework request by reminding the boss that she is seeking new challenges. Employees can say, “Many of my tasks have become routine. Can I get tasks that demand more where I can show my skills more?” Vesterlund advises. The request tactfully nudges the boss to remember to be a good boss, because fair managers want to help their reports develop and grow.

By asking for new challenges, it shows that you are trying to be a good team player by being the best professional you can be. Ultimately, doing your best work is the best help that you can give a company and you cannot do that if you are stuck doing tasks that do not push you to grow.