Women working in an office

Are women unfairly burdened with doing the office housework?

14 November 2023    |    By: Nathan Bentley

Addressing gender equality in the workplace doesn’t stop with closing the gender pay gap and there are still ways for a micro-patriarchy to exist in the office environment which can often go unnoticed due to the nature of work being undertaken by women who feel a pressure to be helpful.

Research suggests that in offices, regardless of role or seniority, women are more likely to be left to carry out ‘office housework’ duties despite it not being part of their role, or their direct responsibility.

‘Office housework’ refers to ad-hoc office tasks that are not routinely assigned to an individual or department. Tasks might include things like; ordering food for office social events, organising the Christmas party, producing slide decks for meetings, taking notes in meetings and even being responsible for making sure everyone and everything is connected in meetings and moving the presentation slides along. These tasks, whilst not deemed as business critical still play a pivotal role in the day to day running of any office and therefore it’s important to ensure it’s not just women carrying out these jobs, especially when it’s not part of their role or job description.

The problem here is that these sorts of tasks are often undervalued and go unnoticed but are still essential for keeping the machine oiled. There are similarities here when you start to consider the sorts of tasks which keep a household running too – as a more inclusive society it’s important for admin at home not to just fall on one person and therefore, we need to start seeing similar changes in the workplace too, in the hope that wider inclusivity continues to impact positive change across our home and work lives alike.

Kim Elsesser, a gender bias expert discusses an example of a relevant study in Forbes. In this research, mixed sex groups and matched sex groups take part in a task to investigate if women are more likely to volunteer to undertake a task to their own detriment, for the benefit of the rest of the group. In the study by Babcock, Recalde, Vesterlund and Weingart; Gender Differences in Accepting and Receiving Requests for Tasks with Low Promotability (2017), participants are offered $1.00 for their participation in an online task. During the simple task, participants were told that if one member of the group clicked a different button on the screen, that individual would receive $1.25, whilst the rest of the group would receive $2.00 instead, meaning the volunteer would potentially lose out on some of the potential cash reward.

According to Elsesser, in mixed sex groups:

“Women were 48% more likely than men to volunteer to press the button. In other words, women took a hit so that everyone came out better.”

Furthermore, in matched sex groups:

In the same-sex groups, the gender differences disappeared, and women were no more likely to volunteer to press the button than men were.”

This study demonstrated that when in a mixed sex setting, female participants would be more likely to volunteer to step up to carry out a task which would not elevate them in any way, at the expense of elevating other members of the team if a male was also present. The study continues by exploring how the addition of ‘a manager’ in the group setting would impact the findings and found that the manager was more likely to ask female participants to volunteer to take the hit, than ask their male counterparts. The researchers from the study state:

“Our studies demonstrate that although neither men nor women really want to volunteer for thankless tasks, women volunteer more, are asked to volunteer more, and accept requests to volunteer more than men. These differences do not appear to result from gender differences in preferences, but rather from a shared understanding that women will volunteer more than men.”

Using this study as an example, it is clear that when it comes to housekeeping tasks in the office, women are more likely to either volunteer to do the task or are more likely to be asked to do so by a male, regardless of their seniority in the business.

A simplified way to look at this issue is that women are more likely to feel the pressure to be helpful and therefore don’t mind carrying out office housework tasks even if it’s not part of their job description. It is of course important to note that some businesses may have staff employed to carry out these sorts of roles and therefore if office housework is written into an individual’s role or job description, it’s fine to expect them to do it as part of their day-to-day activity. The problem here is when women specifically, are left to do it, even when it’s not their direct responsibility or job to do so.

So, how can office managers strive for change?

Man working in an office

This may boil down to inciting a change in the office culture. If one individual has overcontributed to office housework for a length of time, then it would be a good start to capture the views of that individual from the outset. Find out what they do, how they do it and work out how those jobs and responsibilities can be split out amongst the team. Perhaps a rota could be set up to ensure these jobs don’t fall on a single individual or some other schedule could be put in place.

During appraisals and one to one meetings, managers should try finding out what office housework individuals are carrying out and discuss options to support them with it or find alternative solutions if they are seen to be carrying out an unfair proportion of the work. Simply put, it’s about isolating the workload and spreading it out across all members of the team. Office managers, male and female alike need to make a conscious effort to ensure that office housework is being carried out by people across the entire business if they want to improve equality at their business.

Male colleagues in general should be encouraged to step up to the plate and offer to help to demonstrate that their time is not more valuable than their female colleagues’ time. This may increase visibility of the problem and help to combat it altogether as male workers gain more understanding of the time and effort involved in constantly volunteering for and completing office housework tasks.

By working together, regardless of seniority, sex or gender, team members can ensure a coherent working environment by being conscious of everyone's contribution to making the workplace better for everyone. Share the workload and strive to reward those who go above and beyond to play their part in completing jobs to make your office a better place to work and, when possible, make a special effort to ensure office housework tasks aren’t just being left to female colleagues.

Nathan Bentley
Article by
Nathan is a content writer at Premierline with over 5 years’ experience, specialising in news and current affairs which impact small businesses across various industries. Nathan is passionate about discussing topics that affect the workplace, covering everything from human resources, to emerging and disruptive technologies. In the past, Nathan has written for a number of different businesses, working within a wide range of industries from financial technology to hospitality and even men’s fashion.
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