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This invisible labour that makes up office housekeeping is not only under-recognized and under-appreciated, it can be harmful.CHRIS JOUBERT/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

When Eleonore Fournier-Tombs began her career in tech, she initially worked as an assistant, which meant that getting sandwiches for a lunch meeting or organizing accommodations for a team retreat were part of the gig. As she progressed in her career, however, she found she kept carrying out these tasks, even though they were no longer in her job description.

“It was something I could do, and it was helpful,” says Ms. Fournier-Tombs, now director of the Inclusive Technology Lab at the University of Ottawa. She notes that the situation was exacerbated by the gender imbalance in the male-dominated workplaces she worked in. “Even in my 20s, I felt that as a woman I was taking on this maternal role, making sure everyone was okay and taken care of.”

And while no one ever explicitly demanded she do any of these things, it was assumed that she would. “The men didn’t volunteer for these tasks, and they didn’t feel awkward about it either,” she says.

Perpetuating stereotypes

If Ms. Fournier-Tombs’ story sounds familiar, that might be because you’ve done a spot (or a lot) of “office housework” yourself. Defined by the Harvard Business Review as “the kind of assignment that has to get done by someone, but isn’t going to make that person’s career,” these are the behind-the-scenes tasks that fall almost exclusively to women in the workplace. It’s the circulating of birthday cards, the note-taking during a meeting, the organizing of Zoom socials or the smoothing over of ruffled feathers when there’s an office conflict.

This invisible labour is not only “under-recognized and under-appreciated,” says Paulette Senior, president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, it can be harmful.

“It perpetuates stereotypes [that] women and equity-seeking workers have the innate responsibility for care and nurturing work,” Ms. Senior says. She points to the 2021 Women in the Workplace study by McKinsey and Lean In, which showed women are burning out faster than men. The study linked that burnout to the emotional labour often involved in office housework, which women are often expected to do on top of their actual jobs.

Another problem is that “this is not necessarily the type of work that will add to a worker’s performance evaluations and be seen as ‘promotable’ activity,” says Ms. Senior. “If you think about the effect of that over a career, it can further widen gender pay and promotion gaps that harm all women, and tend to multiply for Black women, Indigenous women, newcomer women and women with disabilities.”

Breaking the cycle

Ms. Fournier-Tombs’ journey to quitting office housekeeping was a gradual one as she entered her 30s and began seeing the disconnect between those extra tasks and her actual role as a data scientist.

“I would never want to disregard the caring actions that women are socialized to do, because they’re good,” explains Ms. Fournier-Tombs, who is also a “visionary” for The Prosperity Project, a not-for-profit examining the ways the pandemic has held women back in the workplace. “But I decided to take a step back and stop worrying that I needed to be the one to accomplish them.”

As someone who is now in a leadership role, Ms. Fournier-Tombs says she is deliberate about delegating office housework to the men on her team where possible. Step one of breaking the cycle can be just becoming aware of the gender dynamics at play, she says, and not volunteering in the first place.

But, as Paulette Senior points out, the problem of office housework is a systemic one, and it’s often not in an individual employee’s power to push back, especially since women are statistically much more likely to be asked to do this work.

“This is why managers and leaders play a powerful role in thinking, acting, and proactively modeling change from a structural perspective,” she says, “understanding that the goal is to make the workplace fairer, better, and more effective for everyone.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: I am considering leaving my current position at a large corporation to join a small startup. It’s a young team with exciting, ambitious ideas and I feel like it could be a great move career-wise. However, I am hoping to have children within the next five years and I’m concerned about whether the startup will provide the support and flexibility that I know would be available at my current firm. Should I consider this before making a decision to change jobs, or just worry about it when the time comes?

We asked Sweta Regmi, career consultant and founder of Teachndo in Sudbury, Ont., to field this one:

First of all, you don’t need to let the potential employer know about your plan to have children in the next five years. There can be real bias against hiring young women for this reason. But it’s a good idea to do some research in order to get a sense whether this is likely to be a supportive environment.

Salary discussions will come into play during your negotiations, so you can be strategic and ask, ‘Can I see your total compensation package?’ This will include information about pregnancy and parental leave policies.

There are other questions you should ask your potential employer when being you’re being interviewed: ‘What’s your goal in five to 10 years from now? Is the company going to grow? How does the process work when someone goes away on vacation? Is there someone else who can take over?’ Understand those expectations and processes from the outside before you jump in.

If you haven’t had a chance yet, ask if you can meet with the person who will become your direct supervisor. If you don’t connect well now, it could be a problem when you need support in future. You could also ask to walk around the department and talk to other team members, see what the dynamic is. Are there other women working there who may be at a similar stage of life? Or are you likely to be the only one who is going to start having babies?

Another strategy is to check LinkedIn to see if you can find someone who has left the company and reach out to them. Ask them, ‘How is the work environment?’ They may give you information you won’t get from current employees.

The truth is, we can’t know what’s going to happen five years from now. Life happens. If the ‘pros’ are so strong for this job, then you may want to take the leap. But if you do your research, when you make the move you will feel like there’s been no stone unturned. You’ve done the homework and you’ll feel confident about it.

Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.