(NEW YORK) — Do you ever clean the office kitchen even if it’s not in your job description? Been designated the office party planner? Are you always expected to know where the printer paper is?
If you have checked off all of these boxes, you might be known as an “office mom” in the workplace.
“‘Office moms’ have often been characterized as individuals who are doing what has been described as office home duties in the office,” Lise Vesterlund, Andrew W. Mellon professor of the department of economics at the University of Pittsburgh, told ABC News’ Good Morning America.
This can include tasks from organizing office birthdays or holiday parties to putting in the group lunch order.
Vesterlund conducted a study published in the American Economic Review examining the tasks people perform in the workplace and “the extent to which individuals are assigned what we characterize as non-promotable tasks.”
In other words, looking at who in the office is being assigned to tasks that generate revenue and who is expected to take on service or culture tasks that do not necessarily lead to a promotion.
Her research found that women in particular tend to get assigned to these types of tasks more often than men or are asked to volunteer, and end up volunteering for them.
“What we’re finding is women are far more likely to get these less promotable tasks assigned, or volunteer for them as well,” she said. “It is in part coming from an expectation that these are tasks performed by women.”
Studies show that women are more likely to volunteer for tasks that won’t lead to a promotion. Data collected from a large public U.S. university showed that out of 3,271 faculty members who were asked to volunteer for a faculty senate committee, only 3.7% volunteered, but 7% of women chose to do so, while only 2.6% of their male counterparts volunteered, according to the Harvard Business Review.
Making change at the company level
One way to combat these entrenched workplace patterns is for managers to re-examine the assignment process, track who does what, and be aware of these biases.
“Considering how we assign these tasks is really key to improving things,” Vesterlund said, adding that companies should also rethink asking for volunteers to take on tasks of this nature since women appear to volunteer more than men. Instead consider having employees take turns or draw a name out of a hat, she said.
Her bottom line: companies should not rely on just women to handle these tasks.
“When a woman comes to work, she has exactly the same hours at the workplace as a man does,” she said.
If women “hold tasks that are less promotable than those held by men, then women will progress more slowly in organizations,” her research found.
Being an ‘office mom’ isn’t always a negative
For Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo, co-authors of the book Work Wife: The Power of Female Friendship to Drive Successful Businesses, being an “office mom” who takes on tasks to boost morale in the workplace isn’t a negative. In fact, at their office, tasks like planning parties, bringing coffee to meetings are considered important, promotable skills.
“It’s an important part of company culture to include these tasks in the job description,” Mazur said. “If you’re good at that, you demonstrate that you can be organized, that you have sensitivity to office culture, so I don’t think it has to have a negativity in that way.”
While there’s no perfect solution to avoiding “thankless” tasks that are not within your job description, experts say that there are ways for you to avoid taking on this extra work.
If you’re prone to volunteer for non-promotable assignments, Vesterlund told the Women at Work podcast to sit tight and mimic the body language of others who often do not volunteer.
“Mimic the body language that they have, you know, as they start checking their phones or putting things away, pulling back from the table,” she told the podcast. “Just mimic that behavior, so you don’t get in a position where you suddenly feel so stressed by the silence that you’re one who says ‘yes.'”
The truth is if you say no to your manager, there could be repercussions you’d face, so instead Vesterlund suggested meeting with your manager one-on-one to discuss the work you’re currently being assigned versus projects you would like take on. Raise your hand for those.
“If you’re in a public meeting, saying no in front of a bunch of people, I don’t think is very advisable,” she told the Women at Work podcast, “But going up to the manager afterwards and saying, you know, these are the projects I’ve been assigned with recently. They’re all the same character. If I’m taking this on, can I not take on the next one?”
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