columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I've noticed in my office that nearly all of the holiday planning responsibilities fall to women. This is in a traditionally male-dominated industry where there has been progress in hiring/promoting women, but we're still generally underrepresented. However, in the party-planning efforts, usually all, or all but one, of the representatives are women.

This isn't some vast management conspiracy. Usually what happens is a call for volunteers goes out, everyone ignores it, and each component organization either designates a representative or a woman volunteers. I don't think it's intentional in any way, but I can't help but be frustrated that these types or roles always seem to fall to women.

Is this actually a problem? If so, whose responsibility is it to ensure a diverse representation in these things? How do they best do that? And how do I, as a low-level manager in this organization, approach it with my leadership?

Green responds:

The first thing to look at is the roles of the women who end up doing the party planning. If they're all in junior-level, admin-type roles, and if no men are in those roles, it might make sense that they're the ones getting stuck with the planning. (However, if that's the case, you have a different problem on your hands: the question of why those roles are exclusively filled by women. But that's a different question than the one you're posing.)

But if that's not the case--if the women are in jobs where organizing parties wouldn't be an obvious fit or if there are men in the same roles who never end up with party-planning duty--then yes, your party-planning systems need an overhaul.

It's a problem for everyone when women continue to be pegged into housekeeping or caretaking roles that aren't inherent parts of their jobs. Too often, it's the women in the office--especially younger women--who find themselves always being the ones to take notes at meetings, straighten up the kitchen, plan the parties, order lunch, and do other "caretaking" work, while the men in similar jobs get to focus on work that's more highly valued. That can have long-lasting ramifications for who gets what projects, who gets what recognition, who builds what reputation, and ultimately how their careers progress.

Sometimes this happens because women get assigned those caretaking tasks. Other times it happens because they volunteer for those projects. It's important to know that even if the women are volunteering, the disparity still needs to be addressed--just like you'd still need to address salary differences by gender, even if the differences were caused by men negotiating more. You can't see gender inequities playing out at work and say, "Oh well, that's just who volunteered (or asked for more money, or so forth)."

As for what you can do, one of the best things is to simply point it out. Just saying "Hey, I've noticed this work always falls to women; can we change that?" can sometimes be powerful. It can give other women encouragement to speak up too, and it can make it harder for things to continue as they have been.

As for whose responsibility it is to be noticing this, pointing it out, and addressing it, ideally that would be happening at a high level. Actually, ideally it would be happening throughout your culture. But since it's not, it's reasonable for anyone in your organization who notices this to say something. The fact that you're in a management role, even although only a low-level one, gives you additional standing to bring it up.

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