Most of us hope that our colleagues and bosses see us as helpful. Helping in the workplace has been recognized as an important and desirable organizational behavior for decades, from both an interpersonal relationship perspective as well as a business productivity perspective.
When we're helpful, we contribute positively to the social and emotional fabric of the company, as well as to the capacity of the organization to meet, and even exceed, business goals.
It's easy to infer that helpful people are likable people, and that likable people get ahead. For women, however, being likable can be a double-edged sword. Women are rarely perceived as competent and likable simultaneously. In fact, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founding president of the Center for Talent Innovation and author of Executive Presence and Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets, "The likability-versus-competence tradeoff is arguably the most tenacious, as well as pernicious, double bind that women in leadership confront."
One of the ways that women undermine the perception of their competence at work is by engaging in what Harvard Business School Professor Rosebeth Moss Kanter calls "office housework." These are the administrative tasks that help keep projects running but don't pay off from a career perspective. Activities range from picking up for the monthly birthday cake and collecting signatures for get-well cards to answering the phone in conference calls and checking to make sure there's fresh coffee for the meeting.
Joan C. Williams, co-author of What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know, says that women are "often asked to play the selfless good citizen" because they are "taking on assignments that men don't want or that the organization doesn't highly reward." A man who doesn't do these tasks is considered "busy," while a woman who doesn't do these is considered "selfish."
Another name for these kinds of activities makes their impact (or lack thereof) even more clear: non-promotable tasks.
According to research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Pittsburgh, "workers who spend more time on non-promotable tasks are held back from demonstrating their full potential. If this burden falls disproportionately on women, not only is their advancement stymied, but also corporations miss out on capturing valuable talent."
Of course, regardless of gender, you don't need every single thing you do to directly contribute to your path to promotion. However, you do want to make sure that you're not sacrificing career advancement opportunities for nice-but-not-that-important tasks. If you're a man, research shows that you're more likely to be taking advantage of the former, and expecting--or even asking--women to do the latter.
Stop doing that.
And if you're a woman, you're more likely to regularly volunteer for these jobs. Stop putting your hand up. Or, if asked to do one of these tasks, say, "I've done this in the past, and I'm ready for someone else to do this next time/moving forward."
Then stop talking.
Does this mean you should never offer to be helpful? Absolutely not. Does it mean that you should consider how doing "office housework" impacts your leadership brand, your reputation, your discretionary time--and the implicit messages you're sending to other women, and men? That's a firm yes.
Here are three non-promotable meeting tasks that women should offer to do less, and that men should volunteer for more:
This includes ordering the birthday cake, setting up the food for a meeting that you're attending (or leading), making the coffee and ensuring that everyone has his or her preferred milk/milk substitute and sugar/sugar substitute, passing the menu around for everyone to select his or her lunch order, and making sure that the leftover snacks make it to the break room.
2. Taking notes
This ranges from taking minutes (or whatever today's version of that is) to writing on a flip chart or white board while someone else is speaking. And while we're at it, let's add passing out papers and scrambling to get pens for those who didn't bring anything with which to write.
3. Volunteering for a follow-up
Someone is going to need to send around those meeting notes. Someone is going to need to send out due dates and reminders. Someone is going to need to chase people who missed those deadlines. It's going to get uncomfortable while everyone waits for someone to raise her hand. Let it be uncomfortable.
It's time to dismantle the stereotype that "women take care, and men take charge"--especially if your organization is committed to hiring, retaining, and promoting the most qualified employees.