At any conference about women and business, there will invariably be a few men in the audience. Often, when it's time for the audience Q&A, a guy will get chosen to ask a question, mostly because, hey, he's a guy, and he showed up. And often, the question is the same: When it comes to gender bias in the workplace, what can men do?

A new article in the Harvard Business Review has an answer. The authors, law professor Joan Williams, who is also the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, and Marina Multhaup, a research and policy fellow there, warn that these suggestions are not glamorous or high profile. They're hardly going to make your career.

They want you to order lunch. While you're at it, could you reserve the conference line for Tuesday's sales meeting? And order a baby gift for that employee who just went out on leave?

I am not joking, nor are Williams and Multhaup. These thankless tasks are part of a whole category of work known as office housework, and men need to do more of it. Offices run more smoothly when this stuff is done properly. But no one gets applauded for doing it well, and it certainly won't earn anyone a promotion.

Overwhelmingly, it's women who get stuck with these mundane tasks. Research from Williams and Multhaup, which has yet to be released, finds that women of color are particularly likely to get stuck with office drudgery. Ironically, when a man does do office housework, he's rated 14 percent more favorably than a female colleague, according to a study from New York University. 

Obviously, this is unfair. It's also kind of a big deal. It's not just about the coffee at a meeting. Office housework takes time, and it takes time away from higher-profile activities that will lead to promotions and raises. Assigning the office housework mostly to women feeds the stereotype that women are nurturers and men are the ones who get taken care of. That frankly, women are subservient. Even at work, where we're all supposedly measured by the same metrics and asked to conform to the same standards of behavior.

It's also harder for women to refuse office housework than it is for men. A man who doesn't organize a birthday party can say he's busy, or more bluntly, has more important things to do. A women who refuses the office housework is more likely to be accused of being "not a team player" or selfish.

Ideally, managers would make sure these mundane tasks are doled out equally. Until then, men need to volunteer to do more of the office drudgery.

So what can men do? Plenty. Here are Williams's and Multhaup's 15 suggestions:

  1. Take notes
  2. Procure the conference room
  3. Get everyone on the conference line
  4. Plan the party
  5. Buy gifts for birthdays, retirements, baby showers
  6. Order lunch
  7. Organize lower-level employees
  8. Mentoring activities
  9. Serving on committees that are not linked to revenue or core business goals
  10. Handle less-valued clients
  11. Handle HR tasks
  12. Handle routine work that is not central to business strategy
  13. Organize offsite events
  14. Maintain the task list
  15. Keep the trains running (versus big-picture thinking and strategy)

None of this is glamorous. It's merely necessary. And it should be gender-blind.

Why Unconscious Bias Exists Even in the Highest Echelons of Management
Published on: Mar 7, 2018