Women, Stop Volunteering for Office Housework!

By Maya Salam

Gender Letter

CreditFranziska Barczyk

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I’m an enthusiastic person — earnest and hungry, starving really, to learn as much as I can, at work and in life. I’m a rah-rah team player because I want my team to win. Surely this disposition to do whatever it takes for the collective good at the office would propel me right up the ladder, right?

Not so fast, according to new research published in the Harvard Business Review. The study found that volunteering for what it called “nonpromotable tasks” at the office can actually shift your career into reverse. And the report showed that those who say yes to thankless tasks — like planning holiday parties, filling in for absent colleagues or serving on low-level committees — are 48 percent more likely to be women.

The economics professors who wrote it — Linda Babcock, Maria P. Recalde and Lise Vesterlund — also found that women were asked to take on such tasks more frequently, and that among everyone asked, women were more likely to agree than men.

I have been that woman.

I should introduce myself: I’m Maya Salam, your new newsletter writer. I’ve been at The Times for three years, most recently covering breaking news like the shooting in Maryland’s Capital Gazette newsroom and how Harvey Weinstein’s accusers reacted the day of his arrest, and writing offbeat stories including how radical body love is thriving on Instagram, the significance of Adam Rippon’s red carpet harness and what happens when 9,000 barrels of bourbon come crashing down in a building collapse.

I’ve also been an amateur boxer, skateboarder, snowboarder and runway model, and my wife and I have a goldendoodle named Bea. You can follow her on Instagram (along, of course, with @nytgender!). Please let me know what you think about the newsletter or anything else by writing to dearmaya@nytimes.com.

The Harvard study about so-called reluctant volunteers reminded me of a job I had during college at a private airport in Denver. I was hired to handle the many needs of incoming and outgoing jets, but I agreed to add the tedious task of balancing jet fuel sales on the side. I got paid not a penny more and found out later that it was “offered” to me because the man who did it previously was bored with it.

Then there was my stint as a senior copywriter, where, even after earning my senior title, I was transcribing lengthy videos because I’d agreed to do so when I was new. At the time, I had thought I’d been promoted in part because of my willingness to do such time-sucking tasks, but in retrospect I’m quite sure it was in spite of it.

The researchers call these tasks “office housework”: nonrevenue-generating work that’s low risk and low reward, but can require a substantial time commitment. Basically being asked to fetch coffee times 10, or 100.

“This can have serious consequences for women,” the report says. “If they are disproportionately saddled with work that has little visibility or impact, it will take them much longer to advance in their careers.”

Interestingly, the study showed that men were more likely to volunteer for such tasks within an all-male group than a coed one. In the coed groups, women also received 44 percent more requests to volunteer than men — even when the boss was a woman.

“Both male and female managers were more likely to ask a woman to volunteer than a man,” the researchers noted. “This was apparently a wise decision: Women were also more likely to say yes.”

Men accepted requests 51 percent of the time; women, 76 percent of the time.

Jessica Bennett, gender editor of The New York Times and my new boss, wrote about this in her book, “Feminist Fight Club.”

“We know, saying no can be difficult,” she said. “But here’s one thing that’s not: not offering in the first place.”



What We’re Reading

• The baby’s coming, but the hospital is hours away. After years of cost-cutting and closures, fewer than half of the nation’s rural counties now have a hospital that offers any obstetric care. [The New York Times]

• Women ask: “What if it were me?” A group of New York women aimed to get one migrant released from detention and reunited with her children, but have now raised $300,000 and counting. [The New York Times]

• “I am committed to playing.” On the African archipelago of Zanzibar, a group of Muslim women are challenging a culture that says only men can play soccer. [The New York Times]

• “It’s such a deep blow.” Carrie Gracie of the BBC blamed herself when she found out she was getting paid less than her male peers. Now, the women there are pushing for pay equity. [The New Yorker]

• A place to pump in peace. Millions of new mothers endure the private struggle of trying to pump breast milk while working. For some, the hoops are too great, and they stop breast-feeding altogether. [Harper’s Bazaar]

• More than consent, enthusiasm. What if we advised young people to check for nothing less than enthusiastic agreement from their sexual partners? [The New York Times]


Overlooked but Not Forgotten

Beatrice Tinsley at an International Astronomical Union symposium in Tallinn, Estonia, in 1977.CreditJ. Richard Gott

Since 1851, the vast majority of obituaries in The New York Times have been about men. Earlier this year, we began a series called Overlooked, in which we are writing obits for women who never got them. This week it’s Beatrice Tinsley, an astronomer who challenged the academic establishment and became an expert on the aging of galaxies.

Also this week, Manohla Dargis, one of our chief film critics, wrote about a new BAMcinématek series that aims to set the record straight on female filmmakers of the past whose work has too often been ignored.


From the Archives

While we’re on the subject of “office housework,” check out this 1974 article, “Secretaries: A Little Irked But Generally They’re Happy.”

Though professional opportunities for women had broadened by the mid-70s, many still chose secretarial positions because they were plentiful — fulfillment and respect be damned.

“Even without feminist attempts to raise their consciousness, successful secretaries have their share of gripes about their field,” the article says.

“They see sexism rampant in many offices, with women still expected to set the table for luncheon meetings or go for coffee. Some object to training young men who go on to administrative positions. And many still consider much of what is said about them too much of a caricature.”


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Maya Salam is our new newsletter writer. Follow her on Twitter @Maya_Salam or write to dearmaya@nytimes.com

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A3 of the New York edition with the headline: Here to Help; Women, Stop Volunteering for Office Housework. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe