How Cupcakes Are Keeping Women From the Top

Last week, one of my professors asked us to sign up to take notes to share with the class. As my friend put her name on the list, she counted the men who had volunteered. There were two of them. For twenty-six classes. In an 80-person class that's equal parts men and women.

This seems like an insignificant issue, but it's not an isolated phenomenon. As I sat in that classroom, I remembered reading dozens of interviews while writing the upcoming book The New Girls' Network, in which incredibly high-powered women described struggling with the expectation that they perform undervalued service work. The women my co-author (and awesome mom) Joan Williams spoke with included Fortune 500 executives, senior partners at international law firms and bestselling authors. More than a few of them are still being asked to make coffee, take notes at meetings and organize birthday celebrations when no one would ever dream of suggesting such menial tasks to their male co-workers.

Carol Bartz, former CEO of Yahoo!, told us about a small dinner party she attended at Steve Jobs' house for then-President Clinton. One of the guests there was an entertainment executive who wasn't familiar with the Silicon Valley-heavy crowd. Early in the evening, the executive came up to Bartz and asked her to get him a cup of tea.

"I just said, 'Gee, does it look like I'm the one who gets the tea?'" she remembered.

Anther woman we interviewed said: "Women would get leaned on... 'Can you run this?' 'Can you volunteer to do this?' 'Could you serve on this committee?' It didn't translate into pay or advancement. It was just, 'You're a helping kind of person.'" Law firm partners had stories of being expected to serve on party-planning committees while their male peers begged off because they had to work. An upper-level partner at a major professional services firm said she's still expected to bake birthday cakes for her employees.

Academics Pamela Bettis and Natalie Adams refer to these sorts of undervalued tasks as "the work of nice." Being nice is hard work, Bettis and Adams argue, but it's work that tends to disappear; asking for credit for being nice isn't nice at all. As a result, women are expected to do unnoticed, unappreciated work, and face backlash if they demand credit or simply refuse. At the New Girls' Network, we refer to this pattern of bias as the Tightrope.

Why does any of this matter? As a first-year law student, I can't get away from the statistic that, while 46 percent of incoming law firm associates are women, barely 15 percent make it to the equity partner level. (And for those optimists who hope that's getting better, those statistics have been more or less static for fifteen years, although the most recent report from the National Association of Women Lawyers indicates that the percentages of both female equity partners and incoming associates are actually going down.) This is not, of course, purely or even significantly because women are more likely than men to volunteer for menial tasks or because they're less likely than men to raise their hands when they're not completely confident they know the answer. But these things are part of a wider pattern with real effects.

There are relatively small, simple ways to get around the biases at work here. Do what I did, and quietly refuse to sign up for administrative tasks. If someone asks you directly to do something you feel is unfair or gendered, offer a neutral reason for why you can't ("I want to focus my attention on this big project") and provide an alternative ("Have you thought about putting together a list of junior associates who can take notes?"). For those in power, it's easy to just assign people these tasks, making sure to balance for gender.

The key is not to avoid talking about these things because they seem small or unimportant. They matter. And we can't change them if we don't notice they're there.