Women Do The Most 'Invisible Work' At The Office — And It's Getting Us Nowhere

"'Oh, and thank you to Kelli for coordinating this event,' my manager said. After weeks of planning and stressing, the 'exposure' I received was barely a two-second mention."
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“If you lead this, Kelli, you will get so much exposure to senior leadership,” my manager told me.

Every year, the organization I worked for would host an annual fundraiser and select an individual to chair the efforts. One year, my director let me know that her boss was going to be the executive sponsor for the initiative, and asked if I would chair the committee to organize the events for the nonprofit fundraiser.

I answered her honestly: “If I’m being truthful, I’m not really that interested in leading it.”

As soon as those words left my mouth, I felt a twinge of guilt in my gut and a lump in my throat. I was a relatively new leader at that point in my career, and eager to climb the corporate ladder — I was flattered to be asked, but hesitant to commit. I knew the amount of tasks and meetings that would go into leading an organization-wide effort like this.

My manager was supportive of my feelings of hesitancy but encouraged me to reconsider, as saying no could reflect poorly on my desire to be a team player and keep me from being considered for future promotions. Taking her point about exposure and future opportunities, I agreed to lead the initiative.

As soon as the annual fundraiser kicked off, I started spending at least five hours per week on the project. Not only did I have to select department leads, set goals and communicate with my contacts at the fundraising organization, but I also had to attend meetings to coordinate fundraising events and brainstorm ideas to get people excited about donating money.

My time was eaten up crafting emails to the department leads about status checks and goal updates. I ghostwrote emails that the executive sponsor would send out as his own. I spent time each day ironing out the logistics of the fundraising events ― everything from how to decorate the event space to what door prizes should be given out.

It wasn’t just the work itself that consumed my time — worrying about the work, fielding questions and dreading meetings also zapped my energy. Despite the energetic toll of leading the initiative, I put in my best effort. Because if my name was going to be attached to something, I wanted to exceed the goals I’d set for myself. We did raise slightly more than our target number.

At the final fundraiser celebration on the executive floor of the company, all of the executives and people involved with the fundraising efforts came to celebrate the money that was raised. I still remember the moment the executive sponsor got up to make his remarks. As everyone circled around him, I tried to peer over a group of mostly male leaders and executives. The sponsor talked about the importance of fundraising and how much money was raised, and thanked everyone for their involvement and support.

“Oh, and also thank you to Kelli for coordinating this event.”

After weeks of planning and stressing, the “exposure” I was supposed to receive amounted to barely a two-second mention. I felt like a balloon deflating. I had put in 50-plus hours, and no one was going to leave that event and remember my name or my face.

However, I hoped that maybe someday this exposure would pay off financially or in my career progression (spoiler: it didn’t), and I felt relieved that the fundraiser was over and could be led by someone else next year.

It wasn’t until eight years later, when I left corporate America, that I had a name for what I’d experienced those previous years — the unpaid workload of women. Studies show women spend an extra two hours per day outside their normal shift at work cleaning, carpooling, cooking, laundering, parenting, helping family and more. They do the extra tasks that aren’t actually paid but are essential to society — and this additional work is taking our time, our energy and our effort.

In addition to the two hours of unpaid labor women take on at home, research from Harvard Business Review found that women get 44% more requests than men to volunteer for “non-promotable” tasks at work. Non-promotable tasks are those that benefit the organization but likely don’t contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement.

These tasks include traditional office “housework,” such as coordinating parties and office events, as well as filling in for colleagues and serving on low-level committees. Men tend to get requests for and accept more strategic projects with higher-level networking or visibility. When the requests for non-promotable tasks are made, according to HBR, men say yes 51% of the time and women say yes 76% of the time.

The toll of this unpaid work has real costs. Women are contributing more, but they are often less recognized, according to the 2021 Women in the Workplace Report by McKinsey. Burnout is at an all-time high. While women have been resilient over the past two years, leading the emotional response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as diversity and inclusion efforts, the report revealed that 4 in 10 women had considered leaving their companies or switching jobs, and the turnover data in the months following this report indicated they followed through.

Organizations need to continue evaluating their policies in order to keep working moms and other women in the office, ensuring equitable distribution of unpaid office work and volunteer opportunities. Women’s work is worthy of being rewarded, whether it’s with extra paid time off, a spot bonus or a higher performance rating.

Women also shouldn’t feel pressured to be the person who’s constantly rushing in and volunteering to save the day, at home or work.

For all the women who are being crushed under unpaid workload, it’s not about hustling to be seen or hoping someone will recognize our efforts. There is still no award for how much you can tolerate. In fact, as you accelerate in your career, saying yes to too many things will keep you stuck in the weeds, not leading at the strategic level you are capable of.

But ultimately, the onus for change rests with the companies and patriarchal systems that keep female employees overworked and overwhelmed.

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