Why are women given menial tasks at work?

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Women are expected to be 'team-players' – which often means taking on jobs nobody else wants. Photo: Getty

Picture the scenario. The to-do list scribbled next to you is getting longer and time is ticking by.

You will probably be able to make your afternoon deadline — you hope — if you avoid distractions and crack on with the task at hand. But as you’re beginning to make progress, your manager pipes up with a coffee request.

On the one hand, a coffee takes a few minutes to make - and it’s not an unreasonable request in the grand scheme of things. But on the other, breaking away from work when you’re in the swing of things is a disruption you just don’t need, particularly when you’re already swamped.

A hot drink is one thing, but these kinds of menial tasks go beyond putting the kettle on.

Research shows women are more likely than men to do “non-promotable tasks,” according to the project management platform Hive. So not only are women shouldering the responsibility of unpaid work in the form of cooking, cleaning and childcare at home, they’re also taking on “office housework” in the workplace, too.

Emily*, who is 27, says: “I’ve worked in lots of different jobs in Bristol, London and Manchester and without exception I’ve had to do lots of menial tasks at work outside of my day to day.

“In one job I regularly had to book things on behalf of the companies three male owners - some typical things like restaurants for birthday dinners or hotels, but one of the weirdest was having to get into work early to book four tickets to Kate Bush when she performed in London for one manager’s wife.”

Why are women given menial tasks?

Feelings of self-doubt can lead us to go the extra mile to impress a boss. Photo: Getty Images

In 2017, a study published in the American Economic Review found that women are more likely to volunteer and get asked to do tasks that aren’t going to help them move forward in their careers.

For the study, research examined the allocation of tasks such as writing a report, serving on a committee or planning a party. The results showed that women were 48% more likely than men to volunteer for a task that would penalise them financially while benefiting the group overall.

When a manager was brought in to decide who to pick for a thankless task, the study found they were 44% more likely to ask a woman to volunteer in mixed-sex groups.

There are a number of reasons why women may feel pressured to take on menial tasks, including wanting to be liked by our peers.

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Imposter Syndrome is another factor, as feelings of self-doubt can lead us to go the extra mile to impress a boss. But in some cases, women being picked on for thankless jobs can be down to the gender stereotyping of women as caregiving and communal. Women are expected to be “team-players” - which often means taking on jobs nobody else wants.

“As we live within a highly biased society where the entitlement of men goes mostly unquestioned, then we should not be surprised that women are almost always expected to continue to service them at work by making the tea and or taking minutes,” says Vivienne Hayes, CEO of Women’s Resource Centre - a charity that support’s women’s organisations.

“Until we acknowledge this inherent bias in society which sees men paid more than women, men promoted faster than women, women doing the majority of unpaid care and housework, then we will not be able to address this particular manifestation of that bias.”

How does this problem affect women’s careers?

Of course, it’s a stretch to attribute being asked to make an occasional coffee to sexism. But a problem arises if you are repeatedly asked to sign up for extra tasks, which can set a precedent for what low-level jobs you are willing to do.

If you’re spending extra hours a week running personal errands for your manager, you risk falling behind in the job you were hired for, or becoming overworked and dissatisfied. Ultimately, it creates an uneven balance in how much time men and women spend on their actual job requirements that will help advance their careers — as well as increase their pay.

“Beliefs that women, more than men, say yes to tasks with low promotability appear as an important driver of these differences,” the researchers wrote in the 2017 study. “If women hold tasks that are less promotable than those held by men, then women will progress more slowly in organisations.”

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It’s also important to note that there’s a big difference between volunteering for the greater good and being made to look after other people at work, adds Jo Cresswell, community expert at the job and recruiting site Glassdoor.

“Taking on additional tasks in the office - volunteering for a committee, offering mentoring to colleagues, even always being the first to do the tea run - can be an effective way to get noticed at work and demonstrate commitment to the success of the office,” she says.

If someone believes they are being treated unfairly or regularly picking up the slack that others don’t, Cresswell adds, they should feel comfortable raising the issue with their colleagues or managers if necessary.

It helps to be prepared and keep a note of instances where they have taken on menial tasks at work “to demonstrate the extent of the issue,” Cresswell says. You should also “prepare an explanation” of how these tasks are impacting their official job responsibilities before entering the conversation, too.