working women

What’s Helpful ≠ “Office Housework”

Whenever I read about issues that women face at work, I try not to be too critical about generalizations.  That’s because a lot of things that are true (and important) in life (and work) can’t be proven.

However, I was pretty disappointed by this recent article by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant in the NYT.  They point to a few different office anecdotes suggesting women are typically more “helpful” than men at work.  Their examples of “helpfulness” include “taking notes” and “bringing cupcakes.”  The reason they say this behavior isn’t rewarded because “helpfulness” to a team is not measured or noticed in the same way that individual contributions tend to be:

The person taking diligent notes in the meeting almost never makes the killer point

So what’s my gripe?  Calling helpful behavior “office housework” is an eye-catching phrase for but it conflates “helpful” with “not important”.

In my experience, being helpful is absolutely noticed and rewarded in the office, regardless of your gender.  The quote about note-taking is a bit of a red herring.  Since when is note-taking actually that helpful??  That’s a bad example of helpfulness and a good example of doing something unimportant.  What’s truly helpful at work is doing something unpleasant for the sake of a shared goal.  The more unpleasant the task, the more helpful I consider the person.  Is that helpful person typically a woman?  I don’t have the universal answer to this question but in my personal experience, its often a woman on my team who volunteers to do something unpleasant.  Typically it has been such an unpleasant task that it was anything but overlooked.  Its hard to ignore the fact that someone on your team is coming in on weekends to meet a deadline, cleaning up a messy database or situation, or dealing with an upset customer.  Those are better examples of “helpful” behavior than “bringing cupcakes”.

I don’t know if I’m the typical manager, but I’ve gotta believe that if you need to do something ugly, and someone on your team (man or woman) does it, you won’t forget about it.  In fact, I think most managers at big companies are pretty much forced to think about “helpfulness”.  Every employee review software program I’ve ever used included dedicated sections for discussing employee qualities such as whether someone is a “team player”.

Sandberg and Grant are right to point out that helpful behaviors should be noticed and measured, but “getting coffee” and “answering phones” are just terrible examples.  (Not to mention the fact that calling these things “housework” is pretty insulting to anyone who knows how important housework can be!)  If we want to help women at work get noticed and promoted, we have to start by talking about the kind of helpfulness at work that does matter.

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