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Dumping the unpaid workload of women (and the economic benefit)

“Anyone else panicking about getting end of year teacher gifts done?!”

One of my friends, a physician and practice owner, shared this question on social media, curious if she was alone in frantically writing notes and arranging gifts for each of her three kids’ teachers. Having never given teacher gifts, I messaged her to ask, “Is this a new thing?!” She responded and let me know that in her circles it was a thing – especially given how hard teachers worked this year! She told me that she was stressed because she still had more “real work” to do when she was done with gifts and it was going to be a long night.

This is one of ways the unpaid workload of women sneaks into daily life. If there's one thing that data can backs up, it's that the pandemic brought women some extra workload. They don't just have a job, but they also now have an extra homeschooling load to handle.

What is the unpaid and invisible workload of women?

The invisible, unpaid workload of women reveals that women spend an extra two hours per day outside of their normal shift at work, cleaning, carpooling, cooking, laundering, parenting, helping family, etc. They are the extra things we say yes to that aren't actually paid, but they are contributing to society and taking our time, our energy and our effort.

In addition to the unpaid labor women take on at home, research shows that women get 44% more requests at work to volunteer for “non-promotable” tasks. 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 a colleague, or serving on a low-level committees. Men will tend to go for more strategic projects with higher level networking or visibility. According to this research, women received 44% more requests to volunteer at work than men. And when decision time came, 51% of the time men said yes, and 76% of the time women said yes.

How to offload and redistribute the work

One of the things I want you to notice is how much extra work you're doing, that you are not getting paid for and the toll that's taking, taking on you emotionally, financially, and energetically. Also, if you’re a leader, how can you design work to distribute these tasks more equitably? Or, even outsource them? Notice if there is any unconscious gendering of tasks and how work can be distributed more equitably.

Ready to offload some of your unpaid workload? Ask yourself three questions.

  1. What can I dump? Look at your work calendar or your home to-do list. What tasks or habits have you taken on because they made sense at the time, and you’ve kept doing them out of habit? Perhaps it’s sending out meeting notes that no one reads. Maybe it’s cooking treats for school or buying handmade gifts for teachers. While a wonderful gesture – can you dump the “homemade” part of it? Confession: I never made teacher gifts and my kids’ treats were from the grocery store.

  2. What can I delegate? If the work you’re volunteering for is something you can do in your sleep and burning you out, perhaps there’s someone better suited to be taking this on? When my daughter was old enough to reach the laundry knobs, she was doing her own laundry, probably about age seven. She knew how to vacuum floors and clean her bathroom. What presents an opportunity for a new employee, or child, to develop a crucial skill?

  3. What can you outsource? What can you outsource at work via a contractor or an errand runner or something that you can hire? What can you outsource at home? When I was a single parent who traveled for work, one of the things that I just didn't have energetic bandwidth for was my lawn care. So I was happy to cut something out of my budget and hire a professional to do this for me. At a previous employer, we switched to grocery and supply delivery. We outsourced event planning to offload work from our already stretched team members.

You have permission NOT to be the person that's constantly rushing in and volunteering to save the day at home or work. This is not just a social justice and equality issue. Equal pay for labor is an economic issue. It it also not a men vs women issue as men are certainly putting in the work. But women of all ages and races, income brackets and employment statuses are spending over 37% more time on unpaid labor than men.

So, paying for these tasks benefits everyone - families, employers, and communities - especially people of color who experience a far wider pay gap. The Council for Foreign Relations did a study that if women had parity with men in terms of paid labor, it would add a GDP gain of $4.3 trillion. That’s $13,392 per person – seems worth taking a look at the unpaid labor at work and home.

What will you dump, delegate or outsource?

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Kelli Thompson is a leadership coach and speaker. Her programs help women advance with clarity and confidence so they can make their unique impact in the rooms where decisions are made. Learn more about Kelli's programs and schedule a Q&A call.

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