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  • Writer's pictureDr Francesca Maclean


Updated: Oct 1, 2019

“Do we have to clean these dishes up?”

The first time I was asked that question was by a CEO of an external organisation who had been in a half-day workshop at my office. Interestingly, all of my colleagues had already swapped business cards, shaken hand his hand and left the room still with their dirty coffee cups and dishes without a second thought. And yes, all my colleagues were men.

So, this CEO and I had a few chuckles about the patriarchy and poor habits of others. However, this was not the first time I had been left in a room full of dirty plates, leftover food and coffee cups. As someone who leads projects and facilitates workshops, I am often the last person in the room which gives me insight into what my colleagues think is their responsibility - not a lot, apparently.

Cleaning up after a workshop is just one example of the office housework tasks that women are often assumed to take on. Emptying and stacking the dishwasher, cleaning up after a team birthday cake – even organising the birthday cake in the first place. I used to think it was just what was done, until I worked with colleagues for whom it never crossed their minds to even do the dishes. And yes, those colleagues were men.

I am often one of few (if any) women in a room, working with very few men who buck gender stereotypes as they play out at work, right in front of us. Because of this, I am constantly interrogating my gendered socialisation and upbringing, and how that is mirrored at work, because no one else is going to. I have slowly come to realise that as a client-facing billable consultant, doing the dishes is not in my job description. Disproportionately, women – in any workplace, and even more so when working in male dominated fields – are expected to undertake office housework more than the glamour work, and are asked to volunteer more often than men. This affects women’s time available to perform ‘promotable tasks’ and reinforces rigid gender stereotypes that do not belong in the 2019 workplace.

I do have to give credit to the one male leader who insists on taking over the coffee order from me when I am, in fact, the one running the meeting. But what about all the other instances? We can all do something about this:

  • Next time you have a team morning tea or workshop ask everyone to stack their dishes (or better yet, take them to the kitchen), before they leave the room

  • Assign tasks before a meeting or workshop, and have this assignment on a rotating basis so everyone knows how to get the coffee order or take minutes

  • Check out 15 office housework tasks to watch out for and reflect on how these play out in our office – and what you can do to change who does them

While we have control over our direct team’s behaviour, I have noticed two other cues in an organisation that send the message that office housework is truly a woman’s job:

  • Front of house or office services teams look after catering, room set up and pack down, are pre-dominantly, if not exclusively, made up of women

  • If you work in a large enough firm, you will may have a cleaning team who empty the dishes, clean the kitchen after lunch etc. Most likely, these teams are made up of women – and often, women of colour

It is time we shine a light on not only our own team's assignment of office housework, but also our companies’ approach and how it may be innately gendered.

How does this work in your organisation?

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