Helping at work can be a double-edged sword – particularly for women.
On the one hand, managers and teams rely on people to step in when a colleague is ill or out on vacation, when the team must prepare for a big meeting or to plan an event. And helping behaviors are associated with a stronger office culture, improved productivity, fewer errors, less waste, higher customer satisfaction and higher profitability.
On the other hand, helping can come with career costs. Although there are plenty of men who are “good citizens” at work, generally, they don’t face the same double bind as women. When men opt to help, it is noticed and rewarded. When men don’t help, they face no penalties – people just assume he’s probably too busy. In contrast, since helping out is expected of women, they are less rewarded when they do help and more penalized when they don’t.
Women lose out when they are organizational caregivers
Women are expected to help, say yes, and take care of a constant stream of small chores, emotional labor and unexpected demands. Helpful women handle details, smooth over conflict and are volunteered for task forces. They socialize new hires, advise co-workers, or show others how to use a new technology – which, in talent management terms, are onboarding, mentoring and skills development.
As a result of giving their time, effort and focus to organizational caregiving, women’s strategic growth and progress on their goals and on high-value work may be stalled. Women often receive “thank yous,” and these helping behaviors do contribute to good performance reviews – but these can be faulty signals. Helping behaviors count less than core tasks when it comes to decisions about who gets a raise, who gets promoted and who gets the right kinds of opportunities.
Attending to these non-promotable tasks is the plight of the “organizational wife.”
The costs of helping accumulate. For example, the lawyer who leads diversity recruiting efforts posts fewer billable hours is passed over for partnership. Or the salesperson who boosts everyone else’s sales at a cost to her own, receives a lower commission or bonus.
Often, helpful women are not seen as contenders for the strategic or bigger-scope projects necessary for career advancement. They get high marks from teammates for collaboration but are undervalued for those contributions. Women of color have the additional burden of what’s known as cultural taxation. They are expected to do more helping related to group representation but may not be recognized or rewarded for such activities.
Even the academic research used to understand workplace helping undervalues women and underestimates the burden, due to decades of gender bias built into the foundational measurements of organizational citizenship behavior.
Women lose out when they push back
Why don’t women just say no and focus on work that matters most? Because, for women, there is also a real cost for not helping.
Women who resist organizational caregiving are considered less likeable and not good team players. They get critiqued for their personality in performance reviews and rated lower. And, since women are asked to volunteer 44 percent more often than men, that’s a lot of saying no. Further, given women’s relational orientation, there can be personal costs as well, since not helping can be personally uncomfortable or fuel a sense of letting others down.
A multi-layered solution
Women can try to take steps to right-size their helping behaviors, but action by HR, managers and male colleagues is essential to break this workplace dynamic and make gender equity in the workplace a reality.
Talk about helping tasks. Name responsibilities that are needed but unnoticed, appreciated but not rewarded, expected but not required. If they are critical, assign these tasks to a formal role with appropriate compensation.
Check for gendered assumptions. Women are not inherently better at helping. Women might make tasks look easy because they’ve had more practice – but this should not be used as an excuse. Consider the possibility that a man might be getting a pass due to strategic incompetence.
Use male allies. By acknowledging the double bind women face, by stepping up and volunteering for such tasks, and pointing out when women colleagues shoulder more than their fair share, men can show allyship and influence everyone’s behaviors to improve the workplace for women.
Do away with the “organizational wife” role. Be sure everyone is crystal clear about priorities and the reward system. Encourage managers to protect women’s time for high-priority work in multiple ways: saying no for them, volunteering or asking a man first and rotating tasks among all team members with a system. The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women’s Dead-End Work is a helpful resource.
Use talent management as levers for change. Look critically at your people practices. Are helping behaviors factored into goal-setting or role descriptions? How are gender-related expectations influencing performance management? Could non-promotable tasks explain why many women hit career plateaus or burn out and leave? How can your organization accurately assess and evaluate organizational caregiving behaviors and their distribution?
It’s important to recognize we are all working in inherited social, cultural and organizational systems, with long-standing assumptions about gender roles. Putting our collective foot down on helping, or non-promotable, tasks is one way to increase equity and improve women’s career outcomes.