Home > Uncategorized > Women and work and housekeeping

Women and work and housekeeping

February 11, 2015

I’ve been enjoying Sheryl Sandberg’s columns with Adam Grant in the “Women at Work” columns of the New York Times. See for example this one on discrimination at work.

The most recent one, third in a series of four, talks about how women at work do lots of extra “housekeeping” tasks like training, giving advice, and so on, which is often unrewarded. In fact they point out a double standard in expectations for this stuff:

In a study led by the New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman, participants evaluated the performance of a male or female employee who did or did not stay late to help colleagues prepare for an important meeting. For staying late and helping, a man was rated 14 percent more favorably than a woman. When both declined, a woman was rated 12 percent lower than a man.

So, part of this is absolutely just sexism, which doesn’t surprise me. But I think another part of it is mismanagement.

Let me explain. First of all, this stuff generally resonates with me – I’m absolutely one of those people who tries to make the workplace “more of a community.” So, for example, things like figuring out stuff and building and updating a wiki, which then everyone can use as a resource and saves a bunch of time for everyone. That stuff is not directly rewarded even though it’s actually useful. Because of that weirdness, men (in general) don’t try and don’t care as much about it, so given a men-only group, it simply wouldn’t get done.

But here’s the thing, what should we conclude from such group behaviors like this? Should women stop doing those extra things, or should men start? Should we continue to ignore how much stuff like that actually helps, or should we begin to keep track? You might be able to guess what I think.

Sanderberg and Grant’s column is a rare example of a column which doesn’t fall into the standard trap of telling women to simply conform to the current system of rewards. They explain that this kind of “Having people help both behind the scenes and in public is essential to organizational success. Research shows that teams with greater helping behavior attain greater profits,sales, quality, effectiveness, revenue and customer satisfaction.” and then they go on to state the obvious:

But doing the heavy lifting can take a psychological toll.

The question is, why? Is it because people ignore your efforts? I think it is, at least partly, and the other part is the sexism.

Now, Sandberg and Grant did suggest that we begin to “track acts of helping,” but then they go on to focus on how women should care for themselves before others, and give a load of advice about how to be more efficient when being helpful.

I’m already really efficient, though, so I’d like more advice on that first part, keeping track of acts of helping, and in particular how to build an incentive system that both men and women respond to which rewards stuff that’s actually good for the company. Because obviously just keeping track of stuff won’t help if you don’t actually care about the numbers. Or, even worse, if you just pity the poor fool who helped the most.

So the question is, how do you do that? Getting rid of assholes is already hard, and this is more nuanced than that.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Aaron
    February 11, 2015 at 8:38 am

    Can you clarify something for me? The opening statistic seems to say that men are rated more favorably than women by exactly the same amount, regardless of whether both are helpful or neither is helpful. So how does this say something about helpfulness?


    • February 11, 2015 at 8:51 am

      I guess you’re right that we’d need to know how favorably a man is considered without any assumptions whatsoever. Maybe a man is always just 14% better in the eyes of the study’s participants. I’d have to read the original study (linked) to be sure.


  2. CM
    February 11, 2015 at 9:09 am

    To be honest, I don’t see that much sexism here. Having diverse teams means that different attitudes and qualities are brought on the table which have nothing to do with skill or value or talent. People bring some of these attitudes even solely by being men or women, albeit to different degrees. If all women (or all men!) forsake them for conformism or rewards, no wonder if it’s a tad disappointing. In the end it’s about whether things come natural for you and whether you are sloppy or make en effort about them. If you don’t know the specific persons, you have to generalize to some degree. How well were the people in the study described?
    I wholly agree with the incentives and management part. At least where I work, the “making a community” part is acknowledged and appropriately rewarded, everyone depending on their own personality. Being an aloof woman myself, I have received a lot of praise for my efforts in approaching people. It’s not that men or women should help less or more – it’s that companies have values and goals and people have to be evaluated accordingly, and not only based on results but also on how much time and effort it has taken to get there.


    • RTG
      February 14, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      I think the issue arises if one type of diverse participant (e.g. women) has to do more than any other, systematically, to be viewed as equally productive. I interpreted the above to mean that not only do women need to do their own work at a competitive level, they also need to help others which is above and beyond their job. Men are only doing the former part and being credited as equal contributors. That’s where the sexism part comes in.

      If the above and beyond effort is recognized as such, no big deal. If, alternatively, if the community-building is done in lieu of other things and rewarded appropriately, no big deal. In my experience, though, this is not the case. Whether by nature or nurture, I, a woman, tend to be more team/community focused. In addition to doing my own work, I often help develop others’ work products in order to make our organization more successful. I don’t often feel I am directly recognized for the outwardly focused efforts.


  3. AT
    February 11, 2015 at 9:14 am

    This is interesting, in The Hard Thing about Hard Things Ben talks about training as one of the most powerful leverage activities someone can do, and also pushed really hard on people who didn’t take the time to spend one on one with their associates. Is the issue here more that the perception is biased against women than these activities are thought of as low value?


  4. Su Sanni
    February 11, 2015 at 10:13 am

    You alluded to this suggestion in the post, but I certainly think management can address this issue by identifying and incentivizing the “acts of helpfulness/housekeeping” that have a desirable effect on the organization. Every organization has constructive tasks and behaviors that are outside of the core operation, but are indeed valuable.

    So if mgmt identifies these community building actions as examples of what’s going to be valued in the organization, that would be one step in the direction of rewarding this type of behavior that may be more intuitive to women in the workplace. I don’t know if this really reduces the sexism or double standard you mentioned, but in the very least, it’ll raise the profile of people (or women) who are adding value to the organization through their frequent “community building” behavior.


  5. Christina Sormani
    February 11, 2015 at 10:44 am

    I was recently a visiting research professor at MSRI and was impressed by how explicit they were about their comminity building expectations providing a specific list of tasks related to postdoc mentorship in particular. At the end of the semester, the postdocs were interviewed and asked which mathematicians they interacted with the most and in what way. Then we were given letters thanking us for what we had done in a rather specific way. I don’t know what was said in a letter to someone who did not meet expectations, but the letter written to me was quite positive and specific with its positives.

    It seems other academic departments and corporations could do something similar. The emphasis need not be mentorship. It could be for in house wiki development etc. Recently my own department has added service tasks to the annual information submitted by senior faculty rather than just grants and publications. Service was always listed for tenure track faculty evaluations so it seemed more pressure was on the young folk rather than the senior faculty. Just adding this expectation has gotten more senior faculty reengaged in the department.


  6. Sadie the Worker
    February 11, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    I too have a very positive impression of how these things (and many others) are handled at MSRI.

    Not so in my department.

    Each year all faculty are ranked on teaching, service, and research accomplishments. Sounds reasonable. However, one’s ranking in service is determined purely by number of committee memberships and titles. There are people (okay, I am totally thinking of a specific one right now, but there are many) who don’t do a drop of work for the committees they are on. There are people with very important sounding titles — “Director of this”, “Associate that”,.. — who do very little. There is definitely a little club of people here who routinely applaud each others’ so-called “service” records while doing next to nothing for the department. This group is comprised of some (but not all!) of the men who are senior faculty.

    Moreover, committee composition is often determined by vote or appointment of the department head, so a person willing to work hard does not necessarily even have the chance to get any credit for it (or, in some cases, even do it). Furthermore, needless to say, these rankings determine pay raises as well as affect morale.


  7. David18
    February 11, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    In 1947, when the future state of Israel was certain to be defeated by the now Palestinians and 7 Arab armies, the father of the nation, David Ben Gurion heard a report from his treasurer about the amount of money they hoped to raise from America to buy weapons. They thought they could get $5 million and they hoped for $10 million. Ideally Ben Gurion should have gone but he had to manage the war preparations at home. So, he sent the next most important “man”, Golda Meir. She arrived in New York in a cold November day with a coat and $10 in her pocket. When she returned home she had raised $50 million — 10 times the amount they thought they could get and 5 times their best hopes. It was 3 times the amount of yearly revenues from oil that Saudi Arabia received at the time.

    That money was instrumental in buying weapons to defeat the incoming armies.

    Later, when she was Prime Minister of Israel she used to serve the coffee in her kitchen for her cabinet, her “kitchen cabinet.” But of course she was not just serving coffee…

    More recently women in Israel, with few exceptions all of whom must serve mandatory military service, sued to be able to fly F-15 fighter planes and to serve in real combat roles. Today there is at least one female F-15 fighter pilot in the IDF air force and there is an entire direct combat battalion made up 70% of women:


    The women in this battalion have killed terrorists as explained in the wiki article.

    The CEO of Intel Israel, a woman named Maxine Fassberg. Intel Israel employs about 8,000 and has the design centers where the Intel processors are designed and has a fab that is of the most recent node (22nm). She ensures that Intel provides day care from 6:30 AM to 7 PM, not expecting parents to be there the entire time but to offer flexibility.

    I wonder how many of the firms in the US run by women CEOs (IBM, GM, HP, Yahoo, Pepsi, DuPont, Oracle [one of two co-CEOs], Facebook where Sandberg is COO) offers this level of on-site day care for fathers and mothers.

    My point is that women should not wait for men to improve their workplace or be nicer but rather they should be assertive and not let themselves be interrupted and they should work for firms that treat them properly.

    To me, the studies mentioned are relatively meaningless as they draw very broad generalizations. Workplace dynamics vary dramatically from place to place.


  8. February 11, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    I am only slightly embarrassed to say this, but I ultimately found that being a mercenary was easier.


  9. Savonarola
    February 16, 2015 at 6:40 am

    It seems to me like no matter where I go and what I do, I can’t escape this pressure to do extra. I agree wholeheartedly that the attitude towards work “housekeeping” starts at the top: if men in an office are only out for what leads to recognition, then recognize community building. Make the connection to good reviews explicit.

    This was a different matter when I was in private practice as a lawyer. There, when what you are selling is your time, it was mission critical that every bit of what you spent time on had to count. The firm allowed everybody to actually clock time as “administrative” and then broken down by exactly what type of administrative (including helping jr. lawyers figure out what to do). In that kind of environment, it is easy to track and appreciate what is going on, unless people cheat. Of course, they cheat. But short of that kind of time-keeping, I’m unsure how exactly you would even track what people spend time on and understand how it helps the company’s bottom line. I find a lot of people are very uncreative when it comes to the causal connection they see between work activity and the outcome for the company, and the longer the causal chain, the easier it is for the recognition for that work to go off-track.


  1. No trackbacks yet.
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: