Gender inequality traps to avoid at work

Gender inequality traps to avoid at work

Gender inequality behaviours continue to flourish in the workplace. A great recent piece by Facebook honcho Sheryl Sandberg and academic Adam Grant in the New York Times (‘Madame CEO, get me a coffee?’) reminded me how much.

Face it, Sheryl and Adam said, women do far more office “housework” than do men. The “housework” is the sometimes unseen but always vital aspects to a business running smoothly and effectively. It seems that women, more than men, no matter what their job title, are the ones who put their hands up to organise training for new colleagues, helping with presentations, proofing spreadsheets, doing extra research and writing thank you notes.

The authors note a study conducted by New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman who examined what happened when male and female employees were presented with the option of helping. Irrespective whether they chose or declined to assist beyond the call of their KPIs, men were more likely to be promoted than women. A man was rated 14% more favourably than a woman simply for staying late. And if both declined to stay late, a woman was rated 12% percent lower than a man.

The study’s findings boiled down to one thing: the mostly invisible cogs that keep a business humming simply don’t translate into promotions, better pay or anything very much at all. And, there’s still no equal pay for most.

Sheryl Sandberg argues that women must be assertive (and lean in) to be heard. Her best-selling book Lean In includes research and practical advice to help women succeed.

What is happening in your workplace? Are males or females more likely do these?

  • Whenever a meeting’s called, the woman is more likely to organise coffees, set the room up and ensure everyone has water
  • If something has to be written well in a hurry, who does it?
  • If it’s training, who is more likely to volunteer their time over and above what already has to be done?
  • If it’s organising presents, get-well cards, office parties – who is the central organizer?
  • If someone’s experiencing a personal crisis, who tends to offer tea and sympathy (or recommend their therapist, nutritionist, etc)? 
  •  Who books the conference speakers, organises accommodation, transport and amenities?  
  • Is the same person always taking the minutes at meetings? (Sheryl and Adam noted Richard Branson is good at doing minutes. Smart guy – he’s on top of everything he needs to know.)
  • Who senses when someone is upset and does something about it?
  • Who orders replacement supplies?
  • Who makes sure new people feel at home?

Granted, it isn’t invariably women who are on top of the office “housework”. Plenty of men are fantastic at this sort of thing. (But they still get better pay for the same work.)  

Some women have learned to say no and mean it. But as the study demonstrates, saying no doesn’t mean you will be rewarded, if you’re female. Some companies have learned to play the gender card without making any substantial difference to people’s quality of life, motivation and job prospects.  


Reward equality


A well-balanced organisation recognises and rewards all the contributors for their input. Input, that’s the word. Not just what people see, but what goes in to make something that way.

So, as Sheryl and Adam suggest:

  • Start tracking the helpful behaviours and instigate a “reward” system, to encourage others to pick up the load.  
  • Make it transparent and distribute tasks carefully, so that people pitch in and also have time to replenish their energies.
  • Job and task descriptions and expectations – clearly set out – gets the ball rolling properly.

Don’t always expect people to “pay it forward”, just because they’re good at instinctively knowing what a company needs to succeed. Pay them back – properly, fairly – NOW.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.


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