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When I worked in a corporate environment, it took very little time for me to realize I was expected to do a disproportionate amount of “office housework.”

Whether it was ordering lunch, sharing meeting notes, or scheduling, I—often the only woman of color in the room—was like the de facto secretary, as if we were in an episode of Mad Men. (I’m not throwing shade on any person who works in these important administrative jobs, by the way. It is vital and valuable work! The problem? It wasn’t my role.)

Office housework is the important but unthanked (and unpromotable) work that every organization needs—like taking meeting notes, scheduling meetings, and ensuring there are snacks in the office. The opposite of it is glamour work—the plum assignments that could propel your career forward. Research has shown that women and people of color are more likely to get assigned the former and less likely to have a chance to take on the latter. (If you’re a woman of color, it’s a double whammy.) And it’s gotten worse: Lean In and McKinsey’s 2021 Women in the Workplace report shows non-promotable work for women—including providing emotional support—has been supercharged during the pandemic.

It’s never up to you to “fix” systemic problems. Racism is not your fault. Sexism is not your fault. The real solution is to change the culture of our organizations. To make them truly inclusive so office housework is shared and compensated equitably among everyone, without question. But that takes time.

In the meantime, overburdening some employees with office housework more than others holds back our careers and leaves us with two unwelcome options: Take on the housework and reinforce unfair expectations. Or say no and risk being penalized. And while I refuse to put the onus on us to “fix” this problem, I want to help women, people of color, and anyone else who finds themselves put in this position at work to confidently say “no.”

That’s why I’m sharing advice and scripts to help you turn down and negotiate office housework requests without being penalized.

1.
Arm Yourself With Evidence

Make a list of revenue-generating tasks you’re responsible for, as well as all the non-revenue generating expectations placed on you. Create similar lists for men at the same level in your organization, and take those lists to your boss.

2.
Check With Your Manager

You can always double-check with your managers if you’re asked to take on non-essential work. If your boss agrees that the task isn’t necessary or worth your time, it’s easier to avoid the backlash from you saying no and let them convey that.

3.
Have a Watertight Refusal—and a Reason—Ready

You might say: “I was hired to do X and doing Y would take away time from completing X well.”

For on-the-spot requests like ordering lunch, I’ve used, “I need to be present during this discussion as it’s critical to what I’m working on.”

For longer-term requests, like being asked to lead mentoring activities, I’ve said, “I’m working on [very important project], and I’m concerned I won’t have the bandwidth to be helpful to [said mentee.]”

4.
Seek Out Non-Housework Opportunities

Actively seek out career-enhancing assignments, Uma Thana Balasingam, a vice president at VMWare and the cofounder and chapter leader of Lean In Singapore, suggested on LinkedIn. Not only will they give your career a boost, but they’ll also serve as readymade reasons that’ll help you refuse office housework.

“Filling your plate with high-value work empowers you to turn down undervalued work,” Balasingam says. You might say, she suggests, “I’d love to help, but I’m working with Ted on an important strategic initiative. Joe would be perfect for this.”

5.
Ask for More Information

You can ask the requester why they’re specifically asking you to do this extra labor by saying, “Why do you think I’m a good fit for this?” Having them tell you what traits make you best suited to do the work forces them to pause and consider why they requested you do the labor in the first place. It also gives you some time and space to gather your thoughts so you don’t feel pressured to say yes right away.

6.
Use Humor

I’m not humorous by nature, but making light of the situation has helped me. I once responded, “I’d rather John ordered lunch as I’m already in charge of meals at home,” then cracked a smile.

My friend Selena Rezvani, women’s leadership speaker and consultant, had this suggestion for a humorous comeback: “Research shows that I’m more likely to get asked to do this kind of thing than you, and that you’re going to like me less when I decline. But guess what I’m going to do?”

7.
Practice Saying No With Allies

Unsurprisingly, it gets easier to say no with practice! Enlist colleagues to help you figure out how to refuse office housework requests in a manner that feels authentic to you. Cultivating such a network of allies becomes particularly important as you progress in your careers.

8.
Rotate Tasks

If your team meets regularly, suggest that you all rotate tasks like getting lunch, taking notes, and following up. You could say, “I took notes last week, so let’s set up a rotation.” This sets the expectation that everyone has equal value to contribute.

9.
Remember Virtual Office Housework Is Still...Office Housework

The usual suspects like ordering lunch and planning office birthdays went away when the pandemic hit—and were swiftly replaced by organizing virtual happy hours and sending calendar invites for team meetings.

Take stock if you’re disproportionately getting stuck with the virtual office housework (which is often even more invisible than the in-office kind). Then suggest a rotation system. This could look like: “I’ve been scheduling all the virtual meetings this week. I’d like to rotate through each team member to take it on weekly. John, you in for next week?”

10.
If You Can’t Say No, at Least Get Credit for the Work

Sometimes there’s no way to decline the work. When that happens, find a way to acknowledge that the work is “extra labor.” You want to make it clear in performance reviews and conversations with your manager that these chores are not part of your job description.

11.
Stand Up for Others First

“If you don’t have the confidence to do it for yourself, stand up and point it out when it happens to others,” Jacqueline Kerr, a behavior change scientist, entrepreneur, and podcast host who focuses on burnout in working moms, said on LinkedIn. “This might be an easier first step, and maybe another woman will see your example and do the same for you or someone else.”

12.
Use Your Influence to Break Norms

As you climb the ranks, make sure to pay it forward. When someone suggests that the smart new manager you’re mentoring could set up the booth at an expo, call out that it’s below their pay grade: “I don’t think that’s a good use of her experience and skills.”

If you’re asked to do a disproportionate amount of “office housework” at your job, it’s not your fault. This truth needs to be repeated, especially in a power structure that feeds off making you feel bad about the challenges you face. Pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mythology is very good at making us feel like we’re the problem when we repeatedly hit roadblocks.

Not on my watch. We should never stop calling for leaders to understand and work toward mitigating the impact of office housework on the careers of women and people of color.

It’s not up to you to change the system. Nonetheless, I encourage all of us to exercise our right to say no to these requests.

This article has been adapted from the Inclusion Is Leadership newsletter and a related LinkedIn post. It has been republished with permission.