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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

The Simple Change Managers Should Make if They Want to Give Everyone an Equal Shot

person carrying trays of coffee in an office
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If you’ve ever told a direct report they didn’t get promoted because they haven’t proven themselves, consider this: Did you give them a shot at the plum assignments?

Did they get relegated to getting coffee, taking notes, and tackling important (but less shiny) tasks more often than their co-workers at the same level?

“You can’t advance or get a raise if the managers don’t give you projects to prove yourself on,” one woman commented in “Climate Control: Gender and Racial Bias in Engineering?”—a 2016 report from the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law and the Society of Women Engineers.

And it turns out that women, and especially women of color, are far more likely than white men to say they’re stuck doing “office housework” and that they’re not getting an equal chance to take on “glamour work” that could impress their bosses. Men of color also report less access to desirable opportunities. Surprise!

“The focus on where gender bias occurs, which has been largely on hiring and performance evaluations, is too early and too late,” says Joan C. Williams, distinguished professor of law and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law. “It's missing one of the key ways in which gender bias is constantly being transmitted in today's workplace.” And that’s how assignments are divvied up.

Williams and Marina Multhaup, a research and policy fellow at the center, wrote a Harvard Business Review article highlighting their own and other research on the uneven distribution of office housework and glamour work.

They insist that fixing this disparity is a vital part of achieving true diversity and equality at the office. And there’s a simple way managers can get started: Stop asking for volunteers! Instead, make it a point to assign both office housework and glamour work thoughtfully and strategically.

In case you’re drawing a blank: Office housework encompasses actual housework such as cleaning up and planning parties, as well as emotional work (like mentoring) and thankless administrative tasks (like arranging meetings or running a committee whose work doesn’t directly affect revenue). Glamour work, on the other hand, includes prestigious gigs such as heading up a new team or working with a major client.

There are all kinds of stereotypes, biases, and assumptions that play into why managers tend to ask certain groups to do office housework more frequently and expect them to say yes, why some people feel more social pressure to agree or volunteer, why women who refuse or do a bad job tend to suffer negative consequences while men do not, and why white men tend to be first in mind for leadership-track assignments.

In her second year as a law professor, Williams was asked to take on a time-consuming and onerous committee assignment. She said no. And “it framed my next 20 years at the institution.” She says she was seen forevermore as someone who wasn’t willing to pitch in. But none of her young male colleagues faced the same dilemma. “Their research time was protected,” she says, while hers was disrespected, even though it’s crucial to getting tenure.

So if you’re a manager, don’t behave like Williams’s bosses did in the 1980s. Figure out what office housework items your team does and how much of it each person is taking on. (And, to help you figure that out, you can even use this sample survey from the Center for WorkLife Law to get input from your team or create your own.)

Then implement a system that’ll actually distribute the work evenly. As Williams and Multhaup wrote in HBR, “it doesn’t really matter which system you choose—whether it’s alphabetical by last name or chronological by astrological sign—as long as people take turns.” Hold people accountable for their performance.

On the flipside, consider everyone for the most glamourous assignments, not just the first person who comes to mind or the loud, confident guy knocking down your door. And invest in training to get employees the skills they need for future opportunities.

This way, you’ll ensure everyone on your team has had a fair shot at the next promotion.