I recently read a sentence that explains why women feel as though there aren’t enough hours in a day: “There’s a reason it feels like you never have enough time or energy. It’s called invisible labor.” If I could revise this sentence, I would amend it to include the word money: “There’s a reason it feels like you never have enough time, MONEY or energy. It’s called invisible labor.”
Invisible labor is a term referenced from a 1987 article about “invisible work” by sociologist Arlene Daniels. It refers to unpaid work that goes unnoticed, unacknowledged and unregulated. As I researched examples of invisible work, I wasn’t surprised to find childcare, household chores, emotional and relational caregiving in addition to office housework and non-promotable tasks in the workplace. I also wasn’t surprised that articles neglected to mention the unpaid “other duties as assigned”; the work that gets divided when positions are eliminated, the stretch assignments and special projects that never lead to mobility ultimately resulting in women leaving organizations.
Although statistics recently confirmed that burnout numbers are on the rise for women, the weight of invisible labor is one that women have carried for many years – long before the pandemic. The unfortunate reality is that women have been conditioned to work for free from childhood. It is a widely accepted, invisible social contract that states we should be helpful, nice and supportive only to discover the ROI of these collective traits can be a recipe for disaster when it comes to career success.
Several years ago, KPMG surveyed women between the ages of 18-64 in their Women’s Leadership Survey regarding lessons learned growing up and found the following:
- 86% of respondents were taught to be nice to others
- 77% were taught to be helpful
- 62% were taught to be supportive of others.
It’s natural to say “yes” at work when you’ve been helpful, nice and supportive for as long as you can remember – especially when you’ve been complimented for it both personally and professionally!!
Just in case you’re wondering how this shows up in your career, let’s examine office housework……..
One of the best definitions I’ve read states “tasks that need to get done but don’t impact the bottom line.” These tasks typically don’t lead to career growth and have negative impacts. Such tasks include but are not limited to:
- capturing meeting notes and tracking action items
- maintaining distribution lists
- scheduling follow-up meetings and sending agendas
- ordering food or making reservations
- cleaning whiteboards
- planning team-building events or “engagement” activities
- collecting money for a colleague’s gift
- tracking down people who are late for meetings
Not only do these tasks not lead to career growth, they also don’t carry weight from a performance perspective. Consequently, what you are left with is a deficit of time and energy that could (should) be spent on existing priorities. I recently spoke with a client who started our conversation with “Ericka, I have an update. I decided to pushback on the extra responsibilities I was asked to assume. These duties don’t develop any new skills and won’t advance my promotion goals. So, I informed my leader I didn’t have the capacity to assist with everything she proposed, but that I could assist with………”
She was willing to have a courageous conversation, which is precisely what has to happen if women are going to stop working in reverse; if women are going to stop saying “yes” because it’s comfortable ultimately choosing to be overworked while simultaneously being significantly underpaid.
Next, coming to the stage we have non-promotable tasks……..
According to Harvard Business Review “Non-promotable tasks are those that benefit the organization but likely don’t contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement.” These tasks could include filling in for a colleague, serving on a committee that has low visibility or assuming responsibilities that don’t produce significant impact.
If you’re unsure of what will contribute to advancement and what matters from a performance evaluation perspective, you’ll need to have a conversation with your leader. The response can vary between individuals, departments, levels of an organization as well as industries. HBR actually makes it a point to say “What is non-promotable varies across fields and careers…….revenue-generating tasks are more promotable than non-revenue-generating tasks; in academia, research-related tasks are more promotable than service-related tasks; and for individuals, a task may be promotable for junior employees but non-promotable for senior-ranking managers.” Regardless of what your role is in the company, you should avoid working in the gray; but instead, be clear knowing that invisible labor can cost you time, money and/or energy.
If you’re going excel at work and know your worth, you’ll need to be honest with yourself regarding the role you play in accepting invisible labor as “the norm.” I recommend that you:
- Calculate the costs which may include: capacity, compensation and career mobility. Remember, whenever you say yes to something, by default you say no to everything else. Capacity may mean building in reciprocity or a rotation if you’re consistently asked to perform office housework. For example, if you’ve taken notes during the last 2 meetings, ask your leader if someone will need to take notes during future meetings. Then, volunteer to create a rotation that includes your colleagues if the answer is yes. In terms of compensation and career mobility, the obvious negative impact of invisible labor for women is they aren’t rewarded in title, position nor financially. With these things in mind, you’ll need to be clear on the ROI of your yes.
- Consider the message you’re sending and the impact to your well-being. The behavior that is typically rewarded is the behavior that is often repeated. Time and time again, I’ve seen women “rewarded” with more work because they: (1) did an outstanding job with the extra work they previously completed (2) “extra” then became their baseline or acceptable standard for what they could accomplish only to end up being exhausted over time.
- Choose courage over comfort; then have “the conversation” with your leader when necessary. You know the one – the conversation that may mean you’ll have to manage up and/or advocate for yourself in ways you haven’t previously.
Invisible labor may show up in many forms, but ultimately you have the power to decide what works for you, what doesn’t and what you define as appropriate as well as acceptable. When it does show up (and trust me, it will) – calculate the costs, consider the message you’re sending, choose courageous conversations and more importantly, choose yourself and your well-being while managing your workload.