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Are You Taking on or Taking Turns?

Recently, one of us had a coffee with a colleague. After a few minutes of chatting, I realized that this dear friend was trying to gently let me know that she did not want to work on a small piece of consulting that we had been asked to bid for together. In fact, it was clear that she was so overloaded that she wanted to divest from a lot of other administrative tasks too. Once I realized what she was asking, I gave her some advice that I know many women need to hear from time to time: I told her to unapologetically drop everything and anything that was not part of her core job. In fact, I told her to be ruthless in protecting her time and well-being.

Let's unpack why this is advice that so many women need to hear.


When you started your job, you were most likely given a formal role description, outlining the tasks you were expected to perform. But in addition to these formal duties, there are undoubtedly a lot of other things you are expected informally to do. These informal duties include things like volunteering to organize the holiday party, your colleague's birthday cake, or arranging other social gatherings. It includes sitting on committees that are important for employee well-being but do not contribute to promotions. It also includes behaviors that support your colleagues, like providing help, advice, assistance, feedback, a sympathetic ear, or a reliable shoulder. It often means being friendly in the workplace, and participating in office social occasions.

This type of behavior is formally known as Organizational Citizenship Behavior, or OCB. This refers to any discretionary effort you make in the workplace beyond what is strictly required of you according to your job description. We call it office housekeeping because although these discretionary behaviors are important for keeping organizations running smoothly, they are not formally rewarded.

In general, OCB has positive consequences, for both you and your co-workers. OCB fosters team cohesion and enhances team and organizational performance, and individuals who do more OCB are generally rated as higher performers. But there is a gender disparity in these positive consequences. Gender stereotypes shape expectations for women’s versus men’s OCB. Women are stereotypically expected to be helpful, relationship-oriented, and make an effort to forge and maintain strong social bonds. As such, people expect women to do more OCB than men. This is why women are often asked to take notes in meetings and organize the “fun” parts of team gatherings like snacks and icebreakers.

These expectations shape how people perceive and respond to OCB behaviors enacted by women versus men. First, people tend to pay more attention to men when they perform OCB than they do women. This is because when men perform OCB they are violating gender stereotypes in a positive way, but for women, they are simply behaving as expected. As a result, men tend to be rewarded more for performing OCB than women.

The cumulative effect is that women often do more OCB than men – OCB work that goes unnoticed and unrewarded. Many women we speak to – including the colleague I had coffee with – feel overburdened by extra work, which they know they will never get promoted for doing.


Take Action

Sound familiar? Then subtract. Sense a theme? Yes, we decided to end 2021 and start 2022 with the same energy – one that gives you more space and time for yourself, and gives stereotyped expectations less of a place in your work life.

Write down all of the OCBs you perform and see what roles and commitments you can either hand over or step back from. Keep those that you value. But for anything else, time to subtract. Remember, regardless of your gender, it is important that you are friendly and collegial. But being a good citizen is not the same as being over-burdened by OCBs.

When you are asked to volunteer for something, or people’s expectations come up, simply say, “I did my turn last year, whose turn is it now?” If you operate as though the assumption is that the work will be fairly rotated, you can create a more equitable system. Suggest that a man in your team steps in so that it is not automatically being passed to another woman.

Sometimes it is useful to quantify all of the extra committees and volunteer roles you are fulfilling and share this with your manager. If you can, include a comparison to your colleagues. This is one technique we have used ourselves to highlight a gender disparity in the OCBs expected of us versus men faculty in our departments.


Let us close by telling you what one of us told the colleague that we mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Ultimately, the business or institution you work for does not care about your time. Your manager may care, your work friends may care, but the organization as a whole simply does not. That means the only person who can protect your time and well-being, and ensure you have the bandwidth to perform highly on tasks that will get you promoted, is you.

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