What to Do If You’re Sick of Taking on the “Second Shift” at Work Too

Business woman on the phone checking watchBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

A few months ago, a friend of mine wrote a post on Facebook about something that had frustrated her at work. My friend, who works in a technology role for a federal contractor, had received an email from a male colleague, asking if she wouldn’t mind helping to set up the office kitchen for a team party. All of the other women on the team got the email. None of the men did.

This may seem like a small thing, being asked to set up some refreshments for an office party. But, when you add up the consequences of being asked throughout your entire professional career to do these small chores, it’s not. Microinequities like these are the building blocks that make up a workplace culture that positions women as the helpers, the cleaners, the fixers, the note-takers, the coffee-makers, the party planners, the support staff to the “real” workers – even if their job description is the same as everyone else’s.

The second shift sees women in dual career households coming home at the end of the day, and doing the majority of housework and childcare compared to their partner. Even women in full time jobs who make more money than their husbands do the same amount or more at home, a recent Simmons College study [PDF] showed.

But the second shift is not simply a phenomenon that takes place after work. It’s a symptom of a broader cultural expectation that women clean up messes wherever they are. Women are getting stuck with the second shift at work too. And doing all that extra work, work that’s not considered mission critical in the least bit, can be a drag on your time and your power.

My friend did something brave. Rather than sigh heavily and just go help set up, she chose not to ignore the sexist slight. She replied to the email, pointing out that none of the men on the floor were asked to help out with the party, and it’s not appropriate to expect only women to.

That’s another factor – it takes a lot of courage to stand up to microinequities. Since they’re so small, the perpetrator may not even realize he or she did anything wrong. It’s easy for them to laugh it off as a joke, or worse, accuse the aggrieved of overreacting. And in the immediate sense, the payoff is small.

But calling out this kind of behavior is a long game, and ultimately it makes the work environment a more equitable place where women will be taken seriously. In the short term, at least you won’t be fuming later over what you “should have said.”

Taking Care of Business?

My friend’s anecdote is not out of the ordinary. For example, a recent essay by Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern in The New Inquiry analyzes the second-shift-at-work phenomenon in the academic field. They write:

“So when one asks whether we would like to co-author a paper, undertaking all the translation for it because he does not “do languages,” we try to shake it off. He cannot really imagine that we spent years of our adult lives mastering foreign words and grammar just so we could do the tedious housework of gathering sources while he takes credit for the conceptual heavy lifting. …When the co-organizer of an exhibition calls to ask, on a few hours notice, whether he can borrow sheets for the futon on which he volunteered weeks ago to put up a visiting artist—it was just coincidence that he called us and not Patrick or Andrew, right? We want to believe this. And yet, we look at the female faculty who seem to participate in every committee and conference and supervise over half the dissertations in their departments, and we feel afraid.”

Women are so often counted on to handle the details, clean up the messes, and deal with minor crises that pop up at work. Plenty of women may like filling this role, and there’s nothing wrong with it if you do. There’s also nothing wrong with lending a hand to help out your team at work.

The problem, as Weigel and Ahern point out, is that men aren’t expected to do it. Since men are the dominant power group in most workplaces, if there’s something they’re not, as a group, doing, it’s probably because they don’t think they should have to. Because it’s not their job.

And when you’re seen as the person doing all the support work, you’re not being seen as the dynamic go-getter who deserves a promotion and a raise.

How to Call Out Microinequities

Letting someone know when they’ve committed a microinequity is delicate business. No one wants to be called a sexist, especially when they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. Moreover, this is someone you’re going to have to keep working with every day, so it’s important to be collegial. Be respectful, but firm, and use concrete examples.

My friend – the one who was asked to set up for the office party along with all her female coworkers – sent a private email in response, explaining that she was confused about why there were no male team-mates on the email chain, and that it seemed unfair to her that only women were included.

What happened? Well, the response she got was not altogether satisfying. He said he didn’t mean to be sexist, he just sent the email to the people he remembered helping out in the past, who just happened to be all women. Perhaps his memory of past situations is flawed. Or, more likely, perhaps it is the women in my friend’s office who are always doing the “second shift” work.

Either way, his response was indicative of something small yet unjust, and the message my friend sent made a small dent in that behavior, making him aware of a personal blind spot.

That’s when she took to social media – to vent, yes, but also to celebrate. This is another important piece of the puzzle. When we acknowledge publicly that microinequities exist and that we can do something about them, we feel powerful and inspire other women (and men) to take action as well. When dozens of people “like” or commend us for taking on small injustices, we feel in their support that we can do it again.

Going the Extra Mile

Women are often counted upon to deal with major crises too. For example, see the 2010 Time Magazine article “The New Sheriffs of Wall Street” which positions former Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chair Mary Schapiro, now-Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Sheila Bair, the former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) as women of action, leading the charge for stricter Wall Street regulation, and running with the support of the sisterhood to do so.

Nevertheless, the cleaning up metaphor remained. Journalist Michael Scherer writes, “Suddenly, something else became clear: these women may not run Wall Street, but in this new era, they are telling Wall Street how to clean up its act.”

Even when talking about these powerful leaders, there is the connotation that because they are women, they are better suited to dealing with a mess. In any case, despite how this work was positioned in the media, it’s hard to say that taking on this challenge was detrimental to any of these women’s careers.

And that’s the distinction to make when taking on an extra task at work. Is it a challenge? Being willing to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty at work can help you get ahead. Just make sure the work you’re doing is commensurate with your education, experience, and qualifications. When you go the extra mile at work, the work you are doing should be a project or stretch assignment that will put you in the spotlight.

2 Responses

  1. Avatar

    Thanks for sharing this smart post.

    One way to think about this may be to distinguish between going the extra mile in service, versus being subservient.

    People often seem to confuse the two. The extra mile in service in a relationship implies a reciprocity at work. Subservience, on the other hand, does not.

    Sorting out the two can be a bit challenging in a real-world workplace. Sometimes, as in other relationship issues, it may help to have a third-party’s observations.

  2. Avatar

    One of the challenges in staying away from being on “the second shift” is that women who care about their workplace and those in it often can’t resist filling in the gaps when things are left undone. “I can help, so I should,” they say.

    However, in my research and my coaching with executives, I’ve found that when the “second shift” fills the work gaps, leaders don’t know they are there. If they don’t know, they won’t find more resources–or even appreciate the people who are going above and beyond to fill those gaps.

    If you’re on the second shift–and want to get off–you have to resist the urge to do everything just because you can. Let the gaps exist–they’ll cause pain that creates action.

    Thanks for the article!