3 Ways Women of Color Can Say 'No' to Office Housework

Research shows that women of color are more likely to get stuck with crappy, low-prestige assignments in the workplace, which ultimately waters down their ability to advance financially and professionally. Instead of complex, intellectually interesting projects, we get footed the bill with things like answering telephones, taking notes, ordering office supplies, or handling administrative tasks. And if you’ve ever been on this end of the stick, you know just how hard it is to convince coworkers and employers that you are in fact capable of much more.

So, let’s talk about 3 ways women of color can set better boundaries against crappy office-work that gets us nowhere.

Have a go-to response the next time someone asks you to order lunch for staff or whatever.

It’s a tricky balance: women of color must carefully toe the line between making sure to appear like a team players while also not being doormats to their colleagues. One practice I’ve gotten marginally better about (let’s face it, change can be hard) is having a stock answer for whenever a coworker asks me to do b!tch work that isn’t in my job description.

In one of my previous jobs as a marketing specialist, I was constantly tasked with coordinating weekly Monday breakfasts for the team, something that absolutely did not fall into my list of duties. As a first-time worker, I rolled with the punches even though I resented being asked to do it time and again.

In my next jobs, whenever someone asked me to do something grunt work-ish, I’d have a simple answer: “You know, I really need to focus on my current job responsibilities right now. Could this wait?”

If you manager is an advocate, check in with her to reaffirm your duties.

In a previous job, I had a truly amazing supervisor who was not only a fantastic woman to learn from, but also a protective barrier against our executive director who was well known for laying the grunt work heavy on women of color. Whenever I was assigned a menial task not at all related to my responsibilities, she’d be there as a resource for me to reaffirm whether this was truly my responsibility or not.

Of course, the reality is that women of color are less likely to have managers who effectively and enthusiastically advocate for them. If you don’t end up working for someone in your corner, you still can be upfront about setting expectations on what you can get done and when you will do it.

Turn a request into an opportunity for compromise.

One practice I love to use is forced compromise. For instance, if I was asked to assemble a bookcase for an office (which I have been asked to do…), I would respond with something like, “Sure -- but can you clean up the boxes afterwards?” This allows two things to happen.

First, perhaps the coworker requesting this service really does need the help: they smile appreciatively when you suggest the compromise and then clean up the boxes as you requested. Second, maybe the task your coworker requested of you wasn’t actually that urgent, and they’re just trying to pawn it off on you. Exasperated that you won’t both unpack the bookcase and clean up, they’ll say, “nevermind,” and return to their desks. Both have happened to me.  

If you’re in the position to do so, make it a habit to practice forced compromise by negotiating what you will and will not happily do for your coworkers.

Kaitlyn Borysiewicz