PART II:  The New Second Shift

In Part I, I told the story of how I walked into a workshop for helping women improve their performance review results, and walked out with a bee in my bonnet (I know, I know, but I’m giving more idioms a try) about how backward it is to expect women to hack flawed performance review processes instead of putting the onus on organizations to improve those processes. 

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Picking up where we left off, here’s just a sample of what I discovered while digging into this performance review issue.

  • This study (HBR summary here) found that women are disproportionately asked by managers, and disproportionately volunteer, to take on tasks that don’t contribute to their career advancement, even though the tasks still benefit the organization. The study explains that, since women do more of this non-promotable work, women’s overall career progress is slower compared to men’s.
  • Similarly,this research found that women and minorities are more likely to be assigned work dubbed “office housework”, i.e., work that’s “important but undervalued” (undervalued because it is administrative in nature or not directly tied to revenue goals). “Office housework” also tends to be non-promotable. Again, since women and minorities do more of this “office housework”, their overall career progress is slower compared to men’s and non-minorities’.
  • Andthis and this research found that, in workplaces that rely on collaboration to complete projects, women disproportionately carry the burden of fostering and enabling collaboration. However, this additional effort is not itself considered to be promotable work. So again, since women disproportionately carry this load, women’s overall career progress is slower compared to men’s.

Experts have proposed a number of solutions to these challenges, for example, that managers assign non-promotable work more equitably across their teams. Experts have also shared tips for how women and minorities can proactively shape their work tasks to include more promotable work and effectively say “no” to non-promotable work. And circling back to the performance review workshop from Part I, some experts have theorized that improving self-promotion skills can help women and minorities receive recognition for their contributions to help overcome these patterns of unfairness.

These solutions all make sense. And yet they seem so unsatisfying!

Although experts’ proposed solutions are practical, they seem resigned to how organizations value (or not) certain types of employee contributions. It’s disappointing that the conversation isn’t more focused on recalibrating the value system itself, instead of teaching employees how to navigate it as-is. 

Why am I so disappointed, you may ask?

After all, really smart people have figured out ways to give women and minorities more agency in the workplace.  

First, I think it’s worth stating the obvious: that all the studies I shared above present evidence of organizations disproportionately relying on women and minorities to take up a certain type of work, namely, work characterized as supportive and community-oriented. We see this directly when we look at the proportion of women and minorities in “business support” verticals like HR, admin professionals, legal (though usually at the more junior levels), etc. But the studies indicate that women and minorities are taking on supportive and community-oriented tasks across all business verticals. 

So we have a clear gender/racial/ethnic divide with respect to this type of work. In some sense, this is old hat. Even though organizations are far from resolving the divide, there is broad awareness of its existence.

What’s remarkable, though, is that the studies also indicate that this supportive and community-oriented work is less valued than other work—and no one seems to have a problem with that. The experts describe this work as “important but undervalued” or having “little visibility or impact”. They call it “non-revenue-generating” work. And a main point of all these studies is that this type of work is non-promotable—which is a formal signal from organizations that it isn’t highly valued.  

And yet, organizations are dysfunctional without this so-called non-promotable work. In a lot of ways, non-promotable work is like infrastructure (bridges, dams, roads). It is fundamental for getting things done; it is also ubiquitous, and we tend to take it for granted. But consider the absence of non-promotable work: process becomes messy and time-consuming, communication is lacking, goals are unclear, people get stressed, rework is required, efforts are siloed, people miss appointments, etc. As a result, people become less engaged at work, and this leads to a host of negative consequences for organizations, including an estimated productivity loss of $500 billion in the US alone. And as John Oliver says in Last Week Tonight regarding infrastructure, “If anything exciting happens, we’ve done it wrong”. I don’t know about you, but a $500 billion loss is more exciting than not….  

But let’s not forget the upside to this non-promotable work! Anyone who has worked with a strong project manager, or a skilled admin professional, or a colleague who is excellent at providing context knows that supportive and community-oriented work creates significant value. Among other things, it enables efficiencies, connects dots that reveal untapped synergies, accelerates outcomes, facilitates decision-making, allows “highest and best use” of team members, fosters trust among colleagues, etc

Is any of this revenue-generating? I’ve never personally traced the value chain, but my bet would be on, “Heck, yes!” Perhaps the fact that this work’s value isn’t quantified is why organizations undervalue it in the first place. Daniel Yankelovich, a renowned social scientist, spells out the downfalls of this mindset (dubbed the “McNamara fallacy”, after Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara):

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is okay as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be measured or give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily isn’t very important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.

And circling back to the performance review workshop for women from Part I:  If this supportive and community work—“we” and “us” work—is less valued than “me” and “I” work, and if women (and minorities) disproportionately carry the load on this type of work, then it’s no surprise that women and minorities have a tougher time standing out during performance reviews. 

Okay. So we have (i) a gender/race/ethnic divide and (ii) the devaluing of this supportive and community-oriented work. My final observation regards something more symbolic than anything—but symbolic in a way that is quite jarring and reveals how deeply ingrained workplace biases are. 

“Office housework.”

That’s the phrase experts use to describe this non-promotable, less valued work. There is a longstanding history of devaluing housework. And the fact that experts have landed on the term “office housework” (and anecdotally, I’ve heard colleagues and friends use this term as well) reinforces the problematic gender norms around undervalued—and unpaid—home labor.

We’ve all heard of women’s second shift at home (here’s a link to the landmark work by Arlie Russell Hochschild in 1989, and a NY Times summary). Well, it turns out, women also have a second shift at work!

To advance at work, women not only have to do the so-called revenue-generating work (putting aside whether or not that characterization is accurate), but they are also expected to do the “office housework”, even though they only get meaningful credit in the form of promotions or higher pay for the former. And not only that, in performance reviews, women apparently need to downplay the “office housework”, including “we” and “us” work, and instead highlight me-me-me, I-I-I. Sounds a lot like a second shift to me.

Where do I think we should go from here?

Well, a massive shift in how we value certain types of labor is top of mind. Too ambitious? Perhaps, but I do think there are tangible steps organizations can take to change the game in positive ways, rather than expecting women and minorities to learn how to hack it. 

In fact, some organizations have already taken steps in this direction. For example, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Justworks announced that they’ll be providing additional monetary compensation to its employee resource group (ERG) leads. LinkedIn’s rationale for this acknowledges that “there is ‘no price on the emotional labor and investment of time’ ERGs contribute and that $10,000 is a start, in addition to a formal systematized recognition plan.”

Or consider the massive venture capital investment in HR technology (this source cites $5 billion in 2020!), much of which seeks at least in part to make workplaces more equitable. And although we have a long way to go regarding robust family care leave (the US is particularly challenged here), we’ve seen organizations increasingly invest in this area and develop policies that serve many different family models and  implicitly recognize the value of the labor involved in “housework”. 

Some additional thoughts: Organizations should invest in renewing their understanding of how skillsets map to the bottom line. This analysis should include skills with second- and third-order impacts on revenue, like facilitation, peer leadership, dot connecting, coordination, context sharing, and others. Then leaders could more easily develop formal means to recognize and reward people who exercise these skills to benefit the organization accordingly. Because make no mistake, people are incentivized to do what leaders recognize and reward via signals like promotions, raises, and bonuses. And I suspect that most organizations want to incentivize employees to flex these supportive and community-oriented skills. 

Consider an employee—let’s call them Riley—whose strength is coordinating and facilitating collaboration that yields unique opportunities for the organization. Riley is a catalyst who enables and empowers their colleagues everyday. Why would an organization want Riley to do mental and verbal gymnastics to highlight their “me” and “I” contributions in order to advance in their career? Wouldn’t it be better for both Riley and the organization to formally recognize Riley’s “we” and “us” work? The organization is enjoying the fruits of Riley’s work, after all; and Riley could continue contributing in this way while enjoying career advancement and feeling valued. It may require just a little more analysis and effort by leadership to trace Riley’s efforts to the bottom line.

One final point: If the carrot, i.e., the opportunity to do what’s right, is not enough to convince organizations to invest time and brainpower into this issue, there is always the growing stick, captured quite nicely in this recent NY Times article, Workers Are Gaining Leverage Over Employers Right Before Our Eyes

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Whew! That was a lot.

I’d love reactions: What do you think? What do you agree or disagree with? What are some additional considerations? Your perspectives are all welcome!!

Originally posted on