On Women And The Invisible Work We All Take For Granted

Cleaning the office

The sooner we admit that nobody builds anything on their own, the sooner we fairly recognize the work of women, and anyone else crushing it behind the scenes.

It’s been an interesting week in my office. I recently learned that we employ a company to come in and take care of our plants. While I’m plugging away at my Very Important spreadsheet, someone checks on a regular basis to make sure the ficus is doing OK. And though I’m grateful for it—I want to work in an office with healthy plants!—it’s never once occurred to me to wonder how they stayed so green. Huh.

Also this week, I wrote my self-evaluation, a task that many will recognize as the loathsome but necessary attempt at a real-world humblebrag, if you want a raise, anyway, and I do. I spent hours tweaking descriptions of my accomplishments, figuring out better verbs than “facilitated,” and treating my inbox like my own personal archaeological dig for victories and kudos. Before I hit Send, I took one last skim through and (I’m not proud of this) made a final sweep for the dreaded “we.”

Dreaded “we?” There’s a whole boatload of science and pseudoscience about how women frequently attribute their accomplishments to the team, using “we,” while men typically give themselves most of the credit with a triumphant “I.”

Being a woman in a predominantly male industry, I make it my business to pay attention to this stuff. I know the “rules” I should follow since it is, quite literally, my livelihood. In the past, I’ve kicked myself for applying for jobs like a girl, interviewing like a girl, negotiating like a girl, and self-promoting…or not, like a girl. So this time, I changed most of the “we” references to “I” and sent it in. Gross, I know.

The plant-waterers are only the latest example, but there is a whole shadow universe in my office, and most offices, where work is happening all the time and it is so easy not to see it. Every time I run a program that’s considered successful, there’s a series of things that happened hours, days, weeks prior that contributed to its success. The carpets were cleaned, the bottled water was restocked, the broken light bulb was replaced, the printer’s toner was changed, the doorman ensured security was on point. That stuff doesn’t just happen, you know? And yet, until someone pointed out the plants, I sort of assumed it did.

The concept of invisible work is not new, nor is the idea that most of it is performed by women. Just a few weeks ago Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant published an op-ed in the New York Times on “Office Housework.” The work they described ranged from party planning and birthday-remembering to unofficial onboarding of new employees and ad-hoc training. Who cleans out the fridge? Who sends the condolence card? Who helps navigate the terrible expense form for the fourteenth time? It’s not that we all need to pull equal weight on all tasks—it is, after all, the security guard’s job to maintain security—it’s that when we pretend that the end-result was a personal victory, instead of a team victory, we all lose.

I just finished Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please and was surprised and delighted by the section she dedicated to the childcare providers who enable her to pursue professional goals while leaving her children safely at home. She writes, “The only way we will survive is by being kind. The only way we can get by in this world is through the help we receive from others.” It seems so obvious to acknowledge the work done in advance on our behalf, the adjacent work that furthers our mission, the hidden work that doesn’t look like “work” at all, but enables everything else to happen.

Consider parenting, for example; you really think Steve Jobs is still Steve Jobs if he’d been the one single-parenting his first daughter instead of his ex? And yet, instead of operating from the obvious premise of “we,” we tell ourselves and each other to pump up the “I.” Because the “I,” so says science, is what makes it rain.

Sandberg and Grant wrote, “When a man offers to help, we shower him with praise and rewards. But when a woman helps, we feel less indebted. She’s communal, right? She wants to be a team player.” Here’s the thing that I was too chicken to put on my self-evaluation: I do want to be a team player but I also want to be rewarded for it. I want my cake and I want to eat it to. Why? Because I think the metaphorical cake of acknowledging teamwork, unlike actual cake, is good for our health. I think the sooner we admit that nobody builds anything on their own, the sooner we fairly recognize the work of women, and anyone else crushing it behind the scenes.

I don’t want to be afraid that sharing credit will undermine my long-term chances at more opportunities and yes, more money. And yet I am, because I’m a woman who stews in the soup of tech-world misogyny and marinates in advice columns and how-to-get-ahead TED Talks. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, plant-waterers, thanks for your work. The ficus looks great.

Role Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for JezebelThe FriskyThe Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Related Links: