Sheryl Sandberg wants women to “Lean In” at work. Just not too much.
In her latest New York Times article with Wharton professor Adam Grant, the Facebook chief operating officer says women can be a little too helpful around the office.
Sandberg and Grant write that women are more likely to do “office housework” like taking notes in meetings and mentoring junior colleagues, but are less likely to benefit from those actions than men.
The article begins with a telling anecdote, which shows the danger of spending too much time on invisible, communal work:
Late one Friday afternoon at a leading consulting firm, a last-minute request came in from a client. A female manager was the first to volunteer her time. She had already spent the entire day meeting with junior colleagues who were seeking career advice, even though they weren’t on her team. Earlier in the week, she had trained several new hires, helped a colleague improve a presentation and agreed to plan the office holiday party.
When it came time for her review for partner, her clear track record as a team player combined with her excellent performance should have made her a shoo-in. Instead, her promotion was delayed for six months, and then a year.
The authors cite a 2005 study headed by New York University psychologist Madeline Heilman, which revealed that displaying altruistic behaviour in a work environment benefits men, while withholding altruistic behaviour hurts women.
In it, participants were asked to rate the performance of a male or female employee who did or did not offer to stay after work to help a colleague. If a man stayed late, his favorability was enhanced by 14%. When both the man and woman declined to stay late, the woman was rated 12% less favourably than the man. Repeatedly, after offering identical work-related altruism, the man was more likely to be promoted and offered important projects, raises, and bonuses.
By taking on undervalued assignments such as planning parties, ordering food, and recording notes, women may miss out on significant career opportunities.
Furthermore, women face a much greater risk of burn out in the corporate world due to their sacrifices and attention to others. The authors cite an analysis of 183 studies across 15 countries and various occupations that revealed that women were more likely to feel emotionally exhausted, which significantly increases their chances of burning out.
Acknowledgment of the imbalanced distribution of office housework is a critical next step in working towards a more equal work environment. Managers should work to ensure more balanced efforts and recognition, while men can help close the gender gap by speaking up and drawing attention to women’s contributions. For their part, it’s important that women learn to take their own needs into consideration.
Grant’s personal research and analysis of numerous studies finds that women and men perform better when they attend to their own needs in addition to the needs of others.
You must help yourself in order to help others.
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