Women in the Law

Who's bringing cupcakes? Too often, female lawyers are expected to do office 'housework,' book says

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Cover image from NYU Press.

Women are saddled with more household tasks than men, but the problem doesn’t end there.

Too often, female lawyers and other professional women are expected to do office “housework,” according to University of California at Hastings law professor Joan Williams, who is director of the school’s Center for WorkLife Law.

Professional women interviewed for Williams’ new book, What Works for Women at Work, were disproportionately given administrative tasks, menial jobs and undervalued assignments.“They were expected to plan parties, order food, take notes in meetings and join thankless committees at far greater rates than their male peers were,” Williams writes in this column for the Washington Post.

“Some office housework is, quite literally, housework. In my research, successful professional women—lawyers, academics, executives, scientists—repeatedly said they’ve been expected to bring cupcakes for a colleague’s birthday, order sandwiches for office lunches and answer phones in the conference room, even if their job description is far up the ladder from such administrative tasks.”

Some of the jobs often delegated to women are important, but the work isn’t highly rewarded, Williams says. The tasks include leading a mentoring program, women’s initiative or internship program. She notes that 70 percent of women interviewed in a study of female lawyers reported that their firms’ powerful compensation committees had only one or no women lawyers. The committee work often assigned to the women, such as developing talent, didn’t count toward comp time.

Getting these undesirable assignments can be “a political tightrope for women,” Williams warns. “Saying no without seeming touchy, humorless or supremely selfish is a particularly tricky balancing act.”

She notes one California lawyer who developed this comeback: “I’m not sure you want someone with my hourly rate making coffee.” But “true moxie” can be costly, Williams says.

“So rather than being snarky about answering the phone, it’s probably easier just to sit far away from it during the meeting,” Williams writes. “If you’re asked to take notes, do it once, efficiently, and then set up a rotation before the next meeting so that everyone—or at least all junior staff members—takes a turn at the job.”

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