The past 18 months of increased remote work have made us all question what we want from our office culture – from whether a commute is really necessary to whether the "increased productivity" it creates is actually just a facade. After all, as The Washington Post reports, up to 80% of US workers are as productive (if not more productive) when they work from home.    

This period has also made us question whether some aspects of ‘office culture’ can actually be quite detrimental to equality in the workplace. One of those aspects is the arbitrary division of certain tasks by gender that often go unrewarded. A recent article by Nieman Labs explained it is not your female colleagues’ job to buy you cake.

Let us explain. In your office, who tends to organize the leaving cards, the birthday cakes, or even the Secret Santa? As the Harvard Business Review outlines, unfortunately, these tend to be carried out by women, and are what they call “non-promotable tasks.” 

Not only are women more likely to volunteer for these kinds of tasks, but they are also more likely to be asked to do them, and to say yes when asked. As this report details, taking these tasks on (and indeed, saying no to them) tends to have a negative impact on their career prospects, and ultimately, increase gender inequality in the workplace.

And as one study published in the American Sociological Review found, although women are more likely to be described as "helpful" or "community-oriented" in their performance evaluations, this was not associated with receiving the highest performance rating (for men or women). The simple solution? These tasks need to be divided at a management level, or as Niemen Labs puts it, “managers buy the cakes.” 

So, why can gender roles in the workplace be so detrimental?

This expectation at work is especially detrimental when you account for what sociologists refer to as “the second shift” of extra household duties that many working women must complete after work each day. 

As a recent article by Vox explains, although women may be more likely to want to work from home than men, they have a harder time doing so. Women (and especially mothers) working from home tend to report higher rates of stress, depression, and hours clocked. “In other words, women need more flexible work arrangements, because women have more to do.”

Of course, not eradicating supposed gender roles at work can also have a negative impact on men. One of these destructive gender stereotypes is that men should prioritize work over family. As Thekla Morgenroth, a research fellow in Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Exeter, told the BBC

“Men who do take parental leave can therefore face backlash and be seen as weak, lacking work commitment and so on, which can result in consequences at work such as being demoted or not taken seriously. Men are, of course, aware of these potential consequences, and this could definitely contribute to them deciding against taking parental leave even if it's offered.”

How do we tackle that? Sarah Forbes, a researcher at Birmingham University Business School, suggests visible “fatherhood champions” at companies, both to inspire fathers to take leave and improve their knowledge of leave provisions.

Calculating the cost of gender inequality in the workplace

Unfortunately, the nature of discrimination tends to be cross-sectional, meaning that Black women don’t just have to contend with gender discrimination at work; they also may experience racial discrimination. For example, The Guardian reports that Black women in the US have to work 19 months to earn what white men earn in one year. In fact, Black women are only paid 63c to every dollar that non-Hispanic white men earn, equating to a potential loss of $946,000 over a lifetime. To combat this, the report iterates performing regular pay audits and creating a plan to address significant pay gaps for employees with similar roles and experience but who may differ only by race or gender.

Building equality and inclusivity into workplace language

There are other powerful ways we can target gender inequality in the workplace for a better division of what The Financial Times calls ‘office housework.’ One of these is the role of language and how gender-coded language can affect employees. 

According to the BBC, as we tend to associate particular language and behaviors with particular genders (‘agentic’ with male and ‘communal’ with female), using this language in job advertisements can put off great candidates from applying for particular roles. John Fiset, of Canada’s Saint Mary’s University, shares an example of the two from actual job posts:

  • Communal: “We’ll support you with the tools and resources you need to reach new milestones as you help our customers reach theirs.”
  • Agentic: “Tell us your story. Don’t go unnoticed. Explain why you’re a winning candidate.”

It’s a simple adjustment to make but a powerful one. One so powerful that behavioral designer Kat Matfield created an online tool called Gender Decoder so you can check your job descriptions for subtle gender bias.

What each person can do to tackle gender inequality in the workplace

Each day, there are simple steps each of us can take to strive for better equality in the workplace. These include (but are not limited to):

  • End imposter syndrome: Have direct conversations with employees about perceived inadequacies and what you can do about them, have empathy and share your own experiences. Take time to understand the biases that women (particularly women of color) may encounter and see what you can do to tackle these.
  • Be an ally for female employees: Share your time generously with female colleagues and be available for impromptu support. Ensure you make an effort to share their wins and to be heard in meetings. Finally, make an effort to ensure office housework is evenly distributed and normalize saying “no” if not.

As our workplaces evolve post-pandemic, it’s time to leave antiquated ideas of gender roles behind and promote equal pay, less burnout, and equal time with our children. It is the perfect opportunity to do what we can to tackle gender inequality in the workplace once and for all.