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Business News/ Specials / Women from minority groups get unfair work loads too often

There is a myth about the US tech industry’s lack of diversity: that it just reflects who studies computer science. But the pipeline is only part of the problem. The other part is corporate culture, which drives out many women and people of colour who would like to make tech their career. Over half of mid-career women leave the industry, while early-career women leave at twice the rate of men.

According to my research, there’s a simple way to make company culture less toxic: Stop asking women, particularly women of colour, to do work for which they aren’t paid and which ultimately hurts their careers.

Given previous research my team has conducted, we weren’t surprised to see women doing the ‘office housework’—the kind of tasks that keep the trains running, but don’t lead to raises or promotions. We’ve seen that again and again.

But a new study of women in tech, co-authored by me, Rachel Korn and Asma Ghani, showed a starker pattern. These women weren’t just planning parties or taking notes at a meeting; some were even functioning as heads of diversity and inclusion or human resources without compensation, which was something we’d never seen in other industries we’ve studied, like law, academia and architecture.

Racial disparities were also wider than in other fields. While Caucasian women in the tech sector do more office housework and diversity work than Caucasian men, women of colour do much more than Caucasian women. They were 39 percentage points more likely than Caucasian women to report doing more diversity work than their colleagues, and 20 percentage points less likely to report access to the best assignments.

One study we conducted in engineering found that 26% of Caucasian men, but 55% of women of colour report that they do more of the undervalued work than their colleagues of comparable seniority and experience. The same study found that 61% of Caucasian men, but less than half of women of colour, report they were more likely than their peers to be assigned to high-profile tasks or teams.

This is often called the minority tax. When we surveyed 216 women of colour working in computing in tech companies, we found outlandishly large loads of ‘office housework’.

Follow-up interviews showed common patterns. Here is one: asking the only women of colour on the team to become the unpaid diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) specialist. I asked a Latina software engineer to estimate the percentage of her time unpaid DEI efforts represented: “At least 25% of my time … and it doesn’t help you get promoted." It’s really volunteering, she said. She described spending a lot of time recruiting speakers for events, noting “none of this is related to my job."

Sometimes, women in startups are expected to take on all of human resources, or act as office managers, because the companies lack funding for both. “Some of the smaller tasks in the office… are falling on my shoulders," said another Latina software engineer who was the only woman lead at her company. She told her colleagues, “When we have these housekeeping issues or refilling the napkins or we don’t have an office assistant, I am not that person. So everyone here has to chip in." The other leads agreed, but never pitched in. The next time supplies needed to be restocked she sent an email saying, “Okay. Guys… whenever you’re ready."

This highlights how dodging the minority tax complicates office politics for women who already are at risk of being labelled ‘difficult’ because of racial and gender stereotypes.

There can be a financial cost to getting saddled with too much office housework. Although the women we spoke with were expected to take on this unpaid work, ironically they were also penalized for doing so. That’s because their performance assessments were based solely on the technical work they were actually hired to do. Keeping the trains running cut into the amount of time they could spend building faster, better trains.

Women of colour end up leaving tech companies—and even the industry—because they feel overworked, under-utilized and undervalued. Office housework is not the only reason. But it is clearly one of the easiest to fix.

Here’s what companies must do. Let women of colour do the technical work they were hired to do. Provide administrative support if they’re recruiting speakers for employee resource groups or other diversity efforts. Hire an office manager to restock office supplies, or establish a rota system. Don’t ask computer scientists to play HR. And, at a minimum, pay them for their extra work. 

Joan C. Williams is a distinguished professor of law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law..

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Updated: 17 Apr 2022, 10:06 PM IST
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