Years ago during an offsite, a white male colleague remarked that he didn’t have time to manage his employees to the extent they needed managing.
“You must realize that has a spillover effect on the rest of us,” I said. “Your team ends up seeking other leaders to help them navigate this place—and to better understand you.”
So-called invisible work—a term coined by sociologist Arlene Kaplan Daniels to describe work that goes unpaid, unacknowledged, and thus, unregulated—abounds in the workplace, especially when we look back on our careers in hindsight. Once you know, you cannot stop seeing such labor everywhere. It’s especially egregious for women and people of color, who pick up the slack for organizations that come to rest greatly on our efforts.
Recognize the labor
One of the first steps in fixing the problem of invisible work is to, well, make it visible. Regina Lark’s recent TED talk implores us to stop calling anything “women’s” work. “Work is work,” she says. In an interview with me, she offered this checklist with examples of how women and people of color take on extra burdens:
Emotional support: Providing emotional support to colleagues, listening to their problems, offering empathy and understanding. This scenario, the precise one I found myself in years ago, she says, “helps create a supportive work culture” but is rarely in anyone’s job description.
Conflict resolution: Resolving conflicts among team members or mediating disagreements.
Mentorship and guidance: Women end up as mentors to other employees of all genders, which is “time-consuming and demanding,” says Lark, who holds a PhD in women’s history.
Office organization and planning: Administrative and logistical tasks such as organizing office events, celebrations, baby showers, picking up the cake, sending flowers or meals to sick colleagues, team-building activities
Communication and coordination: Managing communication within teams, ensuring everyone and everything is efficient.
Building relationships and nurturing team dynamics: “Women lean toward investing time and effort in building and maintaining relationships with colleagues, clients, or stakeholders,” says Lark, “which can be vital for business success, and helps improve teamwork and productivity, but often goes unnoticed and unrewarded.”People of color contend with additional expectations. Leah Goodridge, the managing attorney for housing policy at Mobilization for Justice, which provides civil legal services, says we fall into the trap of a “supporting character role.” She defines this as white employees seeking “emotional support to identify, analyze, and provide feedback on systemic issues in the institution.”
For example, someone says something racist in a meeting. The employees of color are asked to confirm whether it really was racist and dissect the incident, over and over. Goodridge suggests you leave that labor to the people paid for it: professionals in human resources or the diversity, equity, and inclusion department. Approaches, of course, vary, but the key is not to assume diverse talent should do the unpaid work of diagnosing and addressing bias.
Regular readers know I belong to many Facebook groups for working women, people of color, caregivers, parents of grown children, female founders, and on and on. I feel adequately read in and equipped to summarize that people are angry and frustrated and feeling especially unseen these days. Research confirms this. Earlier this year, a report on the cost of loneliness connected invisible work to what’s undermining women’s climb up the corporate ladder. More than half of women reported feeling lonely because of their jobs. Only 19% of women of color are satisfied with their overall career, compared to 30% of white women.
The solution is for women to build more community and connection, says Ann Shoket, CEO of TheLi.st, a women’s networking group (to which I also belong) that sponsored the loneliness study. “But building those relationships can mean even more invisible labor: bringing teams together, caring for colleagues, raising questions of equality, and then leading the initiatives to address the concerns,” she says. “It’s no wonder that nearly 40% of women say their companies do not help them succeed.”
Add the impact of what women also have to handle at home and beyond with pressures of caregiving and it’s no overstatement to say making the invisible more visible demands employers’ urgent attention.
The path to creating visible, valued work
Once you go through Lark’s checklist, she suggests then auditing the amount of emotional labor being done across the organization in order to redistribute the workload and/or address pay inequities.
“Each person in the workplace needs to list everything they believe they do to contribute to the functioning and success of the company. If you do it, write it down—and expect that it will be a very long list. Then, the leadership team can assign value and importance to the tasks,” says Lark. “Although ordering cake for team birthdays or sending flowers to a colleague in the hospital on behalf of the company are tasks that may not drive revenue, they are still important for company unity.”
This exercise is similar to one employed by households and couples trying to create greater gender equity, as depicted in this viral Tik Tok video as well as the documentary, Fair Play, which boasts the tag line: “For women to step into their full power at work, men must step into their full power at home.”
And then what?
- Have a discussion among colleagues about what work is getting done and by whom. More people should start to step up.
- Audit pay disparities with particular attention to gender and race.
- Assess the diversity across all levels of the company. Ensure women and people of color (and thus, higher amounts of invisible labor) are not concentrated in low-paying, low-ranking roles with no power.
- Consider salary transparency to ensure fair compensation among employees.
- Pay employees for their participation on committees or employee resource groups (ERGs.)
- Celebrate the work of these groups and of the people within. “Highlight their contributions through internal and external communication channels, such as newsletters, social media, and award ceremonies,” says Lark.
- Assess communications for who is being called out and rewarded. Ensure the work you praise reflects the diversity of who really toiled. Look at word choice, too. My former colleague, the late Lauren Brown, made a compelling case to retire the word “help” from our workplace vocabulary.
Colleagues can support each other better, as well. For example, if a woman of color makes a point in a meeting, initially ignored, only to be later repeated, make sure you note to the group that it was originally her point. “Directly acknowledging the ways women of color contribute to the workplace is crucial because so many times, they are building the organizational culture while not receiving any accolades for it,” Goodridge says. She plans an upcoming talk at Stanford on professionalism as a racial construct.
The value of invisible networks
A lot of workplaces run on the power of invisible work and the networks created within. In the recruitment practice of my startup, URL Media, we often tap the strength of community networks to find candidates of color that the so-called mainstream might not know about. Early on, we decided to pay a referral fee or send a gift card ranging from $500-1,000 if recommendations resulted in a placement—to make the work less invisible, to recognize the power of networks and, ultimately, the value such ties represent.
I asked Goodridge about this and whether white institutions are failing to create such trusted networks. She reminds me that they already have their own. “There already is a built in community network that benefits white people in nearly every facet of life—education, the workplace, housing. These networks aren’t racially inclusive which is why people of color create their own.”
These parallel ways of working exacerbate inequality. Bringing such networks and important work out of the shadows and acknowledging their true value is an essential step toward making workplaces more inclusive.