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When Employers Demand More Collaboration, Women Are Saddled With The Extra Work

December 23, 2015, 6:27 PM UTC
Businesswomen leaning on table discussing plans
Photo by Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

No man—or woman—is an island at the office. Indeed, new research from a trio of management experts finds that over the past 20 years, the amount of time employees are spending on collaborative tasks has surged by roughly 50%. And who is shouldering the bulk of that time-consuming, if often rewarding, work? Women.

In an article published in Harvard Business Review, University of Virginia’s McIntire School management professor Rob Cross, University of Pennsylvania research fellow Reb Rebele, and Wharton professor of management and psychology Adam Grant share the results of their research on the spike in collaborative work—and the ways in which this shift has filled our days with meetings and buried us under emails requesting help, input, and advice. (Some companies in the study report that their staffers spend 80% of their time on these tasks.)

The experts report that the burden of collaborative work is not doled out equally, noting that up to 35% of value-added collaborations typically come from 3% to 5% of employees. Not surprisingly, these super collaborators often become overloaded and burnt out.

Women, who are often stereotyped as more collaborative and nurturing than their male co-workers, often end up with the “lion’s share” of collaborative work, according to HBR. They are also less likely to get credit for staying late to help their colleagues.

This will sound familiar to anyone who read the article that Grant—along with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg—published in the New York Times earlier this year. In a piece that brought the phrase “office housework” into common parlance, Grant and Sandberg examined the research that shows that “women help more but benefit less from it.” They found that women are more likely to get stuck with thankless but time-consuming jobs such as taking notes, serving on committees, and planning meetings.

Given that women are carrying the majority of the ballooning collaborative work burden and doing the office housework, is it any wonder that they’re more likely to report being “emotionally exhausted” by their jobs?

The HBR report recommends a number of ways that employers can improve the distribution of collaborative tasks and make the act of working together less onerous. Let’s hope some firms take those suggestions—and that they don’t forget about their female employees in the process.