The Trap of The Organizational Wife
Women take on the wifely responsibility of making organizations run smoothly. Does it actually help your career?
Are you an organizational wife? If you don’t know, let me tell you about the many organizational wives I’ve seen, and the price women pay for being one.
Everyone depends on the organizational wife
Organizational wives are the people everyone relies on to make sure things run smoothly at work. They arrange all the office parties and events. They spend time socializing with new employees. They listen to problems. They are always willing to lend a helping hand.
If you do these things and more, you may be an organizational wife. This is a role that many women take on — spending a disproportionate amount of work time helping others and shouldering more than their fair share of office “housework.” In my opinion, this holds women back in their careers.
Are all women organizational wives? No. Can men be organizational wives? You bet. Anyone, of any gender, can be an organizational wife. Still, it’s a pretty good bet that the vast majority of organizational wives in any given company are women.
How the organizational wife role holds women back
And where has this gotten us? Even though it’s 2021, we still face dismal career statistics. The gender pay gap continues — and so does the lack of leadership positions for women. We still hold only 6% of the S&P 500 CEO positions. We blame it on the pipeline problem, unconscious biases, and time out of the workforce for child-rearing. I would argue that taking on the organizational wife role is another factor.
Why do women do it? For many, it feels natural: others expect women to be nurturing, caring, and supportive of others — at home and at work. And when women fail to meet these expectations, there are negative repercussions.
The problem is that there are also negative repercussions for meeting these expectations. Research by my colleagues and me shows that being an organizational wife comes with a cost. In professional service firms, it means fewer billable hours. In research universities, it means fewer publications. Our work shows that people who spend too much time helping others have smaller salary increases and slower career advancement. They are also more likely to hit a career plateau. Ironically, organizational wives get better performance reviews — a ‘pat on the back’ effect because these reviews often are not closely coupled to compensation or promotion.
The result is that women often find themselves in the lower ranks and in lesser positions of power and influence, despite their contributions. This allows others (mostly white men) to advance more quickly — often without acknowledging the help they received on the way.
Do women get paid back for the role?
To be sure, taking on this wifely role does make organizations more productive and effective. There is plenty of evidence showing the positive effect of these helping behaviors on organizations. Some might even argue that women enjoy this role and are better at it than men. Those points may be true. In fact, that same tired excuse is often used about sharing the burden of housework and childcare.
The important question, however, is this: Why are women expected to fall on their sword for the good of the organization if it comes with such a price? Some will say ‘it comes back to you in other ways.’ I’m here to tell you that it often doesn’t. Expressions of appreciation and gratitude are not the same thing as a promotion or a raise. This is particularly true in organizations that use objective metrics to assess performance (i.e., sales, professional service firms, research universities) and in which the career cost is often much greater. Over time, you might notice that pat on the back is starting to feel more like a slap — especially as others get promoted ahead of you.
By the way, the people helped by organizational wives end up being very successful — and often take far more personal credit for their success than is warranted. I have met many women who take on this role — supporting others (often men) at the expense of themselves.
If you are an organizational wife, take a step back. Is it really your job to come in early and set up for that big meeting? Stop being accountable for all that office housework and try letting other people fail. If they do, it will be a good lesson and they probably won’t do it again — which benefits everyone. The upside is more time and space to focus on your own work — the work that will get you better compensated and maybe even promoted. As someone once said, “Givers have to set limits, because takers rarely do.”
Dr. Diane Bergeron is a social-organizational psychologist (PhD, Columbia University) and is an expert in women’s career issues. Her research has won awards and she has been a keynote speaker, City Club panelist and radio guest on the pay gap, gender equity, and the double bind of women’s leadership.
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