Serf’s Up


Cinderella

Cinderella

“Mommy, is that her?” said the little girl sitting behind me at the Sunday matinee of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella.

Yes, dearie, that’s her, flaxen hair, peachy skin, and kindness to burn.

It’s a fine film—Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter are especially good. It’s often said that “no good deed goes unpunished”. Cinderella toils for her evil stepmother and stepsisters, doing everyday menial tasks that go unnoticed and unappreciated. The story ends well, a fine marriage to the handsome Prince. It’s a lovely tale, free of irony, reassuring us that, if only we have patience (and courage and kindness), life will treat us fairly.

Um…maybe that’s how it works in theory but, as Yogi Berra said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” In the real world there’s a gender divide when it comes to the value placed on “communal” behavior. Not surprisingly, at work and at home, women, like our heroine Cinderella, are expected to be nurturing and self-sacrificing. It’s simply assumed that we live to serve others, anticipating their needs and rushing in to help.

A recent study asked participants to evaluate the performance of employees who offered to stay late to help a colleague prepare for an important meeting. When a man volunteered, he was rated 14 percent higher than a woman. If they both declined, the woman was rated 12 percent lower than the man. Saying ‘no’ meant the man was “busy”, whereas  the same response from the woman meant she was “selfish”. Women had to give extra help just to get the same rating as a man.

This is the “office housework” that’s expected of women, whether she’s the receptionist who also bakes cupcakes for staff, or the manager who is expected to be the “office mommy”, placing her staff’s needs over her own. It’s no wonder that in an analysis of 183 different studies in 15 countries and multiple occupations, women were more likely to report feeling emotionally exhausted. (Where’s that handsome Prince when you need him?)

When I worked as the editor-in-chief at ELLE, I saw this play out all the time. Staff wanted to transplant their family dynamics into the office. At one editorial meeting our copy editor even said, “I know we’re supposed to be a family here…” Having no intention of being the “office mommy” (either benevolent or evil), I privately choose the role of “big sister” based on the assumption it would be the least emotionally draining.  At the time, I wondered if male managers had a similar dual role.

“Office housework” is a huge hidden drain on women’s productivity. As much as policies on child-care costs, maternity rights, access to higher education, and pay lift the glass ceiling, societal changes in expectations on women’s behavior are also necessary. Much progress has already been made. For example, women’s enrolment in higher education is almost twice that of men, although their return-on-investment is typically lower than men’s. As a group women are better qualified than men, yet earn three-quarters as much. Part of this may be attributed to different areas of specialization. Women dominate education, social work and the humanities, whereas men choose higher-paying professions in computer science and engineering. Still, the traditional definition of gender behaviors likely also plays a part. (And, by the way, don’t you wonder that if men dominated social work it would pay a lot better?) After all, you can’t consistently give your all at work if you’re expected to be the “office mommy”—and that’s not even counting the third shift at home.

So while I’m a fan of Branagh’s Cinderella, we don’t all live in Disneyland. Sometimes saying ‘no’ takes even more courage and kindness (to oneself).

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