The Invisible Workload for Moms is Unfair — Here's How to Lessen It

When my daughter got a job at age 15, I tried my best to shuffle around my schedule and boost my productivity so that I could  fit in the 25-minute round trip commutes (which meant moving around meetings and taking calls from the car.) 

One day, I overlooked an added shift to her work schedule and panicked about how she’d get to work. As my husband and I tried to shuffle around our day to make the commute work, we had an “aha” moment: why not outsource this task to a professional driver? And so, we did. I ordered her an Uber to work. She thought it was cool to have a “driver” and I tracked her the whole way while keeping my clients on schedule. While this was a win-win for us that day, it took me nearly 15 years to realize that I didn’t always have to be the one who saved the day.

This scenario for moms, especially working moms, isn’t uncommon. 

In our everyday lives we spend several hours every week coordinating all of the things for our kids. Appointments. Camps. Ride sharing. Worrying about recurring ear infections. 

This has a name — the unpaid workload of women. 

Research on the unpaid workload reveals that women spend an extra two hours per day outside of their normal working hours doing unpaid tasks like cleaning, carpooling, cooking, laundering, parenting, helping family, and more. They are the extra things women say yes to that aren’t actually paid, but they are contributing to society and taking our time, our energy, and our effort.

In addition to the two hours of unpaid labor women take on at home, Harvard Business Review published that women get 44 percent more requests at work to volunteer for “non promotable” tasks at work. These are the tasks that benefit the organization, but rarely contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement. These tasks include traditional office “housework” such as coordinating parties and office events, restocking office supplies, taking notes, or serving on non-strategic committees where the extra hours aren’t rewarded or viewed as “contributing value”. According to this research, when employers ask employees to complete non promotable tasks,  men said yes only 51 percent of the time — while women said yes 76 percent of the time.

The toll of this unpaid work has led to an all-time high of burnout.

According to the 2021 Women in the Workplace Report by McKinsey, women are contributing more, yet we are often less recognized. While women were resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic response by guiding their teams through the shift to remote work, coupled with the boom of diversity and inclusion efforts, the report revealed that 4 in 10 women had considered leaving their company or switching jobs in early 2021. Women followed through with this by leading the Great Resignation, where millions of women quit their jobs late last year. 

Rest. Self-care. Anti-hustle. 

These might feel like dirty words in corporate America. But I’m ready to challenge the belief that feeling overworked and riding the edge of burnout means we are doing great work. I’m tired of tolerating this culture that says if we’re not suffering a little bit under the weight of a packed schedule, then we aren’t working hard enough. If we want to keep women, especially working mothers, in the workforce — then it’s time for us to find more sanity in our schedules. Every quarter, I encourage my clients to do a calendar audit and determine what they can dump, delegate, and outsource so they can find a better work-life rhythm.

Dump It

It happens to all of us: things that we said yes to months or years ago that we keep doing because we’re on autopilot. In my experience, these were old business or operating reports I would review that no one was paying attention to. They were meetings I was still attending because I was invited once and kept going (even though I could just be informed after the meeting). These can also include yeses you once said to a friend group or to your child’s school that no longer align with your values. 

Look at your calendar and task list. Ask yourself: Do I need or want to be there? Does this align with my values, talents, or priorities? If it drains you, dump it.

Delegate It

If you can’t dump it, can you delegate it? At home, when I was a working single mom, my daughter was taught to do her laundry from the time she could reach the knobs. It was a great life skill for her. So was cleaning the bathroom. She did a terrible job at first, but I have to admit she now has some pretty high standards for cleanliness as a teenager.

Ask yourself: what home chores can I delegate to my kids, partner, or even a neighbor’s child who wants to build their skills? Write these down and delegate. At work, ask yourself: does my presence add or subtract value for fellow team members also in the meeting? Is this a development opportunity for someone on my team to lead? Make a list and communicate this with your team members.

Outsource It

If you can’t dump it or delegate it, can you outsource it? 

In my years of working at technology and consulting firms, I discovered the power of outsourcing. We had small but mighty teams, so there weren’t layers of hierarchy that could handle lots of delegation assignments. However, we owned the power of contractors. We outsourced everything from office grocery and snack delivery. As a working mom, I outsourced my lawn care and snow removal to neighbors. It isn’t an option for everyone, but if you have the privilege to outsource, it can be a tremendous help.

Ask yourself: Is this mine to own? Is this adding to my stress and unpaid workload? Can someone do it better and faster than me? What can be outsourced to a professional that will save time, sanity, and overwork — and maybe even money in the long run?

The resistance to doing less is not surprising when much of our identity is wrapped up in our work. For high-achieving women, our work, families, and responsibilities define a great deal of who we are. And so, it’s easy to fall into the trap (like I did) of “what I do is who I am.” Thus, if I’m not doing all the things, then who am I? 

Just because you are committed to doing less doesn’t make you less of a mom, woman or employee. Your busy calendar is not a source of true confidence, and there is no award for how much you can tolerate. No amount of pay will make up for misery if you are burned out and exhausted. Instead, as women, let’s build up our energy and confidence so that we can lead more by doing less.

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