Dump or delegate

3 ways to reduce invisible labor for women at work

4 Ps of delegation and how to know when to dump or delegate
3 ways to reduce invisible labor for women at work
Photo: VH-studio (Shutterstock)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Kelli Thompson is a leadership coach and speaker who helps women leaders advance with clarity and confidence so they can make an impact in the rooms where decisions are made. She is the author of Closing The Confidence Gap: Boost Your Peace, Your Potential & Your Paycheck.

The 3pm slump hit like bricks as I slid joylessly into another meeting. I couldn’t decide if my dazed state was due to the fact I hadn’t eaten lunch yet or because this was my sixth hour-long meeting that day.

My brain was scolding: “Sit up straight! Show interest! Ask good questions!” But every other cell was screaming: “We don’t care. Please just agree to everything so we can get out of here 20 minutes early and get some food!”

I realized I had two employees in the same meeting, and with me there, they were deferring to me. I paused to consider my next steps. Am I adding unique value that my team cannot? Is being here a developmental opportunity for me? The answer was no, and I realized I might be hindering their performance development by being there.

Identifying the invisible work

We’re all stuck with tasks that aren’t exciting or challenging, yet they must be done. It may be an invisible task if it doesn’t drive revenue, involve strategic thinking, or help you accomplish a goal. According to Harvard Business Review, women are asked to volunteer for these invisible tasks 44% more often than men. I was always asked to organize time-sucking parties or fundraisers, for which I never received recognition.

Invisible tasks benefit the organization but likely don’t contribute to someone’s performance evaluation and career advancement, hence making the work invisible for pay and promotions. These tasks include traditional office housework, such as coordinating parties and office events, filling in for a colleague, taking notes, or stocking office break rooms. Men tend to volunteer for more strategic projects with higher-level networking or visibility. When the requests for invisible tasks are made, women say yes 76% of the time, 25% more often than men.

Invisible labor is a large hinderance for working women. Catalyst shared that “unpaid care work is a barrier because working mothers are less mobile and have less flexibility to change jobs, occupations, or locations as needed in a changing labor market.” According to McKinsey’s 2021 women in the workplace report, women are contributing more, yet they are often less recognized. Burnout is at an all-time high. The report revealed that 4 in 10 women had considered leaving their company or switching jobs—and the turnover data in the months following this report indicates they followed through. This makes dumping and delegating invisible work all the more critical.

Create space by dumping, delegating, or outsourcing

To create space for more impactful work, you must reduce the number of invisible tasks on your to-do list. To help with this, I suggest you conduct a calendar audit and determine what you can dump, delegate, and outsource.

1. Know what to dump

You will be surprised by what you will find. A junior employee can now handle administrative tasks you said yes to years ago. Meetings you attend that were essential to your job role three months ago may no longer be pertinent to your goals.

Look at your calendar and task list and reflect on your impact. Dump it if it doesn’t add value and isn’t essential to your job.

Ask yourself: Do I need or want to be there? Does this align with my values, talents, or priorities? Does this drain me or excite me?

2. Determine what to delegate

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

Suppose the project can’t be dumped because the organization requires it or there is interdependency with other teams. In that case, it could be an opportunity to delegate the work to someone who would appreciate a new learning opportunity.

After I delegated the meeting that occurred during my 3pm slump, I identified other meetings that I could also delegate to team members eager to assume some leadership and decision-making responsibility. The newfound white space on my calendar freed me up to pursue more strategic priorities.

Ask yourself: Does my presence add or subtract value for fellow team members in the meeting? Is this a developmental opportunity for my team to lead? Who on my team would enjoy building new skills in this area?

3. Outsource for the win

Yes, maybe your team is short-staffed and on a tight budget. Can you rely on other methods if you can’t delegate tasks to a team member? Perhaps hiring a social media manager on Upwork for a few hours a week—to schedule posts—might help. Or hiring a task rabbit company or virtual assistant to coordinate scheduling, office deliveries, or event planning?

Ask yourself: How will my team and company benefit from this task? Does it take a unique set of qualifications for someone to complete? Is there a legal reason the work would need to remain in-house? ? If I remove this task from the current owners’ plate, what else could they do to add value and offset costs?

4 P’s of delegation

When delegating paid and unpaid work, be clear about the task and outcomes to prevent getting pulled back in. To help reflection turn into action, consider the four Ps of delegation:

  • Purpose: Why are we doing this? Why do I want it? Why does this matter?
  • People: Who is involved? Who are the decision-makers? Who carries out the work? What roles will each person play in getting the work done?
  • Process: What work needs to be done by when? What are the steps and timelines involved? How is the work expected to be done?
  • Performance: What is the ultimate goal? What does success look like?