You have a painting up in a gallery. It’s a group show—let’s say the subject is dragons. Right before the opening, you notice your dragon painting is crooked. You have a level in your bag (that’s the kind of gal you are), so you realign it. Looking around, you notice all the paintings are crooked, so you level them too. The gallerist thanks you.
You’re in the next group show, and again the paintings are crooked. You shrug. You’re grazing the hors d'oeuvres when the gallerist finds you. “Where’s my great leveler?” he asks.
This is a phenomenon I’ve observed and experienced in many jobs. Women are disproportionately the proofreaders, the interpreters of bureaucratic protocols, the drafters of thoughtful framing emails. We are the polishers, double-checkers, and schedulers, even when these things are not explicitly our jobs. That is to say: if we painted something, we’re probably also making sure it’s level.
Women are more likely to volunteer for these low-visibility, “low-promotability” tasks, and more likely to be asked by managers to volunteer. This means less time spent on the strategic, high-visibility efforts that spur advancement. Over time, this imbalance can have a significant impact on your career trajectory. If you’re doing more leveling than painting, here are a few ways to course-correct.
Examine your task list.
Divide a list of your responsibilities into two columns: Tasks that excite you and connect to your career goals, and tasks that plopped onto your lap like a stray meatball. If your list is full of meatballs, figure out what you can ditch. Can anything be freelanced, traded, or delegated? If you have a supportive manager, show them the list and ask them to help you figure out how to spend more time on work that supports your growth.
Make tasks visible.
Non-promotable tasks tend to go unclaimed until they become necessary. Make them visible early on and push to establish responsibility. In a planning meeting, you might ask, “Who will be owning proofreading at the end of the project?” If nothing else, this challenges the assumption that you are responsible by default.
Stop pretending you’re interested.
Tasks are not people—you don’t have to be polite to them. It doesn’t insult the concept of scheduling if you don’t enjoy it, nor does it insult people who do it for a living. It’s just not what you want to do. Be honest about what you’re interested in, and what’s not for you. Don’t let your polite acceptance be mistaken for enthusiasm.
Don’t allow someone to frame a thankless task as an opportunity.
A low-value task on a high-level project isn’t always a foot in the door—sometimes it just means the door closes on your foot. If you want a real opportunity in a new area, add your own request: “I can do that, but if I’m going to be involved I’d also like to contribute to the project strategy.”
I know you have high standards. But if you’re stuck with a truly low-value task, don’t invest a lot of time in it. That’s a bad investment. Do a fine job. An ok job. Maybe a crappy job. I won’t tell.
Put away your level.
Resist the urge to claim low-value tasks, even if you have the skill set. If you’re worried about looking selfish, don’t. An NYU study on gender and altruism concluded that “When [women] have acted altruistically, they do not benefit, and when they have failed to act altruistically, they are penalized as compared with identically behaving men. Whatever they do, women wind up less highly regarded than their male counterparts.” After you absorb the grimness of this statement, appreciate the silver lining: if you’re going to be “less highly regarded” no matter what to do, you might as well take back some free time.
You’re not going to love everything you do at work. That’s a given. But proportions are important. Do you live for the one hour a day when you get to work on something that excites you? That’s not enough.
You were not put on Earth to level paintings. You’re here to paint dragons, and you’re fucking good at it. Why, Artforum said your dragon painting evoked savagery, but also a profound and complex humanity! (They didn’t mention how level it was.)