Q: I’m a woman working at a start-up that happens to be mostly men. Because we’re a small organization, many of us handle extra responsibilities around the office. However, another woman I work with pointed out that I’ve come to handle all the stereotypically “feminine” responsibilities (organizing birthday events, ordering coffee, taking meeting minutes) and said I was limiting myself and hurting my professional image. Am I? If so, what should I do? We still need coffee and note takers.
A: Housekeeping responsibilities like this are part of any office environment, yet these should not by default become one person’s “extra” job, particularly if it’s based on that person’s gender. A big part of this situation stems from ingrained gender norms and obliviousness on behalf of some of your colleagues who may not often do that “stereotypically feminine” work in other parts of their lives. Women also tend to be more attuned to aspects of organizational culture, and therefore the task of maintaining and enhancing company culture—by way of birthday celebrations or office snacks—often falls to women. These aspects of office life bring value to everyone, so everyone needs to take responsibility for them.
Everyone in the office needs to agree on the value of the tasks that have largely fallen to you. If agreement says eliminate them, so be it. And if everyone acknowledges and agrees that these things enhance the office environment and provide needed services that make life easier for everyone, the next step is to create a plan to assign responsibility for those duties. Rotational assignments are an excellent tool to promote equity across a team, especially when it comes to the “annoying” non-revenue generating, but culturally critical, tasks that you’ve mentioned. Encourage the most senior person in your office to address the need for a rotation and create a system to maintain and manage an equitable method to proceed. There are many ways to structure rotational assignments and you can do what works best for your organization—duties might be rotated monthly or quarterly on an individual basis or be assigned to different teams for a set timeframe. The only option that is unacceptable is letting the responsibility fall to just one person based on their gender, age, or lack of tolerance for disorganization.
Your colleague did you a service by suggesting that your overly accommodating actions could potentially have a negative impact on your image. While you were acting as a great “team player” and a supportive colleague by managing these housekeeping responsibilities, what weren’t you doing in your job responsibilities? And how were others viewing you in comparison to your colleagues? Depending on how visible these tasks are in the work you do at your company, people might end up saying you don’t have executive presence or gravitas, or they may not take you seriously if their main image of you is decorating the break room with streamers for someone’s birthday. It’s possible—and likely—that none of those perspectives are true, but when you position yourself that way, you run the risk of your other contributions being overshadowed. Consider, too, how you’re using your time and energy at work. Are you not achieving highly valuable or revenue-generating things because you’re taking on non-critical duties? What value do you demonstrate through these non-critical activities? Invest your time, energy, and resources on achieving mission-critical activities rather than maxing out on ancillary tasks.
The conversation to remedy this issue does not have to be explicitly about stereotypical gender roles. Through influence, you can encourage your colleagues to help with these tasks without having to make it a formal issue. For example, at the start of your next meeting where you would normally take notes, you might say, “Okay, I took the minutes last time, who’s up this time?” And then, the time after that if no one steps up, say “Well, Bill took notes at the last staff meeting, whose turn is it now?” without volunteering yourself. Everyone understands and can appreciate the concept of taking turns, regardless of gender, so make that the focus of your efforts.
On the individual level, take care to notice if you find yourself falling into the same habits in other circumstances. Focus your energy on achieving high-value results in the critical areas of your job. And yes, you should be prepared for some pushback. Most people will step up, but if you do encounter resistance, just relinquish responsibility. Running out of coffee will motivate just about anyone to have somebody else start ordering coffee—man or woman.