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Are you the "Office Mom"?
Think again: Who takes all the meeting notes?
Once upon a time, I remembered the birthday of a kind colleague and reminded the boss. The boss thanked me and said, “Why don’t we order a cake for him?” Of course, when he said that, he really meant “Why don’t you order a cake for him?”
It seemed an innocuous enough request (aka order) and I did it. After the party, Boss turned to me and said, “Great cake, Mahima. Good job! From now on, you are in-charge of ordering the cakes for all team birthdays.”
As weird as it felt to be nominated the Office Cake Orderer, I did the job with all sincerity, thinking that will be the last weird nomination I accept.
Unfortunately, it was just the first.
I soon found myself handed the menu card every time team lunches were being ordered.
When new people joined the team, I was usually the one asked to give them an orientation.
I was even asked to pick the colour of the walls when our office was being repainted.
When I think back - from picking new office furniture to landscaping the office lawn - my fellow women colleagues and I were almost exclusively the ones "nominated" for such tasks.
Meanwhile, the men did the "serious" work - the talking to clients, the presenting of PPTs, the earning of professional respect.
I once asked a male colleague what he would do if he was in my place and was asked to order food for lunch. He said, "I would just say I am no good at it. And if I was pushed, I would intentionally mess up the order so that next time they ask you to do it again."
Of course, he followed this comment with his best charming smile so it was all right.
Showing Madam a good time
Aditi is a civil servant. Posted in a remote but beautiful town, she is the only woman in her department.
"Once, a senior officer was visiting on inspection. His wife was going to accompany him. My boss asked me to take ‘Madam’ for sightseeing. In the government, they call it 'protocol duty' but it essentially boils down to showing madam a good time, taking her to museums, restaurants, shopping, etc."
And while Aditi turned tour guide, the men stayed back at work.
"The senior officer met with my male colleagues. They socialized with him and presented their achievements and challenges to him. When I asked my boss if I could also stay back to present my work to the senior as well, I was told, 'They are men. You are a woman so you should go with Madam.' I let it go because I have to pick my battles. And this is something that requires a systemic change in society itself."
Angela is a young Indian woman who works in the consulting sector. Her role takes her on projects all over the world.
"It is a given with our clients in almost all countries that when a presentation is being made to the client, a woman from the team runs the PPT while a man presents. I was always expected to take notes because it somehow goes without saying that women take notes. When I worked in the Middle East, it was more extreme than anywhere else. If I talked at all in the meeting, men would all look at me in shock, 'Oh, the PPT mover has a voice!'"
Angela had started out as an analyst when doing scut work was part of the job. But it continued even after she became a Manager.
"One of the Partners once came into my office, threw his copy of a document with his notes scribbled on it on the table and said, 'Here are the notes.' He expected me to photocopy his scribbles and then type them out to share with the rest of the team. I looked up at him, turned to my analyst and said 'Alex, can you please make the copies?' I don't know if it registered with him that I was indicating how insulting his expectation was. But I am pretty sure he has never asked a male manager to make photocopies for him."
“I don’t know how to say NO”
When I asked Opal to share an instance of being asked to do more than her fair share of housekeeping tasks at work, she said there were so many that she would not know where to begin.
She called it 'death by a thousand cuts'.
"I would do several such tasks on a daily basis, thinking I was just being a teamplayer. The first time I even became conscious of it was through a former (male) boss. Some visitors were coming to our office and a colleague asked me to get bottles of water for the guests. I did it without a second thought. My manager later told me, 'You should not naturally agree with such requests all the time - it diminishes you in front of the team'. That was the first time I even understood that this was a problem."
And even though Opal now realizes that she is the only one on the team getting and accepting such requests, she finds it a challenge to take a stand.
"It is difficult (a) not offer to do it if no one else is putting up their hand, and (b) to refuse if someone else asks you and puts you in a spot. I have had peers slyly handing over their PPT-making work to me and then presenting it to seniors without giving me any credit. When I try to say no to such asks, they say, 'Oh, I only ask you because you are so good at it'. I don't know how to say no. Some of it is also to not come across as too abrasive. I am also slowly realizing that I don't recognize my own value at work."
Housekeeping becomes your “personal brand”
Lalita has always detested being called upon to do housekeeping tasks at work
"I have also made sure that my teams at work are very aware of this. I often ask men to take on such tasks whenever they come up. I have never once organized an office party (I hate it), or ordered a birthday cake, or sent out minutes unless I would have done it anyway as part of my job."
However, there have been rare occasions when Lalita broke character and took on a task beyond what was strictly her job description. Usually, it had to do with mentoring new teammates.
"I would sometimes take on mentoring/coaching for new joinees - getting them upto speed with the culture, introduce them to relevant people, help out with the logistics, answer informal questions about office do's and don'ts."
And while she did this to help ease the transition for the new team members, she noticed that it was working against her.
"I realized that me doing these tasks was sticking in people's heads as my 'personal brand'. They started sending all new joinees my way for orientation, even though this is not strictly my job. They also conveniently forgot all the business planning and strategy work that I do, and latched on to 'Oh, she's good at orientation for the newbies'. This led to an automatic assumption that since I'm good at people stuff, I must be 'fluffy' and not effective at the business stuff!"
Lalita sees a parallel here with how women are expected to take on all the mental load at home as well.
"I have a principle-based issue here. Why are people skills and business skills seen as mutually exclusive? Why can't we accept that housekeeping has to be done in order for smooth functioning - whether at home or at work? Just like the mental load issue at home - where men believe housekeeping is optional, or 'not their job' - all the tiny things that happen behind the scenes to keep the organization running smoothly are expected to be done by the women too."
“Boys don't have the patience these tasks demand.”
As an engineer in the automobile sector, Pooja was working on a really strenuous project.
"I was designing some complex components on the engine and was fairly stretched. One day, my manager called me and asked me to also take on project tracking for others in the team. This meant maintaining lists of what everyone else was doing, tracking their milestones, mapping all issues, and updating actions against each one of them every week. Essentially, it was the painful, voluminous, thankless work that no one else wanted to do."
When she protested, Pooja was given the good old 'I am asking you because you are so good at it'.
"I bought that crap and started doing the tracking. Pretty soon, others started dumping all their documentation load on me too. They started calling me the Documentation Lady, including even juniors and interns. Everybody forgot that I was designing the fuel and oil delivery systems of the engine."
"Obviously, my core work started suffering. I had to tell my boss that I cannot continue the documentation work anymore. His response shocked me. He called me names, including 'selfish', 'non-cooperative', and made statements like 'Ladkiyaan ye sab kaam acche se karti hain (Girls are good at such tasks). Boys don't have the patience and attention to detail these tasks demand.'“
“That was the day I started applying for other jobs. And I quit as soon as the project ended."
“It will turn you into the Office Doormat for life”
Keerti worked at an Indian conglomerate as the Chief of Staff to the CEO.
"When I joined, I was starry-eyed, excited about working in a semi-leadership position."
However, Keerti soon realized that her new colleagues were the type who loved husband-wife jokes, and the organization culture emboldened them to flaunt it.
"The incident that took the cake for me happened on a working Saturday. We were having some strategy discussion. Someone suggested we should have pizzas for our working lunch. Suddenly, someone else said, 'K, can you make arrangements?' I looked up, wondering what arrangements I was supposed to make. Ten men were looking expectantly at me while one said, 'Can you order pizzas for everyone?'"
"I was shocked, but managed a feeble 'No, I am not great at ordering.' To this day, I regret not having said 'Why don’t you order them yourself?' I was clearly busier than the rest of them. But then, the Big Boss said, 'K can you please?' What was I supposed to do? I ordered them. I don't know about the others, but the pizza tasted like shit to me - the shit these people had poured all over me."
Keerti says the incident was an awakening for her.
"I decided that I was no longer young and afraid to speak up. I was older and wiser -wise enough to know when I was being treated differently because I am a woman. The incident made me more conscious about drawing boundaries at work. Of course, this keeps happening again and again - in job after job. 'K, can you pick a place for the party? Can you figure out something fun for Fun Fridays?' These days, I simply say, 'Hey, I have a lot on my plate. Perhaps, XYZ (any man in the vicinity) could do it? Anyway, he is more fun, so I’m sure he will make it worth everyone’s while!' "
Keerti says that she sees how accepting such asks affects a woman’s career when she sees women senior to her.
"Time and again, I see women in senior positions running around buying fun party props or organizing some HR bonding event despite not being in HR at all. It all reminds me to make sure I don’t become that person. You could think you are just doing it once or twice, but if you are a woman, it will literally turn you into the office doormat for life."
This piece is not aimed at denigrating any role or job. In fact, if your job is in HR or admin or any support function in an organisation, nothing but respect and gratitude for the work you do. This piece, however, is aimed only at people whose job descriptions do not include such tasks, but who are expected to do them anyway.
Research has shown that women are much more likely to be doing “non-promotable” tasks at the workplace - basically tasks that do not lead to a gold star in your performance evaluation at the end of the year.
The ‘requests’ to do such tasks present a catch-22 dilemma for women. If we say yes and do them, we become “The Office Mom”. In the long run, that hurts our career because when men in the room are discussing consequential work stuff, we are either taking notes or ordering coffee for everyone.
Of course, if we put our foot down and say "no" to such asks, we are given worse performance evaluations, fewer promotions, and in general, being labeled ‘difficult’, ‘bossy’, ‘not a team player’.
On the flip side, men who do such tasks are more likely to be promoted, given important projects, and showered with raises and bonuses.
And just as it is with Boys Clubs, the only people with real solutions to this problem are the Bosses (usually men).
So Dear Bossman,
Please realize that doing this kind of work shows empathy for others, regard for their feelings, concern for the smooth functioning of the team and office. People - usually women - who show these qualities are going above and beyond their stated job descriptions.
These are not qualities that need to be penalized with lower respect for the person who displays them. On the contrary, all of these are classic leadership qualities. So the next time you see a woman raise her hand to do something nobody else is ready to do, recognize her for what she is displaying in that moment - the quality to be a team leader, not the team doormat.
At the same time, next time you want to nominate someone to take notes during a meeting, consider asking a man.
Next time you need someone to jot down ideas on a whiteboard while the rest of the team brainstorms them, consider picking a man.
Next time you want your favourite cake ordered from your favourite bakery, do it your own damn self.
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