You keep the birthday calendar up-to-date. People email you about coordinating a cake and a card. And after they blow out the candles, you clean up all the crumbs.
This isn’t part of your job. So why are you expected to do it?
Writer Jessica Bennett, author of “Feminist Fight Club,” calls it the “office mom problem” — when female employees do “workplace chores.”
“I’ve been in roles where, maybe it is my job to take the notes in that meeting,” Bennett says. “But it’s noticing when it’s a pattern: is it only women in your workplace who are taking notes or grabbing the coffee? Are you being mistaken for the office secretary?”
This type of “office housework” has been studied by scholars for decades. The tasks can take a number of forms: note-taking in meetings, organizing desks, refilling the coffee pot, planning parties and more.
“A lot of this is incredibly subtle and it’s really difficult to recognize as problematic, particularly when we’ve learned to accept it in basically every arena of our lives,” says Lisa Wade, professor of sociology at Occidental College.
The common thread: women are expected to do it, and men get a free pass.
So how do you reclaim your work time?
It’s not so simple.
Women frequently volunteer to take on tasks expected of them, either in hopes that it makes them more likeable in the workplace or because they genuinely see it as a way for them to contribute to the team — even if male colleagues don’t return the favor.
“It’s this perfect example of both external sexism and internalized sexism: we think we need to be ‘helpful’ and ‘nurturing’ and take on these roles that are traditionally female,” Bennett says.
Next time, take a line from Bennett’s script: just say, “No, I don’t have time for that today.” Powerful, right?
Flip it back
Podcast host Bridget Todd was often asked to take notes in meetings — even though she has notoriously terrible handwriting.
She found the easiest way to remove herself from this unwelcome role was to flip it back on the asker.
“If someone assumes you’re going to take notes, you can say, ‘Oh, why do you assume I’m going to take notes? Because I’m a woman?'” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily feel as heavy, but you can always turn that back on them, make them question their own assumptions, and for me, that’s what I found to be really powerful.”
Ask a man
If you’re a manager, notice when menial tasks fall to women — and then do something about it.
“Make sure you’re equally distributing these kinds of tasks because yes, they need to get done,” Bennett says. “So men should chip in on them, too.”
Talk about it
It might seem easy to roll your eyes, fill up coffee cups and go about your day, but as Todd points out, talking about it at work will benefit you in the long run. You’ll save other women from the same expectation, and making people question their assumptions frees up your work time to, you know, do your job.
“When someone took credit for my idea or expected me to get them coffee — which happened often — or someone who gave me tasks that were intern-level even though I wasn’t an intern, I wish I had talked about those situations and been more direct about them,” Todd says.