A reader writes:
I am a woman on a largely male management team at a small nonprofit. Some of the management team members attend Board meetings, including me. The executive director’s assistant, who is female, sets up snacks and coffee, and occasionally more substantial buffet-type food for those meetings, which run into the early evening. At the end of the meeting, everyone leaves. The assistant stays alone in an empty building to tidy up the food and put things away. There are often dirty dishes to wash, paper cups and plates to throw away, food to repackage and store, garbage to go out, and so on. It makes me crazy to leave her alone to do this — it just seems so rude and thoughtless. Ideally, everyone would tidy their own stuff and at least some people would pitch in to help her with the rest and we could all go home when everything was done.
I am new to the organization, so I’m trying to figure out how to deal with this. Sometimes, I help with the clean-up at least a little bit and I have stayed longer when there’s more work. However, I am wary about how my male management team colleagues view me when I do that. I feel like it feeds the cultural stereotype of “women’s work,” which is typically valued less than “men’s work” and also that when they see me working side by side with the exec’s assistant, they may subconsciously associate me with an assistant. It feels terrible to even think that — there’s nothing wrong with being an assistant — but I want to be seen as the leader that I aspire to be. It feels really weird to be up to my elbows in dish soap while my male colleagues walk by and wish me a cheery “good night” or comment on how I am being “really nice” to help out.
This is definitely my problem, not the assistant’s. She’s been doing this for years and while she’s happy and appreciative when I do help, she doesn’t expect it — she sees it as her job.
I feel like my choices are to grit my teeth and leave the building with everyone else or do what I think is right by pitching in and just try to stop feeling weird about it. It’s not something I’m very comfortable bringing up for discussion. Do you have any other suggestions?
She’s cleaning up after meetings because that’s part of her job. Cleaning up after high-level meetings is a duty typically assigned to assistants — just like, say, stocking the meeting room with supplies ahead of time or arranging to have lunch delivered to the meeting.
I think you’re reacting strongly to this because you’re seeing a gender dynamic — she’s a woman cleaning up after a largely male group of executives. But this is about junior jobs versus senior ones, not gender politics.
There’s a reason that it’s unusual to see senior executives repackaging food after a meeting or taking out trash after a meeting; their job is to focus on something else, and they’ve hired people whose job it is to handle logistics like setting up and cleaning up. People with more senior jobs and/or getting paid more should stay focused on work that only they can do well; it’s simply a smarter use of the employer’s resources. There’s nothing demeaning about this; it’s just a matter of recognizing that some tasks are indeed low-level tasks, and it makes sense to assign them to a more junior person. That’s just how this stuff works in most offices — and especially when it comes to high-level business meetings, like board meetings.
So as much as your impulse to stay behind and help the assistant clean up comes from a kind place, I’d resist the impulse. First, you wouldn’t help her, say, make travel arrangements for the executive director or restock the kitchen’s creamer supply, right? Because that’s her job and not yours. Same thing here. And second, on a male-dominated team, you shouldn’t risk playing into gender stereotypes; you’re there to do Job A, not Traditionally Female Job B, just like them, and your actions should support that.
I will note that my answer would be different if the situation were different. For instance, if you noticed that women were always assigned to take notes at meetings, even though men with the same job titles were never asked, you should work to change that. Or if you noticed that the organization resisted hiring men for admin-type jobs, you should speak up about that. But those things are different; this situation is someone doing her job, which happens to be a different job from others involved in the meeting.
Relatedly, if you’re concerned about sexism in the organization more generally, an enormously important thing to do could be to work to bring more highly qualified women on to the management team. That’s a place where you can have a real and significant impact. But don’t feel uneasy about letting someone do her job just because she’s a woman and happens to be in a job that has echoes of traditionally female chores.