A reader writes:
About six months ago, I started working in a large IT department, reporting directly to the CTO. I’m not the youngest or most junior person in the department, but I am the only woman. Because of the availability of cubicles (or lack thereof), I ended up in the desk that’s right in front of my boss’s office. I didn’t really think anything of this arrangement at first, but as time went on, I noticed that more and more people were acting as if I’m my boss’s assistant or admin. Often, when people come by to see my boss, they’ll stop at my desk to ask if he’s available, what his calendar looks like for the rest of the day, etc. People will call me asking me to schedule a meeting with my boss, the front desk will call me first when he has a guest, and the shipping department drops off his mail/packages at my desk.
I’m a mid-level technical specialist who was not hired to perform any of these duties. I’ve tried telling people that I don’t manage his calendar and that I shouldn’t receive his mail, but they seem to think I’m joking or being grumpy for no reason. When I tell my boss about it (typically immediately after something like this happens), he laughs it off and assures me that I’m not responsible for acting as his assistant. I know I should be more direct, but a lot of the people who are the worst offenders are pretty high-up in the office hierarchy, so I’m afraid of offending them. We’re also the only department that doesn’t have an admin, so we’re all responsible for handling administrative tasks on our own, which may be why people assume I’m the designated admin (if they’ve seen me processing mail, making copies, etc).
I suppose this really isn’t a big deal, but as a woman working in a male-dominated field, I’m a little sensitive to the old stereotypes about women working as office support staff while the men do all the technical work. Do you have any advice for how I should correct these assumptions, or would you suggest I just get over it?
I don’t think you’re being overly sensitive. You’re a woman in a male-dominated field and the only woman in your department, and the optics have been arranged in a way that are encouraging people to think you’re an assistant. There’s a long track record of women being treated as assistants when they’re not, and it’s reasonable to care about correcting this.
1. Ask if you can move to a different desk. If you can do this, it would solve the problem. You’d presumably need to talk to your boss in order to make this happen, and so far he hasn’t thought what’s happening is a big deal, so you’d need to spell it out for him. I’d say something like this: “You’ve been great about having my back when this happens, but there’s an element of this we haven’t talked about — which is that as a woman in a male-dominated field and the only woman in the department, I’d rather eliminate the situation altogether. Rather than having to remind multiple people every day that I’m not your admin, I’d like to just take the question off the table by just moving to a different location. Any objection?”
2. Embark on an intensive retraining plan for the people who are doing this:
* Tell the front desk not to call you when your boss has a guest, and tell the shipping department to stop giving you your boss’s packages. If it keeps happening, go talk to them in person and tell them it’s still happening and ask again for it to stop.
* When people call you to schedule a meeting with your boss, react the way you would if you worked on a different floor from him — sound slightly surprised and confused, and say, “I don’t have anything to do with his schedule. You’d need to call him directly.”
* When people check in at your desk about seeing your boss, take your time dragging your eyes and attention away from whatever you’re in the middle of, and sound distracted when you greet them.
* If they ask what his schedule is like today, look look confused, and say, “I don’t work on any of that. He doesn’t have an admin; you should check with him directly.”
It’s going to be a frickin’ pain to do that though, which is why I think #1 is your better bet if you can make it happen.