gender politics and cleaning up after meetings

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.

{ 198 comments… read them below }

  1. KarenT*

    It’s not pleasant, but it’s a very common function of an admin to clean up after meetings. And I say that as someone who used to do it (it’s gross, not fun) but again a part of being admin for an executive.
    I don’t see gender issues at play, unless you want to get sociological and consider the career advancement of women as a whole.

    1. BW*

      Same. I can understand how this might look to someone who isn’t familiar with having an assistant to handle these things. This is what assistants and other employees in charge of setting up meetings and functions do. It’s their job to set up and clean up.

      I used to be in this position, and I always appreciated if someone stayed behind to help tidy and gather things up (usually if the meeting was huge and there are a lot of materials to carry folks would volunteer), but I never expected it or thought anything of it if I was left to do it by myself, because that’s what I was getting paid for and I understood it was my responsibility. You don’t have to feel bad or guilty about leaving. As others have mentioned, you can be helpful by not being a slob. :)

  2. moss*

    I agree with this answer. Particularly as helping clean up can easily breed resentment… You’re “up to your elbows in dishwater” and the guys just breeze on by? That’s a recipe for resenting your colleagues for not doing something… that they are not supposed to be doing! And THAT will impact your relationship with them.

    Especially if there’s any chance you are given to passive-aggressive comments about how nobody helps.

  3. Yuu*

    Personally, I would help out by throwing away my paper plate as I leave the room, and generally not leaving a mess. I wouldn’t clean up after the others or put away food. If anyone said anything I’d just brush it off as, “Oh, I guess it’s habit to clean up after myself.”

    1. E*

      This was my thought as well. Be helpful by minimizing your own mess, not by taking on extra work. Who knows, maybe some of the men may follow your example!

      1. Ellie H.*

        Agreed. I am an assistant and often do the same kind of cleanup (well, I never have to wash dishes, but I set up and clean up food). Sometimes faculty or whoever else will notice and help me set up or clean up. More frequently someone(s) present who is also on the assistant level but not directly responsible – often female(s) bc of the nature of the admin assistant field – will offer to help. But I realize that it’s my job and that others helping is just nice. Still it is common courtesy to throw away your OWN paper plates and empty soda cans or whatever – I don’t really like having to do that on top of putting away food/general trash, but I know it’s my job to do.

        To add another stupid layer of self-consciousness to all this, on the other hand, sometimes when someone on a higher level offers to help, it makes me feel anxious that they think I’m being inept (having to clear out of a conference room to make room for the next in 5 min can be a bit of a challenge sometimes).

      1. A Bug!*

        Yup. Don’t beat yourself up over it just because there is a woman performing ‘domestic’ duties. It’s her job, she knows it’s her job, and she is presumably fine with it because she continues to do her job.

        This is way different from where a woman who is otherwise a peer is expected to perform these duties outside her actual job description, just because she’s a woman.

        It’s considerate to avoid adding to her workload by minimizing your own mess. But that’s not a gender politics thing, that’s a general human decency thing.

        1. Lisa*

          How do others deal with this for other “womanly activities” in the office?

          -Coordinating birthday parties
          -Baby showers / gifts for new baby from office
          -Wedding congrats
          -Retirement cake / leaving the company

          It always seems to be left to the person that cares enough to recognize whoever the event is about. – a woman
          If it isn’t set up by a boss / manager, but more of a team thing, it seems to me that the task of making it happen ends up being usually a woman on the team versus a man on the team. I always feel like younger people ignore the team emails to help, and men will enthusiastically reply to the emails that its a great idea, but won’t opt to take a portion of coordinating the event such as grab cake, bring soda, but instead only want to show up for the food. Prob just men i work with.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Me too. What I’ve seen is that women at more senior levels tend not to do this stuff (and maybe, like me and Jamie, not to even think about it), but women at more junior levels often do.

              1. BW*

                I think it also depends on the personality. Some people love that stuff. On one of my teams, the 2 most senior people (both women – we were in all woman team most of the time) were all over the birthdays and other celebrations and did most of the planning, related errands, and set up.

              2. Kelly O*

                The odd thing I’ve noticed about the (not really new anymore) boss is that she is the one jumping up, putting together things for birthdays, organizing her “ice cream socials” and playing Santa at Christmas. It’s just way, way too much and truth be told it feels fake.

                There’s also the “everyone come here for this” mentality. Declining is not acceptable, and she acted like I’d hurt her feelings over the summer when I politely refused a root beer float because I’m no longer drinking cokes. “But you’re not drinking it, it’s part of dessert!” Lord knows this changing the way I eat thing is going to be hard for her to understand the next time I get cake or something pushed on me, and my polite declining does not work.

                I’ve never seen a woman at her level be this gung-ho about being Sally Social. I’ve worked with higher level women who encourage other people to do that, and who help with making sure there is money budgeted for stuff, but the actual carrying out of the plan usually falls to an assistant or junior.

                (It also makes me want to ask, ‘if you’re so busy you can’t teach me about X or Y, how on earth do you have time to plan for Christmas stockings for the entire office?’ but I doubt that conversation would end well.)

                1. Torden*

                  Wow – is she one of those managers that worries more about who likes her and less about who’s doing their job? My boss is the same way about holidays/birthdays/employee “appreciation” and it drives me batty, because it seems so forced.

            2. Laura L*

              Same. I definitely assume other people are organizing those things.

              Unless it’s my birthday, then I organize something for myself. After business hours. With the people I like. And alcohol.

          1. A Bug!*

            This is a bit different, because in these cases it’s usually someone who takes on those “duties” voluntarily and on their own initiative. Yes, it often ends up being a woman because women are socialized to take more of an interest in that sort of thing.

            But when you have a person who is interested in organizing these things and does so competently, why would you want to make someone else do it instead? It’d be different if nobody stepped up to take care of it, in which case a manager should be careful not to assign the task to a woman just because “women are better at those things”, but I didn’t get that impression from your comment.

            1. Lisa*

              “a manager should be careful not to assign the task to a woman just because “women are better at those things” = BINGO

              Around my work, it does get assigned to a woman by a boss (female as well as male). I was sent an email invite to coordinate a co-workers baby shower. The invite even claimed since I took on the responsibility of the last one, that I shouldn’t mind with this one. FYI – I never did the last one and I love the revisionist history surrounding how I did to force me to take this plan on. I ignored the request completely, and claimed I never got the invite. the day came, and the boss had to go out and get a cake on his own, but he still tried to give me money to go get one, and I said, I can’t I promised this doc to blah…

              1. BeenThere*

                Oh yeah something similar happen. I was a young naive engineer we had a big shortage of projects, this was at the height of the GFC. So I had nothing to bill hours to. I asked my boss what he would like me to be working on. I was given admin assistant duties :( I was so peeved but didn’t know how to refuse. So I sucked it up then I billed them loud and clear to the appropriate code. A few weeks later a directive came out from the top director that only admin staff could bill admin hours hehehehe.

              2. anonymous*

                Yeah. That would piss me right off!

                I don’t like those kinds of functions at all. I avoid taking jobs where I’m told it would be part of my duties. (Thank goodness for employers who are up front about that!)

          2. Anonicorn*

            Frankly, I’d be happier if none of these events happened at all. As you said, they’re usually handled by the person who cares enough to do it and I don’t see a problem with that.

            As for only showing up for the food, people who don’t care to organize and plan these events (or wish they wouldn’t happen) are likely attending NOT because of the food, but because they don’t want to seem unfriendly or unsupportive of whoever the celebration is for.

              1. Anonicorn*

                I probably should have said “not only.” But it’s true, sometimes the only thing motivating me to attend those parties is the idea that “at least I can get a cookie.”

            1. Laura L*

              Nope, I definitely show up for the food. I’ve been to several going away parties for people I don’t know, just for the food.

          3. Kasey*

            Female. Oh, I don’t really care about any of that stuff in the office. If a co-worker is (having a baby, married…) I wouldn’t be that overly moved, esp for birthdays (obviously say something nice or inquire) but unless we have something of a relationship- I don’t really want to contribute to a gift, or have cake at some forced office party. I’ll do my gifting offline, out of work.
            ….Kate in accounting, who I never see , don’t really know and don’t work with is pregnant? That’s really nice, congrats. (but) No gift for you! ;)
            Maybe retirement is different? I have only encountered one of these, and he reduced his hours gradually to the point where one would think he retired some time ago! Maybe the problem is that in some offices over celebrate and folks get burned out. I don’t want to bring soda, I don’t drink soda…waaah…I think I am a curmudgeon.

      2. Chinook*

        I echo this. As an administrator I am happiest when people cleaned up there own stuff, even if it is stacked neatly at their spot.

        On a related note, it is NOT helpful to put garbage such a napkins into a glass. All that does is make me have to put my fingers into someone’s glass, touch the napkin and the put it in the garbage. If you want to help, put it on the plate so all I have to do is tip the plate into the garbage, touching nothing “yucky”.

        1. Jade*

          Oh my god yes. I have to help clean up after training sometimes, and I swear I pull out about 200 lolly wrappers and napkins from glasses each time. DISGUSTING!!

    2. Long Time Admin*

      Thank you for noticing that a real human being is taking care of these details! However, because this is part and parcel of being an executive assistant, I would feel uneasy if you rolled up your sleeves and helped me with the clean up.

      Tossing your own trash, and saying “thank you” to person cleaning up is all the help and recognition that I want.

      1. Kelly O*

        This, completely.

        Sometimes all I would really like to hear is a sincere “thank you” and notice people not leaving a horrible mess for me to pick up.

        I get that being an admin includes all those things, and I truly don’t mind doing them. The only thing that ever “gets” me is seeing people leave messes that were just not necessary, or that feel very thoughtless.

        I’ve seen people leave drinks tipped over, spilling on the table, or on the floor. Napkins strewn all over, crumbs everywhere, seriously my toddler eats more neatly than that.

        I’ve also had coworkers who offered to move tables back for me, or take out the garbage on their way out, and I’ve accepted those kindnesses when it’s appropriate, and tried to find a way to thank them afterwards.

        1. Lulu*

          This is one of the reasons I hated being an admin – I just could not handle that having to clean up everyone’s mess was somehow part of my job, and at a heavily-male company, it definitely felt like it was because admins tended to be female. I had never been an admin prior to my last job, nor really worked places with this kind of structure, so I was just unprepared for some of the hostess elements of the position, I guess. I totally missed out on the “domesticity” gene, and am a terrible tidier/cleaner at home (I also don’t cook, go to nice restaurants, throw dinner parties…), so that may have contributed both to my resentment and my perception that it was seen as a “girl’s job” rather than just an admin duty in general. I worked really hard to find equanimity, but it was tough…

          Because I hated it so much, I definitely appreciated those that thanked me for doing that stuff! Also agree with how irritating the thoughtless messes are – fine, it may be my responsibility to set up and break down lunch meetings, but I am not the maid, I have other things to do beyond cleaning up after you, and just because you make more than I do doesn’t mean you can’t just as easily eat neatly and throw your garbage in the trash can on the way out as I can.

          Obviously, that search for meal-cleanup equanimity is still pending ;)

  4. Ariancita*

    I completely agree with this answer. It would be different if there weren’t an assigned assistant to help out with this and everyone was responsible for cleaning up after themselves and the men just left it to the women to do that (and I’ve been in situations where that has happened). In that case, I think the advice would be different because it would play into subconscious gender stereotyping (I say subconscious because in my experience, when it’s been pointed out, the male colleagues were genuinely surprised). But not in this case and in fact if anyone here is subconsciously playing into stereotyped gender roles, it’s the OP, thinking it’s her job to be concerned with who has to clean up afterward. (Not that I fault her for being kind and concerned; it is very thoughtful, but really just not her job in this context.)

    1. Chinook*

      I agree about the subconscious stereotyping. Once I went clean up after a meeting and found plates and cups neatly stacked on the back table and almost no garbage on the tables. After I cleaned up, I went back to the (male) partner and jokingly asked if the meeting was of mostly women. He said that he was actually the only man there and asked how I knew. I said it was the first time I had seen the room so clean after a long meeting. He hadn’t even noticed that they had cleaned up.

      1. Chinook*

        I should add that this was such a stereotypical female group that, as a thank you for hosting them, they sent him a bouquet of flowers. He showed them offing his desk as the first flowers he ever received and then gave them to his 6 year old daughter for a dance recital.

        1. Ariancita*

          Ha! That’s really funny. Yeah, in the situations where there has been a gender element to it, I’ve addressed it by directly asking the guys to do specific tasks: “Could you bring the plates to the sink?” “Can you wipe down the table, while Joe rinses out the cups?” The response was typically a startled, “Oh. Uh..yeah, sure.” Afterward, they did it automatically.

  5. businesslady*

    I totally agree with the advice here–but what about when there’s no formal hierarchy at play, or when male colleagues are the ones bringing the food but not taking responsibility for the cleanup? has anyone else experienced this?

    I realize it’s not always necessarily gendered–certainly my sense of “what’s right” in those situations is informed by previous roles in which I WAS in charge of setting up/taking down lunch meetings, not by my inherent femininity–but it’s hard not to bristle when you notice that the only people managing the food/mess situation are other women.

    my response is usually to say, “hey, [so-&-so], can you make sure that [thing that meeting organizers need to handle] gets done?” in the most neutral tone possible, & typically that works. but if it happens more than once, I start to think, “hm, this dude is a little too comfortable with letting women clean up after him, particularly considering that it’s clearly not their job to do so.”

    1. moss*

      if they bring the food they may not think that they have to clean up also, maybe?

      In cases like that, a neutral-to-cheery callout usually works, like, “Hey can you grab those plates” or the like.

    2. BCW*

      Here’s my thought on that could it be that the guys are just slobs and the women are more concerned with the cleanliness, as opposed to the guys are expecting the women to do it? My roommate for example is a complete neat freak. So sometimes he will clean up after me if its not done in a timeframe that he feels is good. That doesn’t mean I expect it.

      Also, lets look the other way. In my office the women always “expect” the guys to do certain things, like change the water in the water cooler. However some of these women have kids who are about the same weight as that jug of water, and I’ve seen them pick the kid up. So they clearly “can” do it, but they think they guys “should” do it. If a woman were to ask me to do it, it doesn’t offend me. I think certain things are seen in society as tasks one gender tends to take on a bit more than the other.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Point taken, but in an office, it’s pretty clear that someone will have to do it — you can’t leave old paper plates with food on them in a conference room for days.

        1. class factotum*

          Yes, you can. You shouldn’t, but you can.

          Says the person who found the green meat and moldy Kraft singles in the conference room where she had scheduled a meeting.

      2. TychaBrahe*

        As someone who has been both a camp counselor and the junior member of office staff and tasked with taking the water bottles out to be refilled and bringing the full ones up the stairs to the 2nd floor office, I can tell you that it takes much more coordination to lift a water bottle and turn it over into the dispenser than it does to lift a child. It’s rare that a child must be flipped over and deposited head first into something, and as long as you don’t do the flipping immediately after a meal, the consequence of a miss is unlikely to be liquid spilled hither and yon.

        1. Long Time Admin*

          I’ve done a lot of babysitting in my day, and most small kids I knew would want to be picked up and flipped over. And over. And over.

          1. Laura L*

            lol. This is true, but at least when they are upside down, you don’t have to deposit them into something (hilarious phrase by the way!)

        2. AnotherAlison*

          Plus, when you are lifting your own kids, you build strength as they grow from a 7 lb baby to a 30-40 lb small child. My high schooler rarely needs carrying anymore, and a lot of women don’t have kids, so I’m not sure the child-water bottle correlation makes sense. ; )

          1. Jamie*

            Ha. Yep, if you ever need a 6′ 3″ 142 lb water bottle lifted I’ll start practicing at home with my high schooler.

            1. Liz T*

              God bless gangly boys.

              (I’m assuming boy, but if you’ve got a 6’3″ daughter, that’s even cooler.)

              1. Jamie*

                Ha – no he’s a boy. My other son is 6′ 2.5 so I haven’t had to get footstool to reach a top shelf in years. I just point!

        3. BCW*

          Point being, I’m sure if for whatever reason all the guys were out for a day or 2, I’m sure it would get done somehow. So there are things people see as “men’s” work, but I don’t find it offensive.

          Also, the new jugs for water coolers are now sealed until you put it in (there is something in the cooler that breaks the seal) so spillage doesn’t happen too much :)

        4. Lizabeth*

          We solved the water bottle problem by first realizing that the chore really needs two people to do it without getting water all over the place (been there, done that). The second was the powers that be realizing that it was cheaper to get a stand alone hot/cold water system that taps into the waterline and someone comes by to change the water filter.

      3. S.L. Albert*

        Also, there is a big difference between picking up a kid when you are in jeans and sneakers and picking up a water jug when you are in heels and a pencil skirt.

        1. businesslady*

          haha, I was actually going to say that my 5’2″/weak-as-hell self is perfectly happy to replace the occasional water jug (even though it’s no longer in my job description)–unless I’m wearing heels &/or a pencil skirt, in which case it’s somewhere between dangerous & impossible.

      4. Jamie*

        The lifting things at work is something I actually do feel guilty about.

        At home I have zero problem opting out of carrying heavy stuff – I have a husband and two sons who are much stronger than I am and I’d hate to take that away from them.

        But at work I go out of my way not to ask for favors if I can do something myself and every now and then I’ll throw my back out – something stupid, bending to pick up a shoe and there’s a loud crack and I’m limping for days. When it hurts it never fails that I’ll need to bring one of the old heavy towers to my office for repair and …ow. But someone will invariably offer to carry it for me and I always feel bad like I’m playing the girl card – when really I’m playing the injured card.

        I hate when that happens.

        1. BCW*

          I don’t have a problem with doing it and helping out the ladies in my office with big boxes and stuff like that. I’m just pointing out that its a bit unfair to be ok with some gender stereotyped tasks and have a problem with others. If you are injured though, totally different situation.

          1. businesslady*

            it is “unfair” in a certain sense, but in this specific example–where “cleaning”=feminine & “heavy lifting”=masculine–that’s a bit of an oversimplification.

            while lifting heavy things isn’t necessarily pleasant, being strong enough to do so is something that our society values. whereas while some people do enjoy cleaning, our culture generally sees it as a demeaning task, something you pay someone else to do for you if possible.

            it’s impossible to disentangle our reality from the institutionalized sexism that informs these perceptions, so in the meantime all we can do is just be as thoughtful about it as possible.

            1. Laura L*

              @businesslady: bingo!

              and @BCW: I, personally, am not okay with the heavylifting stereotype. I’m perfectly capable of lifting heavy things (including water jugs). Now, if I could just get this through my Dad’s head… he’s getting to the age where I’m worried he’ll hurt himself carrying my heavy stuff.

            2. BCW*

              I pay people to pick up my heavy things and move them as well. I don’t like doing that, and neither do my friends.

              Yes we pay people for these less desireable tasks. But being strong enough to do it, and being asked to do it often isn’t really very desireable. I think you are essentially trying to say its ok in one instance and not the other based on norms in society, but realistically if its not ok to say taking notes and cleaning is a womans task, its not ok to say lifting heavy stuff and standing on ladders is a mans task.

              1. businesslady*

                I’m not trying to say it’s okay in any instance–just that the dynamics at play make it complicated to formulate an equivalency.

                I don’t think that dividing up jobs based on gender is ever okay to do officially. if it happens in practice, that needs to be acknowledged & justified based on the skills of the human beings involved. (after all, in the “heavy lifting” example, not all men are stronger than all women & even sufficiently strong men might have health issues that make them less qualified to perform these sorts of tasks.)

                the other issue here, however, is that we’re culturally trained to think differently about male-associated roles than we are about female-associated ones. off the top of my head, “men are good at” lifting heavy things, fixing machinery, figuring out directions, using a logical approach to solve a problem, assembling furniture, killing spiders, sports/shooting/fighting/videogames/other physically demanding activities. I’m not saying that this is necessarily TRUE; I’m just listing stereotypical associations, I don’t think you can argue that this is a reasonable list.

                by contrast, “women are good at” cooking, cleaning, picking out & coordinating outfits (& as corollaries, following & interpreting fashion trends/choosing & applying makeup), understanding the emotional motivations behind a situation, taking care of children, navigating in malls, having a gut feeling when something’s amiss, making everyone feel at home/welcome/comfortable in any situation. again, I don’t think this is necessarily the case, but I hope you’ll agree that these are typically female-associated skills.

                if you compare the “men” vs. “women” lists, it’s easy to make the argument that the things that “men are good at” are also more important, or demand more talent, or are more socially valued. certainly there are more things on the “men” list that have jobs/compensation associated with them, vs. the more domestic sphere of the “women” list.

                this is kind of a chicken/egg thing (i.e., did a sexist culture tell us this is so, or did we infer it ourselves because we live in one?), & it’s certainly changing. but that disparity is why I said there was a slight difference between “the men change the water bottle” & “the women clean up the microwave” if we’re talking about tasks being assigned along gender lines.

                …another argument in favor of concrete job descriptions!

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  I think this is really well said. It’s not okay that we stereotype men, but it’s not insignificant that it tends to be around more socially valued stuff.

      5. Laura L*

        @BCW: Do you mean that guys in general are slobs and women in general are neatfreaks? Because I would argue that’s a huge overgeneralization.

        PS. where did you find your roommate? My roommates have never cleaned up after me and I really wish they would. :-)

        1. BCW*

          Nope. My roommate is a male neat freak. In no way am in saying all men are slobs and all women are neat freaks. I’m saying in the specific example that could have been the case.

          However, I’d say there is something to it. I’ll go with my last 2 jobs. Put it this way, the women in the office got grossed out and would clean stuff like the fridge or sink up way quicker than the guys in the office would.

          1. Laura L*

            Ok, I couldn’t tell from your post.

            I can see that. I think I get grossed out by dirty bathrooms sooner than my guy friends do. But in terms of clutter, I can hang with the messiest of them!

      6. Kelly O*

        I dislike the women who act like they can’t move the water bottles, because I do it frequently, but I would argue that a large bottle of water is harder to pick up, aim, and get in the right spot than wrangling a 40 pound toddler. She can at least hang on to me, and is not dead weight.

        So, no offense, but that analogy is really not accurate.

        I do agree that moving the water is not that hard, and I don’t understand why so many women seem to think it’s a “man’s” job, but I also don’t understand why we collectively tend to think men are slobs.

        My office is predominantly female, and let me tell you, there is some grody shit going on. Restrooms, break rooms, cubicles, common areas… you would seriously think people were raised in chicken houses from the way they act at work. I know the whole theory of commonality and how people think someone else will do it, but geez louise, I shudder to think what some of these people’s bathrooms look like at home.

      7. Cassie*

        It’s probably a bit easier to pick up a kid than a jug of water. I think most of the time, women *could* change the water (maybe get someone to help them) but they don’t think they can or they don’t want to – so they ask the men in the office. It happens in my dad’s office – he’s not young and spry but because the other guy in the office has a bad back, my dad has to do it.

        Back when I was in an office suite with a few (male) faculty members, I would changed the water because I was the only staffer. It definitely wasn’t easy and I made a mess sometimes, but sometimes it just had to be done.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m a big fan of just matter-of-factly directing people (of both genders) to handle that stuff, if I’m in a position where it wouldn’t be inappropriate for me to do so. Like, “Bob, could you make sure this room gets cleaned up?” and so forth. Assuming that Bob isn’t the CEO or whatever.

      1. Ariancita*

        I replied higher up with similar before reading your post. There’s a lot of implicit bias in our social world and most people (in this case, men) are happy to act against that bias if they are just given some direction. As I said above, most of the guys had a bit of a startled reaction when asked directly to do something, because they didn’t think about it. But they were happy to do it when asked (well as happy as anyone can be cleaning up).

    4. Jenn X*

      I once worked in an office where the women, no matter what our job, were supposed to clean up everyone’s COFFEE CUPS at the end of every day. There was a chart to tell us when it was our week to do it. I was on it, even though I wasn’t an admin; so was the female office manager. When there were two female admins they both did it, but when they hired a male admin I don’t think he had to. We did this in the women’s restroom, because we didn’t have a break room. Oh, and this was the 1990s, not the 1950s.

      I did not take this well. I was young, and probably could have handled it better than I did–mostly, I just complained about it a lot, and loudly. Which caused one of the other women to show me how to use cold water instead of hot for the rinse because it would make it go faster (gee, thanks). But still, washing everyone’s nasty coffee cups was just horrible.

      When the director (male) retired, my boss became the interim. I went to him immediately (seriously, I think he had been in charge for about an hour) and asked him to do something. He told me to bring it up in the staff meeting, so I did–I suggested that everyone be in charge of his or her own coffee-cup cleanup. Nobody disagreed. :-)

  6. fposte*

    I think you’re domesticizing a work situation, OP. I think this isn’t uncommon (witness the posts about not wanting to clean the microwave, etc.), but work isn’t home, where it really is a bad thing to just leave the dirty work to one member. It’s not rude and thoughtless to pay people to clean the bathrooms at work, right? Even though people could easily clean up after themselves? At work, stuff is largely officially assigned based on the skills and expense of the employees involved. It doesn’t make sense to have somebody who bills at $1000 per hour spending half an hour doing dishes instead of billable work, regardless of whether it’s a man or a woman.

  7. BCW*

    Great answer by AAM. I think this is another example of women (or other groups) looking for reasons to by offended. As was pointed out, her issue is that a woman is cleaning up after men, but it makes sense in context of the job that the people have. Would you have this same issue is the assistant was a man? Probably not.

    I think its a very nice thing that you stay and help the woman, but again, she probably knows that its part of her job. If she isn’t offended about it, you shouldn’t be offended for her.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      And if I were the assistant, I might even be annoyed that you’re jumping in trying to do my job.

      Most of us don’t like it when people step on our toes and do tasks in our domain of responsibility at work, so why would this be any different?

      1. Sasha*

        I completely agree, as an assistant, in my former life, it always drove me mad when one of the directors would ‘help out’ after a meeting. They usually had something better to do so were always in a rush to wash the dishes etc. and I ended up having to redo all their ‘help’ afterwards. Not sure what their motivation was, I assumed it was either some kind of socio-economic guilt like the OP, or to prove how capable they were at every possible task

    2. COT*

      I don’t think the OP was offended so much by people leaving the admin behind to clean up (though she expressed some concern about that). I think she was wondering if it reflected poorly on the OP to stay after to help. It does suck when we have to be aware about how gender and power dynamics might make us look bad… women just have to. For instance, if the gender roles were reversed in this situation, the OP might be able to follow her “let’s all pitch in to clean up” impulse without having to worry that it would sabotage her career.

      1. jmkenrick*

        Agree that I’m not seeing that she’s offended in this letter – she’s just asking a question.

        1. BCW*

          You’re right, offended probably wasn’t the right word. But maybe I’d go with finding an issue where there isn’t really one.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      While I do agree that some people are a bit quick to get offended, I didn’t see that in the OP’s letter. I think this stuff can be confusing, because so much of it does have echoes of gender roles, and sometimes you have to stop and parse it all out logically in order to be able to see it with clarity.

    1. jmkenrick*

      ?? I’m not really seeing any example here of how women and men see things differently. After all, we’re only hearing two female perspectives – the OP and Alison. We’re just guessing at everyone else’s thoughts.

  8. Aaron*

    This answer was very well put. I’m a middle aged white male, but having worked office administration for several employers I can say it was often my responsibility to make coffee, set up for meetings, break down after meetings, and perform post-meeting cleanup to include taking out garbage and cleaning dishes. Even today, as a college educated yet junior level employment specialist, I’ve been asked on numerous occassions to perform these functions, especially now since our administrative assistant has retired and we have no administrative support until they hire a replacement. To add another element for the sake of perspective, I work in an office that has 5 female managers and 1 male manager. I don’t see being asked to perform these duties as being demeaning or an attempt by my female management to take advantage of their position to have men perform “women’s work”, but instead it’s a more cost effective use of resources to have me, a more junior employee, perform these duties as oppossed to a manager or more senior employee.

    Another thing to consider, as a member of the management team, you rely on your peers to see you as a manager level employee if they are to value your ideas and contributions to the team. If you go out of your way to perform the duties of an administrative assistant, people may begin to see you in that role and it can potentially damage your credibility and limit your ability to perform your managerial duties. What would that do for your own longevity and advancement opportunities with this employer?

    1. Kelly O*

      I disagree that administrative assistants and their responsibilities can take away from your perceived ability to perform management tasks.

      Good admins coordinate the entire office. They have so many projects in the air at once, it takes an organized, efficient person to keep things going smoothly. Many of the best admins I know are also great managers – of themselves, of the resources at their disposal, and the people who work with them. Managing up is a real thing, and it can be done with proper motivation and a great admin.

      An administrative position can be whatever stepping stone you’d like it to be, with proper motivation and a willingness to do the grunt work for a while.

      1. Jamie*

        This is very well said.

        I also wonder if the cleaning thing at the office is more a woman thing because more women came up through the ranks of admins.

        I was an admin, I was an Office Manager so I’m keenly aware someone will be arranging the food and tidying up so of course I make sure to say thank you and keep the mess to a minimum. I’ve also offered to help, but am generally shooed away.

        Maybe because fewer men take that path to management it just isn’t as much a part of the consciousness? Although, the men I work with do pick up after themselves so its not universal.

        Then again nothing is universal.

        Anecdotally the biggest neat freaks I’ve known in my life have been men – and men far neater than women in my experience. It’s so individual.

      2. Lulu*

        At my company, it quickly became clear to me that the admin position was less a stepping stone and more an island in an ever-widening river, unfortunately. Definitely one of those positions where you couldn’t win: even if you did extremely well, expanded your job duties, whatever, you would just make yourself a more popular admin on the fast track to nowhere. So there are definitely places where “admin work” is seen as lesser than/different from work that would set someone up for career growth.

  9. books*

    I dunno, I kind of disagree. But, given the situation, the OP shouldn’t help. However, ask the assistant if she needs a few more hands, then ask some of your lower level staff to stick around on evenings where there is food to clean up to pitch in. Bonus, free dinner!

    Also, as someone who just helped take the trash out and clean up food from a meeting – I can tell you it’s because men are oblivious.

      1. A Bug!*

        I think you addressed the issue presented appropriately. I don’t think anybody expected you to provide a solution to patriarchy in your answer.

        It’s true that certain classes of people are disproportionately represented in particular jobs. But that doesn’t mean that every single example that contributes to that statistic is a result of overt sexism.

        The societal arrangement by which the narrow definition of masculinity is valued more than the narrow definition of femininity is pervasive and affects us all, men and women, in a lot of ways, and probably did have some influence on creating the situation by which this woman is the assistant and the executives are almost entirely men. But that’s not addressed by making male executives wash dishes. You already addressed what the writer CAN do, which is to provide support to other women in her field so that those women are able to effectively compete with men in a male-dominated field.

        Aside from that, it’s done by preventing children from growing up learning this sort of gender essentialism, which harms both girls and boys by encouraging and requiring both to meet narrowly-defined ideals of “masculinity” and “femininity”. Which is hardly a topic for a management blog.

        1. fposte*

          And think there tends to be a class as well as a gender element to this issue (I just re-looked at the cleaning the microwave post and definitely felt it there). Some people seem to feel that it’s demeaning to ask an office “class” worker to perform cleaning tasks; one of the reasons “we all pitch in” appeals to people is that it avoids stigmatizing any individual as being cleaning-level. I don’t have any problem with pitching it, but I also don’t see it as inherently insulting to be expected to wash stuff.

          1. businesslady*

            that’s why it’s important to have job descriptions covering this stuff whenever possible. with few exceptions, it’s generally true that NO ONE likes to clean, & unless it’s clear whose purview those tasks fall under, it ends up being done by whoever’s most bothered by the mess. that person often ends up being a woman, & that presents its own set of issues around socialization/office gender dynamics, but it’s a a recipe for resentment no matter who’s handling it.

            (& also, yeah, great post, A Bug!)

        2. Natalie*

          “You already addressed what the writer CAN do, which is to provide support to other women in her field so that those women are able to effectively compete with men in a male-dominated field.”

          I’d say the 2nd half of this is getting more men in stereotypically female roles like admin assistant.

      2. books*

        Because if you have a meeting, to some level there is personal responsibility for making sure everything gets cleaned up afterward and, even if you know someone has it under control, she’s being left as the last one in the building cleaning up a mess – even if it’s just a courtesy, ask if she wants someone to carry the coffee urn to the kitchen on their way out the door or something. What struck me is, if the asst is really the only person left, she has no one else to ping for help, so make sure she’s good.

      3. Lily*

        You’re really good at untangling the different issues, prioritizing them and then explaining your point of view, so what kind of disagreement were you expecting?

    1. some1*

      “However, ask the assistant if she needs a few more hands, then ask some of your lower level staff to stick around on evenings where there is food to clean up to pitch in. Bonus, free dinner!”

      Please don’t do this. I’ve been in solely admin roles my entire professional life. There’s a difference between an admin assistant and an executive assistant in duties and salary. The “lower-level” employees are probably making less than the admin assistant, and should not have to stay late to clean up to make things “fair”. And free dinner is not enough of an incentive. Also, were I the exec asst, & the OP tried this without any prompting from me, I’d assume she didn’t think I was doing a good enough job cleaning up.

      1. books*

        I’ve worked in large orgs where meetings like this have a handful of low level support staff around to do notes, etc.
        As someone who has been low-level, you do what you’re told. And look, dinner!

  10. EngineerGirl*

    OP, you are making a mistake with either/or thinking. There are plenty of alternatives. Ask you admin if there is anything management can do to make her task easier – put plates in bins, put paper in trash etc. Then at the start of next board meeting make an announcement. Hey all, I’m sure you’ve noticed that Jane is all alone in picking up after us. She said that it would really help her a lot if we put our used coffee cups back on the tray. At the end of the meeting do just that (as an example) and walk out. Some men will follow suit, some wont, but you’ve started a trend of courtesy.

    1. A Bug!*

      I wouldn’t take any actions on behalf of the assistant if the assistant didn’t specifically ask me to do it. It could easily backfire on the assistant and stick her with an undeserved label.

      The assistant knows what her job is. If she’s unhappy performing it then it’s on her to go to her boss about it, not to enlist the help of some newbie manager to fight her battles for her.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        Agreed. Our admin assistants would have no problem telling those of us in a meeting what we needed to do to help, and if they didn’t ask, I’d assume they didn’t need us to do things any differently.

      2. EngineerGirl*

        I specifically said to talk to the admin first on what she wanted. So I’m not sure what the problem is?

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I think the admin assistant needs to know from the onset that, in general, she (or he) has the power to manage up. If the admin assistant needs your expense reports by Friday, I don’t think anyone questions her asking management to turn those in by Friday. If she wants the trash thrown away by the meeting attendees, she should feel free to ask for them to do that herself.

          (Yeah, it’s basically the same thing. . .I am splitting hairs a bit.)

        2. A Bug!*

          My impression of your comment was basically “Find out from the assistant whether there’s anything she thinks management could do to make her job easier, then tell management to do it”.

          I didn’t realize that getting permission to do step 2 was implied, so I apologize.

          I still think it would reflect poorly on the assistant for such an announcement to be made to the meeting, by a brand-new manager, who is not the person to whom the assistant reports directly (a person who could be presumed to be present in the meeting). I can’t imagine the assistant’s manager reacting positively to that if the manager isn’t a person who is approachable enough for the assistant to deal with directly.

        3. fposte*

          But that wasn’t a question about whether the admin wanted the situation changed; as phrased, it would have suggested to me, if I were the admin, that management was on generally board with handling the clearing up differently, and what changes might be desirable? But management isn’t on board with handling the clearing up differently, and I don’t think it’s a big enough deal to be worth having a conversation with them to find out if they might be on board with such a change.

      3. Natalie*

        Depending on the structure of the office, the admin may not feel comfortable asking a bunch of high-level employees to put their trash in a waste basket, but might feel comfortable mentioning it if one of the high-level employees opens the conversational door.

    2. Kelly O*

      I would definitely NOT want to hear “Jane said this would help her out” at a meeting.

      That gives the impression that Jane is either angry about having to clean up and being passive-aggressive, or that Jane is not able to do her assigned task on her own, or whatever. Take Jane out of the equation.

      If you must say something, keep it neutral and focused totally on the participants “okay guys, let’s toss our trash and move on to the next topic” – or “why don’t we put our cups on the tray and then focus on Teapot Production in third quarter?”

  11. Esra*

    I have a question that I think is in a similar vein to this. I’m at a very small org, under 20 people. Our executive director will often have meetings and have dishes left over after, leave them in the meeting room, but we don’t have any sort of admin etc who would be responsible for them. Everyone else in the org just cleans up after themselves, but she rarely does. Basically the dishes just sit there. I’m curious what others would do in this situation? Anything? It’s not a big deal for me, personally, but it gets awkward for others who go to have a meeting and see dirty dishes littered all over the table.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Interesting. If I were at manager-level in that organization (and therefore had some authority, although not over her) I might say, “Hey, Jane, do you want to assign someone to clean up after meetings, since otherwise we have dirty dishes around, sometimes for days?” My goal would be both to (a) bring to her attention that it needed to be dealt with and (b) potentially solve it, by getting some clarity around who should handle it.

      Shouldn’t be needed — she should handle it herself or ask someone else to (which is another way of handling it) — but apparently it is.

      1. Esra*

        Hmm, I can’t see any of our managers doing that. She would take it as a criticism and that doesn’t go over well at all. I think this may have to go into the Try Not To Think About It, Esra file.

        1. Jamie*

          I don’t work at an etiquette camp but I can’t imagine a meeting where we didn’t all pick up after ourselves, or each other. If you’re getting up and the people next to you are also done you collect the plates in your vicinity and the last one wipes the table.

          This is from the owners of the company to executive management – no one would think of calling an admin back in to clear the dishes or wipe the table. Put food away, yes, because apparently there is some kind of rule as to when you use freezer bags and when you use Tupperware and I was never trained on that so apparently I do it wrong.

          I just think picking up after yourself is such a basic element of social contract – how are grown ups ignoring this?

          1. Esra*

            That’s what surprised me. The first time I saw it after they were finished a meeting, my eyebrow went up and I thought “My mother would be appalled if I left my dishes behind like that.”

            1. A Bug!*

              “But they pay someone to clean this up. If I cleaned up after myself I’d be putting someone out of a job!!”

              Barf-o-rama, you smug, disingenuous slob.

            2. Jamie*

              That why those signs that say “clean up after yourself, your mother doesn’t work here.” are so weird to me.

              Even if my mother did work here, she wouldn’t be following me around collecting my dishes. She’d point to them and do that AHEM noise until I remembered that my arms aren’t broken and took them to the sink.

  12. jj*

    Question for the OP: is there any kind of safety concern for the assistant, having her stay by herself to clean up in an empty building? If so, maybe a couple of meeting participants could hang around until she was finished her work. Or perhaps she could put away food and do some simple tidying up quickly, then finish up the next morning. But I would worry more about safety issues than about whether she needed your assistance completing tasks that are probably well within her job description.

    1. JLL*

      That’s exactly what i was scrolling down to see if anyone else posted! She’s routinely left alone to close up a building, regardless of what she’s doing there- that’s more of a concern than tossing the stuff in a dishwasher.

  13. Cathy*

    One thing I wonder is whether it’s safe for the Admin to be leaving the building alone at night after cleaning up? We have an unofficial policy of leaving in pairs if it’s dark outside, but we are in a lousy neighborhood.

  14. PPK*

    If it really boils down to the time and general uncaring messiness of the other people — I would start setting a personal example of tossing my own disposables and taking the washables to wherever is appropriate (is there a cart that will go to the kitchen? Or is the kitchen just around the corner? Whatever sames time for the assistant. Maybe getting the dirty dishes directly from the table is easiest for her). Clearly you don’t need announce that you’re doing it, just do it. People can be led by example (both good and bad).

    1. class factotum*

      I can’t address the work situation, but I do know at home that I really do not want dinner guests helping me with the dishes, except for a few really close friends who know How I Do Things. I mean it when I say, “You don’t need to help! Really! Just keep me company!” because I do not want them bringing everything from the dining room into the kitchen and piling it on the counter so I don’t have room to maneuver.

      1. Jamie*

        This! There is a system people – don’t F with it. I know what I’m doing and this will be faster without you.

        Oh, I hear you!

  15. Sam*

    I know where the OP is coming from. At my previous jobs, many of the male execs were complete slobs and it was somehow an accepted part of the organization culture. At the end of a meeting, the men would immediate exit, leaving all their crumbs, dirty paper plates, and half-drank coffee on the table. Meanwhile, the women would throw out their own trash and put their dirty cups on the coffee tray as they walked out – fairly basic things that made the assistant’s job a little easier. The kitchen behavior took all of this to a whole new level. I understand that it is the assistant’s job to keep everything tidy, but there’s also basic courtesy to consider.

    1. Sam*

      I meant to say, “at my previous job” – job being singular not plural. It was just that one place with a weird gender dynamic. And I couldn’t see that crap flying in my current company.

    2. Jamie*

      I worked with someone once (a man) who told the owner of the company (a woman) that “I don’t wash my own dishes at home, that’s what I have a wife for. I’m not going to learn to wash them here.”

      It’s amazing what some people think passes for charming.

        1. Jamie*

          In the real world no one ever gets fired on the spot – especially when they smile and pretend they were kidding.

          He did get a lesson from the CEO in both dish washing and loading the dishwasher…and a directive was sent out that no one was to assist him.

      1. the gold digger*

        Wow. Even when I was a stay at home gold-digger, taking care of all the household chores while my husband labored in the salt mines, he still did dishes. Mostly because he is not a jerk, but also because he thinks I don’t do it right. :)

        1. Jamie*

          My husband thinks I’m a lovely and intelligent woman – successful in many areas and completely and wholly incapable of loading a dishwasher correctly.

          He’s a freaking lunatic with that thing – I’m surprised he doesn’t pull up Visio and diagram each load because god forbid you waste .025 inches of space. Can’t fold a towel properly, but don’t question him on spatial awareness as it pertains to dishwashers.

          I prefer to wash by hand anyway – faster and once it’s done it’s done – you don’t have to go back later to unload. He thinks that insane. It’s a wonder we’ve stayed married.

          1. the gold digger*

            My engineer husband does not like the way I hand wash dishes or the way I stack them in the drainer (I am not optimizing them by shape and size). He also does not like that I put them away wet sometimes (not sopping, just a few drops of water) although I have pointed out to him that I have been doing it this way for almost 30 years and I am not dead yet.

            Don’t even get him started on how I put knives on the knife magnet. I put them out of order and upside down just to freak him out.

            1. Anonymous*

              LMAO! My grandfather used to do the same to my grandmother until she wised up, stopped getting mad and simply manipulated him into doing whatever it was she was doing badly, while she went off to do something she actually liked.

            2. Jen in RO*

              Just reading this made me cringe. I’m a very un-tidy woman (drives my boyfriend nuts) but I have some OCD tendencies. I’d go nuts if I saw knives in the ‘wrong’ order (but a pile of clothes on the floor is fine!)

        2. Lily*

          My husband grew up with his dad doing the laundry, so he thinks that it is mens’ work. I helped out by never figuring out how the washing machine worked. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss! On the other hand, I don’t buy any clothes that need special handling, because they wouldn’t survive it.

      2. KellyK*

        “That’s what I have a wife for”???? Wow. Some people just astound me.

        Also, please, don’t leave us hanging. Did she set him straight? What did she say?

        1. Jamie*

          She literally filled the sink and gave him a lesson on washing dishes – supervised him while he did it. Then taught him how to rinse a dish off and put it in the dishwasher – so he would have two methods for looking after himself. It was pretty funny.

          1. BCW*

            Hmmmm. While I don’t at all agree with his statement, I think that is a bad thing to do. She was clearly trying to embarrass him in front of his peers. I’m sure she used the “life lesson” logic, but really, it was meant to humiliate. Trust me, I was a teacher, and I knew when my punishments were really meant to teach them something for the future or to “teach them a lesson” to not do something again.

            1. Anon*

              He had it coming. It’s a lesson that he’s not too good for certain tasks and to watch out for any unconscious gender bias/discrimination.

              Frankly, she was nicer than I would have been. If I owned the company, I would have fired him. There are too many qualified candidates out there who know not to act like they’re some kind of special snowflake.

            2. jmkenrick*

              Actually, while I find his comment repulsive, I agree with BCW. She simply should have told him that was unacceptable and he had to wash his own dishes. And then followed-up if he didn’t.

              Also, probably, she should have let him know that it’s not wise to make comments like that.

              1. Jamie*

                It’s not how I would deal with something, but some people deliberately say things for shock value trying to get a rise out of others – and it wasn’t like his hands were forced into the water.

                Besides – he used to hoot like an owl when he was bored, which was a lot, and once kicked a beach ball into my office when I was working and knocked over my monitors. I couldn’t work up a whole lot of sympathy.

                But yeah, not how I’d have done things – management was imperfect there.

                1. Rana*

                  He hooted like an owl?

                  Man, the possible passive-aggressive responses to that tempting to contemplate.

            3. Forrest*

              I mean, he was also being sexist 1) in front of his boss and 2) indirectly towards his boss.

              He’s lucky he just got a household lesson.

            4. Lily*

              I think we need more context to decide intent. It could have been done in a light-hearted way with everyone having a good time. If she was unable to get him to stop by asking or ordering politely, she should escalate her response. What would have been less drastic?

  16. Just a Reader*

    I would stay so far away from this–women have a hard enough time in the workforce, especially at high levels, that the OP shouldn’t be doing anything to seem subservient to her male counterparts. Be a nice person on your own time and let people do their jobs at work (not that you can’t also be a nice person at work–but drudge work by an executive isn’t the way to show it).

  17. Anonymous*

    Agree with the general consensus – this is part of the job this person does and she should do it. It’s very typical for this to be an admin function. And sometimes admins are tasked with keeping office kitchens tidy too. Since a lot of admin/support roles are filled by women, I understand it can seem like it’s gender-based, rather than job position-based.

  18. Zed*

    OP, is there any way you can settle on something of a middle ground? That is, stick around a few extra minutes to clear the table of paper plates/cups/napkins or move any dishes to the sink or line the chairs back up around the table, etc… but not actually do any dish washing, table wiping or trash emptying. That way, your actions will be coded as ‘considerate’ more than gendered, and you’ll still be helping out.

    1. fposte*

      It took me a minute to unpack that because I was starting with “No Good Deed Goes…” and couldn’t figure out where it goes!

      1. Mints*

        I just googled it, and the corporette link made me want to read it. Any more recommendations for Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office?

        1. Tax Nerd*

          I totally recommend Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. I even gave away my first copy to a female intern who was guilty of half the problem behaviors because she was socialized to be “nice”.

          Short explanation for those who haven’t read the first couple chapters: “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” doesn’t mean “Only Men andEvil Bitches Succeed.” Here, “Nice Girls” doesn’t equate to “Pleasant People of No Particular Gender”.

          It refers to behaviors that young girls are socialized to do in childhood, such as being accomodating or even subservient, to the feelings and wishes of others. Basically, young middle class girls in America are taught to generally try to please others, even if it’s slightly at their own expense. A childhood example might be sharing your doll with the neigbhor kid you don’t really like, but who invited themselves over to play. This might be desired behavior in a 6-year old, but it can set you back at age 26 (or 36 or 56) when working in an office. In the workplace, it might be your cubicle neighbor that wants you to print something for them because they can’t be bothered to connect their computer to the color printer. Being “nice” and doing it for them can lead down the road of being seen as their assistant, even if you’re actually equals, while they seem “managerial”, particularly to old-school (male) bosses.

          1. Lulu*

            Ah good to hear this summary – I keep meaning to check out this book. I’m a big fan of teaching people to fish – once or twice because you’re in a hurry, ok, I’ll help out, but I’ll also make a point of letting you know how to do it and going over to your desk and showing you. After that, you’re on your own!

  19. KayDay*

    I don’t disagree with Alison’s answer, there is an admin who explicitly has the job of cleaning up, however, I do think it’s a bit rude of the other managers not to at least help out a little. Sure, I don’t think the CEO is being paid to spend an hour washing dishes, but certainly the organization will survive if they spend three minutes cleaning up after themselves. When I assisted during board meetings, all of our senior management (not the board) would pitch in a little bit. Not necessarily to spend an hour washing dishes, but they would take a few minutes to tidy up their area, throw away their trash, and bring their dishes to the kitchen (and maybe even box up some leftovers while they were at it. Honestly, this took them no more than five minutes, but it made my job a whole hell of a lot easier.

    That said, I do agree that the OP should stop staying late to help the admin (but she can/should still pick up after herself).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This isn’t always the case, but I can say that there have been times when I’ve attended incredibly stressful board meetings (for instance, where the funding for people’s positions was potentially on the line or other similarly stressful issues) and it was a big relief not to have to stay one minute longer than the meeting itself and to know that someone else was taking care of the post-meeting logistics. Sometimes there’s really something to the benefit of “this is something that you don’t have to think about; your part here is done.”

  20. kapuku*

    Here’s what stood out to me from the OP: she says that this meeting cleanup requires the female admin to stay alone in an empty building into the evening – which at this time of year can mean total darkness outside when she’s able to leave. My immediate reaction was to see this as a safety issue.

    We don’t know how things are at the OP’s workplace – where is parking, is there security present, is the office located in what is perceived as a generally safe/populated/well-lit area, etc. – but I think it would be a decent thing for all of the staff to be considerate of the fact that this scenario possibly presents a safety concern for their admin. If meetings extend beyond normal business hours, everyone should pitch in as a team, regardless of their role, to get things put away and in order so no one has to be left alone to leave in darkness.

    Perhaps someone could ask the admin how she feels about being left there alone into the evenings? She may feel uneasy about it but doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up about that, and it just has not even occurred to anyone else. I remember reading in Gavin de Becker’s Gift of Fear, where he spoke to a roomful of men and asked when was the last time was that they thought about the possibility that they might be attacked, or felt afraid for their safety…some said never, or “there was this one time a few years ago;” for women, their answers were more along the lines of “last night” and “when jogging in the park this morning,” etc. In other words, it’s something women are (and unfortunately need to be) cognizant of, and men don’t usually have those sort of concerns for themselves.

  21. First Time!*

    After reading this letter over again I think a lot of people are not focusing on the right thing. It seems the OP is well aware that the female assistant is just doing her job and doesn’t have a problem with that.
    It seems that the OPs question is more about how it makes the OP look in the eyes of the male board members when she does help the assistant. My answer to that is that they may begin associating you with the assistant in a way you don’t want. I would focus on cleaning my area but would leave everything else to the assistant and follow the lead of other high level people.

    1. moss*

      I agree with you and this is why I myself stay far far away from anything that whiffs of “Party Planning Committee” and don’t bake for the office.

  22. Karyn*

    As a former admin assistant and general go-to person for this kind of thing, I can tell you that a “thank you” goes a LONG way. I always knew cleaning up after people’s messes was my job function, but a sincere acknowledgment that my effort was appreciated stuck in my mind and made me feel better about doing my job. I never expected anyone to help, but when a thank you was given, it made it that much easier to do. :)

  23. Anonymous*

    I was an admin asst and I’m a male, and yes, I had to clean up after ‘executives’ who are 99% male. What’s more, rightly or wrongly, I often did feel like I was their wife or mother, in other words, a woman, and that drove me mad.

    On a similar note, I interviewed for a position as a counselor at the law school at largest university in New York and the HR rep referred to the job as a momsy post. So I guess people still view jobs in terms of gender.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Probably the obvious question here, but have you thought about why you associated a duty of your job (cleaning) with being a woman (and why that was bad)?

      1. Anonymous*

        It’s less about the cleaning and more about the admin post itself that is/was associated with being female. What was more, I was also the receptionist. Comment such as, “Can I marry you?” after I did something special for them (job related: lol), didn’t help. Now with regard to the cleaning itself, I actually looked forward to such tasks, any task, that got me out of my chair and out and about. So, no, I didn’t consider it in a negative in and of itself; simply as it related to the post itself.

        1. A Bug!*

          Obvious Question #2: What makes you associate the job of admin assistant generally with women? Why does “administrative assistant” evoke a gender at all?

          1. Anonymous*

            Primarily the receptionist component of it, as I rarely ever see male receptionists. In addition, the fact that the entire admin staff ecxcept for me is female and the entire non-admin staff, except for one, is male. More broadly, I’ve been trying to break into university admin and sometimes, except for the dean, the entire admin staff is almost all female. I recall one dept at a large university in New Jersey. They had posted a group picture on their website which made me laugh. It consisted of the dean, a male, surrounded by, and I kid you not, 26 women in administrative roles. I left me wondering whether women are relegated to these roles, more suited for them or are choosing them for personal reasons.

            1. Laura L*

              Were those admin assistant (or exec assistant) roles? or were they high-level administrative roles (e.g. a few steps below Dean)?

  24. The Other Dawn*

    I agree that the OP should only clean up after herself. If she keeps pitching in all the time, it’s just going to breed resentment against the male members of the management team for something they aren’t supposed to be doing anyway.

    I am a woman in senior management and I struggle with the senior vs. junior aspect, not the gender aspect. Maybe it’s because I worked my way through the ranks at this company over 10+ years. I have a difficult time saying to someone, “could you please make some coffee for the Board meeting?” Even though we have an administrative assistant, I find myself setting up the coffee maker and cups for the next morning before I leave for the day, because I think no one else will think of it or want to do it. Before last month’s Board meeting I had an unexpected issue come up that just couldn’t wait until after the meeting. I had forgotten to set up the coffee the night before and no one else was in that early, so I was scrambling around trying to take care of the issue and then getting the coffee set up before directors started arriving. I said to myself that I would circulate an email asking others to make sure the coffee setup gets done before each meeting, but of course the next meeting is coming up and I can’t bring myself to do it. I know, I need to get over it.

      1. some1*

        I’ve been an admin for a long time, and the only place I ever worked where it was an admin’s job to make coffee was at my last employer (it was the receptionist’s job), and it backfired. Most people want coffee sooner than the admin can get to the breakroom and make it, especially in the morning. I am the only admin on a floor of 90 employees, and I have 2+ hours of time-sensitive work I *need* to perform, at my desk, each morning. If my co-workers wait for me to make the coffee, they will all fall asleep at my desk. The coffee rule here is like toilet paper at home, if you take the last of it, you make the next pot, no matter what your position is.

        1. Anonymous*

          90-odd employees and you’re still using coffee pots? Surely they can afford a coffee machine that takes single capsules or pooches so that each person makes his or her own and it never runs own.

          1. Andrea*

            We just got one of those at my office today! I’m so excited about it that I’ve made (and drank) five cups of tea today, cause every time I showed someone else how to use it, I had to make another cup obviously. I usually don’t have this much caffeine in a week, much less a day. Whew!

        2. the gold digger*

          I don’t think it should be the admin’s job to make coffee for everyone, every day. But if The Other Dawn is trying to prepare for a board meeting, why shouldn’t she delegate the making of the coffee to her assistant? Again, it’s not a woman thing, it’s a senior/junior position thing.

          PS The only coffee in my office is what you bring yourself. No company-provided coffee.

        3. The Other Dawn*

          “Most people want coffee sooner than the admin can get to the breakroom and make it, especially in the morning.”

          Yes, this is true with the board members. Another reason why I tend to do it. And it’s only once a month. I guess that’s another reason I don’t push it.

        4. Cassie*

          “If my co-workers wait for me to make the coffee, they will all fall asleep at my desk.”

          This is why even though our dept has a coffee maker and coffee is usually available in the morning (though it goes quickly), I make my own with my personal coffee maker.

      2. The Other Dawn*

        When we were between admins I took over making the coffee and when she got hired I just continued to do it. After 10+ years here I’m just in the habit of doing whatever needs to get done without being asked, whether that’s making coffee or management tasks. I’ve been that way since the company started and i was much lower on the totem pole. Coffee was just an example, but I also find it hard to hand a document over to someone and say, “please make 50 copies.” I’m guess I feel that if I’m perfectly capable of doing something, why ask someone else to do it?

        1. the gold digger*

          if I’m perfectly capable of doing something, why ask someone else to do it?

          Because if you’re a senior manager, you are being paid to solve bigger problems than making photocopies.

          1. EM*

            Exactly. I had our admin look up a particular type of specialized sampling equipment that needed re-ordering. I am perfectly capable of doing such a task, but I literally did not have the time to do it, and I get paid to be a scientist and do sciencey things. :)

  25. Elizabeth West*

    This never bothered me. I liked it, because it got me away from my station a bit longer. Receptionists can sometimes feel really trapped at the front desk. Also, I could sneak another piece of cake and no one would know (well, except my waistband).

  26. khilde*

    Regarding Alison’s answer paragraph #3 (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): Totally agree. I can easily understand where OP’s thinking is coming from, though. It it kind of ambiguous in the whole scope of basic manners. I’ve previously heard something like this discussed in terms of supervisors delegating tasks: if a lower paid employee can do the task as well as a higher paid employee (presumably a supervisor or manager), then the task of cleaning up is costing the organization less money by having the lower paid employee do it. Of course, that task should fall within the scope of the lower-paid employee’s duties, but hearing it said that way was a lightbulb moment for me.

  27. kdizzle*

    …and then maybe there’s way too much money spent on goodies for meetings (that subsequently have to be cleaned up afterwards). I’m always amazed that a $300k CFO can’t get through an hour long meeting without a plate of free scones.

    1. the gold digger*

      Kdizzle, I was asked to organize a meeting once for some regional managers. The meeting wasn’t going to start until 9 a.m. We were breaking at noon for lunch. The out of towners were staying at a hotel with a free breakfast. So I ordered drinks and some fruit.

      One of the managers, who blesshisheart, was already quite well fed, pitched a fit. He got on the phone and screamed to the hotel catering manager (the meeting was at a hotel) to get a tray of pastries up to our room ASQP. Then he screamed at me. I just kept thinking, “You can’t make it from breakfast to lunch without a tray of pastries?”

    2. Anonymous*

      My favorite is the director who complains about not having any baked goods provided because he’s “diabetic and it’s a very long meeting” (about 2.5 hours). If you’re diabetic you should know to have something on hand just in case. And you’ve been a director here for six years so you know that we only provide some nuts and maybe some grapes. My mom was diabetic and never left the house without some form of snack and her sugar tablets.

      1. Kelly O*

        Because pastries and refined carbs are EXACTLY what the diabetic needs to regulate blood sugar. Just like the cookies and brownies in the afternoon, and the candy dishes during the day. And the dessert at lunch.

        Seriously, people gorge like crazy at some meetings. I had a group complain once because they’d never had boxed lunches before and thought one sandwich wasn’t enough.

        1. KarenT*

          I heart those catered boxed lunches! When I was admin I ordered those all the time. The sandwich and mini dessert made me feel like I was eating a school lunch (in a good way).

  28. CW*

    I used to work for a boss who at the end of meetings (which were usually in hotel meeting rooms) would say, “Right folks, there are 30 of us and one cleaner-up… let’s take 5 minutes out of each of our time before we leave here to put this place back to like what we walked into it this morning.”

    He believed that this was a token gesture that would enhance our company’s goodwill and reputation, and I find it hard not to agree that this was a sensible thing to do both on a human and a business level.

  29. MJ*

    I noticed yesterday in a meeting that of the five people there, the two making the tea were the two women, and started feeling insulted about this before I remembered that we were also the most “junior” people there as well. Once you notice gender inequality somewhere in your company (and it will be there) it’s too easy to find yourself extending it to situations where it really doesn’t apply!

    1. Anonymous*

      Women are often the most junior people anywhere so using their level as a convenient excuse to make them do menial tasks is veiled sexism in my opinion, so it definitely does apply. And you will never see men on that level or even under that level doing a job like that. In over 30 years I have never seen it once. Those women’s job descriptions probably don’t include other menial tasks and they are as unrelated to their function as they would be to someone in any higher position.

  30. Anonymous*

    In 30+ years of being an admin., I was never asked to do coffee until my present job. It is not just putting out k cups but ordering them and stocking them. I have most definitely felt demeaned by this as if it is OK to ask me to do such menial labor. My main job is toward my boss and my department, not coffee. My job is definitely not menial so why is it OK to ask me to do this? This is a job for the cafeteria or a coffee service, not an admin. Or how about facilities? Why doesn’t anyone see this as their job? Because perhaps they’re MEN?

    This is the 21st century, not the 19th. At the very least, the job should be shared amongst people of both genders. It is too convenient to dismiss this as a “job function” issue and not a gender issue. The way I feel about it, you might as well ask an African American to pick cotton and then tell them it’s not about their race but their “job function”. See how far you get with that load of BS.

    1. Jamie*

      Why is ordering coffee in and of itself a menial task? How it it any different than ordering any other kind of office supply.

      I’m IT and I order cans of compressed air, screen cleaner, and flash drives. By definition all menial tasks, but nothing insulting about that.

      I have no idea what a coffee service is but if you’re just ordering K cups I would find it hard to defend spending the money to outsource that.

      1. Anonymous*

        I am an executive assistant, not an admin. assistant. I don’t order supplies. The lower level admins. do that. The only reason I was told I am ordering coffee is because there are no admins. to do it. I make more money than a lot of people who aren’t admins. So that’s why it’s “menial” to me and why there is no way to justify why I have to do it and someone else who is junior to me at the company in terms of salary and status is not doing it.

      1. Anonymous*

        What is offensive about it? My mother was a femnist and she is rolling in her grave that her college educated daughter is being required to put out coffee. At my last company the bosses went out of their way NOT to ask their admins. to have anything to do with coffee. Even when my last boss at my old company was dying of thirst and stuck on a conference call I couldn’t convince him that it was no problem for me to get him a cup of coffee. He told me he didn’t want me to serve him in that way (you can imagine how empowering this was to me). Not so where I work now. This place is admittedly more backward than my last company in certain ways.

  31. helensobar*

    Good answer, but the question brings up important points that I encounter daily at my male/engineer dominated office: when the admin assistant is out or busy, it’s always a woman– from all ranks — who steps in to empty the dishwasher or clean the counters. I’m talking mid-level, even principal – but a woman. It’s because we’re helping HER, the admin (the men are not in the stratosphere of noticing). But maybe some of it is reflexively and kind of disgustingly, the desire to be helpful and please and support the #($& men.

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