people think I’m my boss’s assistant — but I’m not

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.

Two options:

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 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.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 238 comments… read them below }

  1. Karowen*

    I don’t think this would be effective, but the impish devil on my shoulder votes that, when people call you to schedule a meeting with your boss, you tell them to go for it – the implication being that you have nothing to do with it. Then if they don’t do it on their own and they show up for their “scheduled” appointment and ask why he’s not available, ask why they think you’d know. The end result is that they’re frustrated that their meeting is delayed and maybe they’ll remember next time that it’s not your problem.

    Again, not effective, but it would piss some people off and that makes my devil happy.

    1. OP*

      I actually don’t have access to his calendar or anything, which I tell people. I’ll literally say, “I don’t have access to his calendar, I’m not his admin.” And they laugh and say “Ok I’ll call him later”. But then the following week, they do the same thing. I wonder sometimes if I’m working in an office of amnesiacs…

      1. Rayner*

        Remind them you’ve mentioned it before. “Like I said last week, I don’t have access to his appointment schedule.” The next time it happens, “For the third time, I still don’t have access to it. It’s not going to change, Toby!” Once you start getting in the 5th/6th/7th time you remind them that you’ve told them before, they’ll start to work it out.

        1. TL -*

          Yeah, if you can manage polite but annoyed, “Tom, I’m right in the middle of something and I know I’ve told you several times I’m not the admin. Is there anything else because I’m up against a really tight deadline here.”

        2. Gandalf the Nude*

          I don’t think I’d even let it get as far as a 4th time before I asked the person if there was a reason they kept coming to me even though I’ve expressed repeatedly that it’s not my function. I know entirely too many folks who won’t work it out on their own unless you point out the pattern.

            1. Bowserkitty*

              Awww, I didn’t know that was your cat’s name :) I was making an Office reference…

              and if you just made a reference it went over my head and I apologize :x

      2. jhhj*

        I would change my response. “I’ve told you often that I am not his admin — repeating this weekly is getting in the way of my work, so I’m not going to respond to you next time you ask me this. Hope you understand!”

        When people call say “I don’t know, I’ll transfer you”, then transfer them to your boss or whoever before they can say anything — ideally you will interrupt people. When packages end up on your desk, call shipping and tell them you have stuff to pick up, then give it back to them.

        You need to step up your responses to this.

        (The best solution is really to move your desk, though.)

        1. Nom d'pixel*

          I would not transfer someone to her boss. That is admin work. I would go so far as to say that she doesn’t know how to transfer if they ask.

          1. Jadelyn*

            +1 – transferring incoming calls to the boss is definitely going to reinforce the perception that she’s the boss’s admin, not change it. If you assume someone is an admin, and you call them because the admin acts as “gatekeeper” to their boss, and they then transfer you through, why would you ever stop calling the “admin”? You’d just end up thinking they’re a particularly rude admin if they interrupt you and transfer before you finish your sentence.

      3. Meg Murry*

        Rather than “I’m not his admin” can you reinforce with “He doesn’t have an admin, he keeps his own calendar”

        Is it an issue of boss never answering his phone, either because he straight up doesn’t answer it or because he’s always on the phone or in another meeting, and therefore the person is just going down the list/around the office trying to find someone to help them? Would it help to redirect to email instead. As in “CTO rarely answers his phone, emailing him directly will get a better response.”

        1. Observer*

          No. Just stick to “I can’t help you.” She needs to be as unhelpful as possible at this point, unfortunately.

          1. Mallory Janis Ian*

            Yes, don’t be helpful at all. Don’t make it even slightly easier to go through you than it is to keep trying the boss. Any information, such as advice to email rather than call, is more than they’re getting from trying to contact him directly and will encourage them to keep contacting you. Just do not give them a single thing that encourages them to seek answers from you.

      4. 42*

        I’m trying to think of a genuine way to put up a sign at your cube saying No [boss] Dropoffs/No [boss] Scheduling etc Done Here (I’m obviously paraphrasing) without coming off as snarky. Use as an immediate step until you can move your desk…which is the best solution attainable.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Actually one of my first thoughts was make one of those desk name placques with your title really big.

          1. Julie*

            That’s what my boss had me do. Same idea: only female, relatively young, desk near the door… Guests and potential funders would come in and ask that I make them coffee. A large plaque with my name and title fixed this.

            Regarding OP’s case, when people don’t seem to get the message after several attempts, I turn what I say into a question. Like Alison said, sound confused. “I feel like we keep having the same conversation. Could tell me again why you thought X, Y, and Z?” It gets people to snap out of autopilot mode.

            1. JL*

              On a side note, I am utterly baffled by the idea some people *expect* someone else to make them a coffee. I could understand accepting it if it’s offered, or asking someone else where the coffee machine… but looking at someone and saying “Can you make me a coffee?” feels like it comes from another age. Or maybe I’ve been spoiled by my workplaces where this would be absolutely unacceptable?

          2. Cath in Canada*

            I tried that when I was in a similar situation, working at a desk right outside the boss’s door. It worked a bit, on some people.

            On my last day in that job, I added a sign saying “no, I don’t know where [boss] is” to my official name plate. That got a few comments and laughs, but I wouldn’t have been able to get away with it if I wasn’t already leaving!

        2. auntie_cipation*

          Brightly colored lines/arrows on the floor, hospital style: “Bob’s office: this-a-way…” tracking AROUND your desk and heading toward his…

          Heck, I’d make two, a blue one for “Bob’s mail delivery” and a red one for “Bob’s calendar scheduling”. One can end at the left side of his desk, the other on the right…

          It shows a sense of humor but also gets the point across clearly.

      5. nofelix*

        These people sound like total buttheads. After a few rounds of this I would want to ask my own questions like “Why do you keep calling me about this? Did you not understand the previous times?”. It’s ridiculous to repeatedly call you about things you’ve said you have no control over. Or alternatively say this:

        “Okay, have you got a pen handy?”
        “His number is 0123456 7890. Would you like me to forward you?”

        Then next time ask them if they lost his number.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Or let calls go to voicemail. And don’t return the call if it’s outside your purvue. Then when offending caller asks why Op didn’t call back its “well I’m not his assistant and figured you surely got hold of Boss directly by now”.

      6. Artemesia*

        This will never change as long as you sit there and because you will have to make a BFD about it day in and day out it will just build your reputation as difficult or ‘sensitive’ or whatever. Totally unfair. I’d make it super clear to your boss that this matters to you and you really need a different location and make it very clear that it is a case of the only woman in the office being treated like a man’s secretary. I’d make it also very clear that the only solution is a different location. Obviously you are polite, but it is a case of really being assertive and not being so diffident about the request that he can brush it off or dismiss it. Doing it firmly once rather than having to endless fuss about it is preferable.

        I have known many women in this situation — if there are 8 people at desks, people will walk over to the one woman to act as receptionist. You will still have to not be available to book your boss’s meetings but moving the desk is the only way to possibly break that habit.

        The girlish way women sometimes present such ‘demands’ by diminishing their importance often means they don’t get fixed, so this is one to come on a bit strong on. A sense of humor about it is great, but make sure he understands that this is important to you, demeans you, and is getting in the way of your work.

        1. Judy*

          I’m an embedded software engineer currently working in a small company that makes products for a very “manly” industry. We have about 40 people in our building, and don’t have a receptionist, just a chair, phone, and phone list in the lobby. At the top of the list, it says something like “If you don’t have a contact, please call extension xxxx or yyyy” in large letters. The list is alphabetical by first names, my name is nearly halfway down the list, but the first obviously female name on the list.

          I get a call maybe once every other week for random deliveries.

        2. Stranger than fiction*

          And the only thing I’d add is to be clear to boss it’s also distracting from your actual job duties. And actually be clear to everyone about that.

      7. Erin*

        Without coming out and being a total b**** about it, I’d stop being polite to the repeat offenders.

        By the third or fourth time the’re coming to you, give yourself permission to be a little bit more abrupt:

        “Once again, I’m not his admin. Please stop asking me.”
        “I don’t have access to his calendar, and I never will.”
        “I’m not his admin. Please excuse me, I have a deadline.”
        “I’m actually a (insert title here), not an admin. He doesn’t have an admin. You have to ask him directly. Remember?”

        I think the important thing isn’t so much what you’re saying but how you’re saying. Say it firmly and then *go back to what you were doing.* Make it clear by your body language that you’re not continuing this conversation. As Alison alluded to in one of her suggestions, take your time even responding to them in the first place, because you’re so busy, you know, doing your actual job.

      8. Hooptie*

        I recently went through the same kind of situation, except that I do handle scheduling for my boss as one of my responsibilities. However, his first level of reports somehow decided that I should schedule every meeting for his executive team whether he was invited or not.

        When I talked to my boss about it, I mentioned that everyone in the company has the capability to send a meeting request in Outlook, so I felt my time would be better served to assist only with time conflicts. He agreed, so now when people ask me to schedule a meeting I say something like, “You can go ahead and set it up via Outlook. His calendar is up to date. If you need to confirm anything just let me know.”

        However, your boss sounds like he definitely needs someone to manage his calendar. I would actually ask him if he has ever thought that he needs an admin especially since it is in line with what others at his level have. His life will be easier (or it should be) and it would likely decrease time wasting with a lot of people at your company.

        1. Clever Name*

          Honestly, I wouldn’t bring up a need for an admin because I can see a scenario where the boss will assume OP is volunteering to handle all that. If Boss thinks he needs an admin, he can see to getting one. OP doesn’t need to be involved at all.

      9. Sketchee*

        The advice to be as unhelpful as possible is a good thought. I’ve noticed that there is a lot more pressure on women to be helpful and to assist. Even when they are clearly in a role that has nothing to do the task. Even when everyone knows their title and function very clearly. Men are treated with less pressure to be agreeable.

      10. The Expendable Redshirt*

        Next Week:

        Them: “Can I schedule a meeting with Boss about the latest teapot order?”

        You: “Like I told you last week, I am not his admin. I never have and never will have access to his schedule.”

        Ack! What a pain. Is changing desks an option? That seems to be the less frustrating option.

          1. Snark is life*

            Best answer: Obviously you can’t because you called the completely wrong person to try to do so.

    2. Lisa*

      I had a very similar situation – I was a financial analyst for a group but happened to be friends with the Admin. For some reason people assumed I was also an admin and would ask me to do a bunch of stuff from calling restaurants to get reservations to setting up their computer for meetings. What finally worked was the general manager sending out a mail to everyone stating that I was not responsible for any of this and if she received any reports of people ignoring the mail and continuing to waste my time that they would have to take it up with her.

  2. Hlyssande*

    I agree with Alison. The only way to stop this for good is to move to a different desk.

    If they won’t move you, you’re going to be constantly telling people that you’re not his admin, over and over, all the time. If that is the case, then maybe documenting roughly how much time it takes out of your usual tasks and presenting that to the boss might convince him that no really, you need to move, for realsies.

    1. LSCO*

      “documenting roughly how much time it takes out of your usual tasks and presenting that to the boss”

      This is exactly what I would be doing, if the boss doesn’t agree immediately to a desk move. I’d also include the time it takes you to get back “into the groove” once you’ve been interrupted. If your boss can see the effect all these interruptions are having, he should hopefully be more open to a desk move. If there’s no space for you to move into, then I’d make damn sure you’re at the top of the list for when a space does become available, and if possible enlist your boss in the aggressive retraining activities above in the meantime.

      1. Hlyssande*

        Yes, that! The total time it takes you away from your actual work that you were hired to do definitely adds up, so make sure to include it. Also note who is doing the interrupting and how many times you’ve told them you’re not the admin.

        1. KWu*

          +1 — bringing up the gendered part of this may or may not help, depending on how much convincing your boss should need that it’s real (vs your boss getting defensive about it), so talking about how it has a real impact on your work might be safer for you.

          1. Artemesia*

            I disagree. The ‘I am the only woman in the department and so am getting treated as a man’s secretary ‘ is an argument most men even sexist men will understand. (and use ‘secretary’ rather than ‘admin’ for this particular discourse.)

      2. GreenTeaPot*

        I found myself in a smiliar situation early in my career. I tried to fix it by starting a monthly report that documented how much time I spent doing receptionist duties. Nothing changed for me, but the person who followed me got a better desk location. (Fortunately, I ended up holding the job for only 18 months, as I got married and left the area.)

        1. Cautionary tail*

          So the way you solved this was by getting married? Perhaps a bit extreme for me but an interestering solution nonetheless.

          1. OP*

            Funnily enough, my husband may be getting a job across the country, in which case I’d be leaving this job to move with him…so perhaps my situation will resolve itself in the same way that GreenTeaPot’s did!

          2. GreenTeaPot*

            LOL. No, getting engaged was not the solution. But I WAS happy to leave that job. The boss was crazy.

    2. Sunshine*

      It would he interesting if she was able to swap desks with someone and a male was over I to her spot. I wonder if he’d be facedone with the same problems?

      1. TootsNYC*

        My guess is that he’s get it a little bit–but not nearly as much.
        Anyone -physically- there might say stuff like, “will you sign for this package?” or “is Boss around?” But that would be about the extent of it.

  3. Turanga Leela*

    You’re not overreacting, OP; this is annoying and undermining. One additional thought: put your job title wherever you can. Have it in your email signature, and get a name sign (there’s a better word for those, right?) for your desk that has your title on it too.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      Agreed, get your title out there! And when you tell visitors that your not the admin, I’d remind them of your title right then. “I think you’re assuming I’m Fergus’s assistant, but I’m not. I’m the Level II Technical Adviser.”

      1. EmilyG*

        I like this response because you’re very subtly reminding the person that they’re making an assumption–and a sexist one. (Though this office sounds like one where subtlety may not register.)

    2. Engineer Girl*

      This. It’s not enough to say “I’m not the admin”. Instead use Alison’s script bit preface it with your job title. “Oh, as a tech specialist so I don’t manage his schedule.” That sends the message that what they are doing is inappropriate for that job title.

    3. Meg Murry*

      I was also going to suggest a name plaque/desk sign that says “Jane Smith, IT Guru” or whatever your title is.

      Come up with a standard, short script. Rather than emphasizing “I am not the admin” I might try pushing “Boss doesn’t have an admin, he schedules his own meetings – you need to check with him”. Same with when he has a visitor “I don’t know anything about his visitors, I don’t keep his schedule”. Don’t tell the front desk you’ll handle it, just tell them to call him themselves. The only time I might excuse it would be if they lead off with “I tried to call boss to tell him his visitor is here but he didn’t answer”.

      Now that you’ve been there 6 months, can you do a little recon? Is there a cube full of old equipment that could be packed up and you can claim it? Can you push to your boss that you aren’t able to get work done being front and center at the desk and you really need to move to a cube now that you’re fully trained, even if it’s one further away? And if another person leaves and the cube becomes vacant, you probably need to ask your boss if you can move in there as if it’s already a done deal – “So, Bob’s last day is on Friday, I was thinking I should move over there on Monday so I can have some more quiet and we can get more work done.” Depending on where in the hierarchy you are (middle of many? not the most junior but still near the bottom?) you may even be able to propose it as an equity thing during your next review “As you are aware, all the other MidLevel IT Gurus have their own cubes, as do the Junior IT Gurus, whereas I am at the front desk. I propose we either have me swap desks with Junior or have 2 Juniors double up in the largest cube so I can have a cube like the rest of the MidLevels.”

      I also think there may need to be an element of re-training, similar to the letter the other day about people cutting through the open office. Shipping and receiving may have gotten used to putting boxes on your desk back when it was an empty desk – so now you need to re-train them. “No, I need to you take deliveries for boss directly into his office/put them on the chair outside his door/whereever”.

      1. TL -*

        I’d be really tempted to have conversations go like this, “Hey OP, can I schedule a meeting with the Boss?”
        OP: “I can’t help you with that, sorry.” Click.

        1. Tau*

          I’d probably tell them “I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong number” – not actually intentionally but because I’m sufficiently slow on the uptake that it wouldn’t even register they expect me to book meetings, but it strikes me as a way to completely shut this down. (Hey, if they’re looking to schedule something with your boss, they do have the wrong number.)

        2. Rene*

          I’d go even simpler…. Shrug, say ‘hunh? I dunno, I’m a techie. Good luck!’ Then turn away. Or even sympathize, like… ‘Ooh, yeah, he’s hard to get ahold of. Can’t help you I’m afraid. (Implying they’re asking you for a favor) Good luck!’ Placing yourself in their circle, ie, someone who isn’t in charge of the guy’s schedule but rather someone who has to make an appointment, too. Seems to work for me anyway.

    4. OP*

      OP here. I do have my title in my signature, but that could actually be part of the problem…my title is “Systems Administrator”, so for people who aren’t hip with the IT lingo, that might reinforce their assumption that I’m an admin :(

      1. Turanga Leela*

        That is a really interesting wrinkle! It’s still surprising, though, since it’s not like you have “assistant” in your title.

        1. my two cents*

          …can you quietly sneak in “IT Systems Administrator” or “Systems Administrator – IT Dept.”?

            1. Connie-Lynne*

              If she’s doing internal work in the US, “IT Systems” would work. If she’s doing external Ops but isn’t in the US, there are a lot of countries where that’s also called IT.

              I gave some additional suggestions below.

            2. IT Kat*

              As a female Systems Administrator myself, I sometimes use just “SysAdmin” or “Systems Engineer”. It’s helped take care of a lot of confusion at some of the places I’ve worked.

              1. MashaKasha*

                Second “Systems Engineer”. Though, as an IT person (not a sysadmin), I had no idea that people outside of IT can confuse “sysadmin” with “office admin”.

              2. Liz*

                I’d go with “SysAdmin” too, at least as an unofficial one. “Systems Administrator” is better for external emails (unless informality is OK).

      2. BRR*

        Is there someone else with the same title? “I’m a systems administrator like Tom and Joe. Boss manages his own calendar so I’m not going to be able to help you with that.”

      3. SAHM*

        +1 My hubby was a sys admin before he was promoted. As a regular non-IT person it confused me that he was an admin, since he does technical mumbo jumbo cloud gooey such and such program ;-)

        Can you put System Admin of such and such networks in your signature? Make it a bit more hoity toity? That way you can say “Does it have to do with such and such network? No? Sorry, can’t help you.”

      4. Connie-Lynne*

        OMG, I feel your pain. I once put out that I was hiring Systems Administrators and three friends sent me their Admin resumes.

        Any chance you can reframe it to “Sysadmin II” or “System Engineer?”

          1. Connie-Lynne*

            I know, I was a little flabbergasted. In my case, though, even if I had been looking for a nontechnical assistant, I’d not have hired these friends: one look at the job description would have made it clear it was not an assistant role.

          2. olives*

            Me too! Granted, I’m in the industry and so this has long been a part of the lingo to me, but still! Sysadmin duties are just completely different than other administrative tasks and they’re conceptually completely separate in my mind…

            1. Chinook*

              I doesn’t surprise me too much as I am in a similar “looks like an AA role” but I do database and program administration from outside IT (I work directly with the programmers). The field guys see a woman who helps with documentation and knows where the boss is (because she is across the hall from me) and think secretary (in their world, someone they are in awe and fear of as they are gatekeepers). I doesn’t help that I am back up for our one AA out o sympathy (and she said my backup). I learned to call myself “program steward” instead of anything with administrator to help avoid any confusion.

      5. FD*

        Oh, yeah, that’s probably part of the problem. I know a LOT of people in my field–which tends to attract people who are technically challenged–who would think a systems administrator was an admin assistant for the systems team.

      6. Observer*

        Maybe you should actually change it to Sysadmin. People in the field will know what you mean and the non-tech savvy won’t see it as “administrator”.

    5. OmniPeixe*

      Agreed. OP, moving your desk location is an excellent suggestion – if it’s possible to do that – but also a great idea to get a custom nameplate (they’re inexpensive, and can be ordered from most office supply chains) and email signature stating your job title clearly. I’m in a similar situation – a (female) web administrator whose open-plan desk is parked directly in front of two senior faculty offices, and passers-by constantly assume I’m their secretary. It’s been helpful to memorize a brief, (10-second) neutral spiel explaining that I handle the department’s website, and they should see Esmerelda Jones on the fourth floor regarding Professor Laureate’s meeting schedule. Good luck!

  4. jmm*

    I really hope you are able to move to another location. However, if you can’t, aside from doing the things Alison suggested, what about having some kind of desk plaque created with your name and title? Then place it in a very obvious location on your desk…

  5. Snarkus Aurelius*

    A friend of mine is also a woman in an all-male office, and there is a guy who constantly leaves papers on her chair with the unspoken expectation that she is to “deal” with them.  She’s not an admin in any way, shape or form so she throws them away.

    You don’t need to be that rash, but you’re right that you need to address it.

    In addition to everything that AAM has suggested, you need to start letting things “fail.”  You didn’t mention if anything is going wrong because of people’s assumptions about you, but if there’s a chance they could, please let them fail.  If someone expects you to schedule a meeting, don’t do it and let the chips fall where they may.  Someone leaves a package on your desk for you boss, then you take it back from where it came.  Etc.

    And never, ever apologize.

    1. OwnedByTheCat*

      I LOVE this. “Where’s that report that I gave you?” “Oh, the trash you left on my desk? I recycled it for you! You’re welcome!”

    2. Rayner*

      I’d simply return the papers at the end of the week in front of everybody, saying loudly, “Hey, Fergus, you left these on my desk. If your trashcan isn’t working, phone maintanence, mmm’kay?” But I’m an asshole XD. I

      I totally agree with you about letting things fail – it’s not the OP’s responsibility if things go awry so let it be someone else’s problem. They’ll soon realise they’re not getting the results they need if the OP makes exactly zero effort to help them.

    3. Artemesia*

      That’s gutsy LOL. In that situation I’d put them in his mailbox, but yeah — don’t give them a thought beyond that.

    4. Mike B.*

      OP’s boss would rightly be annoyed, to say the least, to learn that one of his reports is deliberately standing in the way of his work getting done. The validity of her grievance is not an excuse for that kind of misbehavior.

      The only long-term solution is to move desks.

  6. Sharon*

    I’m surprised that Alison didn’t include in #2, or make it #3, to have the boss clear things up with those parties directly. It didn’t sound to me like he really had her back. I mean he did confirm that she’s not his admin but why doesn’t he FULLY have her back by telling those people to cut it out and do business with him directly?

    1. AMG*

      I don’t think I would be fazed by this personally. He’s a (probably) busy guy who assumes OP can handle it by pushing back. And she will.

    2. finman*

      I wonder if the boss also sees her as part time admin. Otherwise, he would be making a bigger effort to clarify things. A quick email that asks people to please stop using OP as his admin should quell that quickly.

        1. OP*

          Yeahhh my boss already has a habit of “defending” me to people, which makes me feel like I’m being patronized, so I’d feel pretty crappy if he sent out an email like that. I don’t think he sees me as a part time admin at all, he’s very good about farming out any admin work to the rest of the group, I just don’t think he realizes that this one particular thing upsets me as much as it does. And I worry about being seen as too sensitive, since women in IT are supposed to be tough and “one of the guys”.

            1. OP*

              Absolutely. I’m going to start keeping track of how many interruptions I’m getting per day and show my boss that there is a measurable loss of productivity. In the past he hasn’t let me move because there are no open desks in my part of the department, but if I can convince him that I’m less productive here, he might let me move to the other team’s cube farm.

              1. Connie-Lynne*

                You could also swap with one of the guys, to stay in your team’s area. People won’t be as likely to assume a dude is an admin, grrr.

                1. OP*

                  Well the only other person in my group sits in right next to me, so even if I swapped with him, I’d still be right in front of my boss’s office. Everyone else is on the other side of the room. So my best bet for changing things is to move across the room.

                2. BadPlanning*

                  I was thinking something similar — is there a coworker that you could convince to swap based on the idea of a “social experiment.” Once you’ve gathered your interruption data and then had Dave volunteer to switch, you and Dave can see how many admin things he receives. Or how often people go out of their way to still use OP as the admin.

        2. Jaydee*

          I agree that it could come off as paternalistic if it is phrased in a way that suggests OP needs boss to ride in on a white horse and solve this problem for her. But I think it wouldn’t if it was phrased in the right way. Something that conveys “It’s an inconvenience to me that I never get my mail in a timely fashion, I am the last to know when someone wants to schedule a meeting that I need to attend, and I never find out my appointments are here until they’ve been waiting for 10 minutes because instead of just contacting me directly you all seem to think that you need to go through Jane to get to me!”

          1. Jaydee*

            And scrap that. I see that OP commented while I was typing and it sounds like this is not the dynamic in her office.

    3. AdAgencyChick*

      Agree. I think the boss probably doesn’t understand that this is happening, and happening *a lot*, because OP is a woman. He probably thinks people are making an understandable mistake once or twice, and what’s the big deal?

      Bosses need to have convos with their direct reports about *patterns* and not just correct after single incidents, and I think in this case it works the other way. I think OP should make her boss aware that this is a constant issue and that it’s serious because it undermines her position.

      I think Alison’s ideas are good, but would be bolstered significantly if the boss, on top of that, told people to knock it off.

  7. K.*

    You’re definitely not overreacting. You’ll probably still get some scheduling calls when you do move, but then you can say “There was a lot of confusion that I was Boss’s admin, and we both thought that me moving desks was a good way to alleviate some of it.” Hopefully word will spread.

  8. AMG*

    Maybe also have your title in your email signature. Once you have pushed back a few times, word will get around. I have had to do the ‘I don’t handle that’ shuffle and just be friendly/professional/firm. What they want is to schedule with the boss (or whatever) and if talking to you wastes their time completing their activity, they will stop.

    But you have to be firm. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? An exec will get his nose out of joint because you didn’t coordinate a meeting for him? He will get over it and forget sooner than you will.

    Also, could you give a heads-up to the other admins and let them know so that they know the process? Maybe that will help also.

    1. fposte*

      I don’t think word getting around is going to completely cure it, though; this is a variant on the person sitting near the copy machine.

  9. boop*

    …She must already be doing all of these things if she is unable to set his schedule. I doubt she’s taken to tracking all of his movements on complex spreadsheets and escorting guests around… right???

    1. OP*

      Yep, I’m pretty direct with people since I literally cannot schedule things on his calendar, and I’m too busy to escort his guests around or pick things up from the loading dock. Like I said up above, I’m starting to worry that I work with a bunch of amnesiacs…or everyone thinks I’m just the world’s worst assistant.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Because “I can’t schedule things on his calendar” doesn’t mean “I’m not his assistant.” It could mean “I’m his admin but he does his own calendar.”

        2. OP*

          I haven’t been that direct. My worry is that the worst offenders are always the people who are way higher up the food chain than me. It’s because they all have admins, so of course they expect the CTO to have an admin as well. So I try to be direct without ruffling feathers.

            1. OP*

              That’s what I need to start doing. I’ve been worried that I’ll come across as insecure if I keep reiterating that I’m actually an IT person, but I do think I’ve been erring too far on the other side by not making it clear that this isn’t my job. I guess I wasn’t 100% sure that these things are happening because they think I’m an admin (I’m an optimist, I guess?) and I thought if I came right out and said it, I might find out that they’re just coming to me because I’m close to boss’s office, not because they assume I’m an admin. Seeing all of these responses (including yours!) has made me realize that this actually really isn’t OK and it’s obvious that these people have made incorrect assumptions about me.

              1. AMG*

                Even if they are coming to just because you are outside of his office, it’s a very clear signal that you are not an admin just because of where you sit.

              2. olives*

                I also think that explicitly telling people, “Oh, I’m not his admin,” may jolt people into realizing that it’s not okay to ask to schedule things with him through random people that happen to sit in front of his office. Regardless of whether they truly assumed you were an admin or were “just” thinking that you might be able to help, this could help them reframe what they’re doing.

              3. Mephyle*

                There’s also the toddler-herding principle: don’t just tell them what not to do (ask you to facilitate contact with Bob), but tell them what to do (contact Bob directly).

          1. neverjaunty*

            If those people will bristle at politely being told you’re not his admin and he doesn’t have on, then you might as well ruffle feathers and get it out of the way. Having higher ups repeatedly interrupt you and condescend to you is not a better alternative.

          2. justcourt*

            Fortunately, this was an infrequent issue in my old job, but I used to tell people if they needed help with x,y, and z, I could help. If they needed help with scheduling or other administrative stuff, they needed to deal with assistant/boss.

            I feel like it communicates that you aren’t the assistant, and it doesn’t sound as harsh as saying that stuff isn’t your job.

          3. Connie-Lynne*

            You’re kind of over a barrel here, and it sucks that sexism has put you there. In order to stop being interrupted repeatedly, you’re going to have to be more direct, which not only would a guy not have to be doing in the first place, but you’ll be judged for it in a way that a guy wouldn’t — particularly by the sort of folks who assume in the first place that you’re an admin.

            But you really do need to start smiling and saying “I’m an engineering specialist; Bob does all of his own admin work.” And when they continue to come to you, be firmer and say, “Sorry, like I said last week, I’m not Bob’s Admin. Please talk to him directly in the future.” They’re forgetting because remembering would take effort; unfortunately you need to push them into that effort.

            It sucks, and it sucks to have to do this for people with scary titles, but if you can’t move desks, this is your only option for shutting down the interruptions.

              1. TL -*

                I’d smile the first time and then get increasingly less smile-y and more annoyed ish. It doesn’t hurt to assume good faith the first time – and then get really annoyed the second.

                1. Liz*

                  Unfortunately, smiling (when done by a woman) tends to soften the message too much. It looks apologetic, rather than just polite. Better to just keep a neutral face to reinforce the “I’m not a receptionist/assistant who’s paid to smile at you” message.

          4. Wanna-Alp*

            You could try scaring them off with technospeak, served with a helpful attitude to prevent anger.

            “No, I’m sorry, I can’t deliver a package for you. But if you need a disk defragging, I’d be happy to help! Do you need a database backing up? Some utility scripts writing?” (they should be backing off by now) “Are you sure I can’t help you?”

  10. Jules the First*

    OP – that sucks. I had a female mentor early on (I’m also a woman in a very male field, and worse – young for my rank) who gave me some excellent advice: never pour coffee in a meeting (because then people associate you with refreshments rather than your work) , never wear all black or a white shirt with dark bottoms (or people will assume ‘waitstaff/admin’), and never answer your phone before the third ring (because it gives the impression that answering a phone promptly is somehow your job).

    I’d advise you to work on perfecting your baffled look for when people come by your desk looking for your boss and asking ‘why would you think I’d have that information?’ In a tone of genuine puzzlement. The other thing you could try is dragging one of your male colleagues into it – ‘hey Apollo! Sansa wants to know where Boss is today at 3pm – any ideas?’

    Phone calls about guests and packages can be quite easily handled by saying brightly ‘oh that’s nice’ and then doing nothing with the information – the person doing the calling will eventually become frustrated and tell your boss what a crap assistant you are, at which point it’s your boss who has to say ‘but Ermintrude, I don’t have an admin – Jane is one of our best software engineers and you should really stop distracting her with adminstrative trivia.’

      1. Mickey Q*

        Yep, this is how I handle it. First I have caller ID so I can see if I’m about to be bothered by useless stuff and I let almost everything go to voicemail. Then on my voicemail I say “If you’re calling about [my job] leave a message. If you’re calling about something else go to the help desk on the website.”

        I get other people forwarding me emails assuming I’ll deal with it. I ignore those. If they ask later did I deal with it I say “Oh, I don’t do that. I thought it was for my information only.”

        If they say “Can I get a meeting with Bob on Tuesday?” just say “I don’t know. Ask him.”

    1. anonanonanon*

      never wear all black or a white shirt with dark bottoms (or people will assume ‘waitstaff/admin’)

      Does this really cause a problem in an office? I wear both of these pretty frequently and I’ve never had anyone assume I’m an admin. But then, I live in a region where most people default to wearing dark colors so it’s not out of place to see people of any level wearing all black or white shirt/dark bottoms.

      1. Artemesia*

        The little black suit with white blouse screams ‘intern’ or junior assistant. One of the ways you telegraph that you are not the bottom of the pile flunky is with subtle differences in clothing. Texture is your friend.

        1. Kristine*

          This might be a regional or industry thing…our interns and junior assistant all tend to wear very trendy, colorful outfits. The higher ups tend to wear a lot of neutral colors, including all black (a personal favorite of mine) or white tops with dark bottoms.

          1. Stranger than fiction*

            Yeah this was news to me too, and around here it’s the same. It’s mostly managers that dress in black a lot, not necessarily with white though, and the lower level people are more trendy.

        2. Jules the First*

          As Artemisia says, the problem is really that you need to wear clothing that signals ‘not an admin/intern’; no all black and/or white blouses is an easy rule of thumb to follow as you’re building your professional wardrobe and it’s particularly easy for a busy mentor to convey without getting bogged down in specifics. It’s possible to wear all black in a way that would never lead anyone to think that you were the waiter but it’s much easier not to be mistaken for wait staff when you are rocking a navy skirt and a fuschia blouse with awesome floral pumps.

          1. anonanonanon*

            I’m wondering if this is a regional or industry thing because the no all black rule seems really bizarre to me. The navy skirt, fuschia blouse and floral pumps would signal admin in my office/industry.

            1. Sarah*

              Same, in my industry the closer you are to full business wear (black, navy, or gray suit and solid-colored shirt, pencil skirt, sheath dress, etc.) the more important you look, whereas the closer to casual or streetwear you are (A-line skirt, cardigan, floral patterns, “fun” colors, etc.) the less important you look. You wouldn’t get mistaken for a host at a catered event, true, but then, who would? Unless you regularly wear aprons to work…

            2. Doriana Gray*

              The navy skirt, fuschia blouse and floral pumps would signal admin in my office/industry.

              Same in mine. I’ve never seen an executive at my business casual office dressed like this. And even the more daring ones who dress like they’re going to the club wear darker club wear and knee high boots – you’d never catch them in anything bright.

            3. Honeybee*

              Yeah, I was thinking the exact same thing. My manager wears all black all the time and it definitely does not signal admin. The colorful blouses and floral pumps are much more likely to be on admins around here. But that’s a function of industry – I work in tech, where all the admins and receptionists wear more professional wear and the executives are kicking around in grungy jeans, a graphic tee and some NBs.

        3. InterviewHell*

          Black suit and white blouse equals intern or junior assistant?

          Forgive my ignorance, but I’m rather confused by this statement.

          My understanding about job interview apparel is that candidates are encouraged and expected to choose professional, nondescript clothes such as plain black suits and clean starched and ironed blouses. This is to ensure the interviewers’ full attention is on said candidate’s resume, answers to interview questions and portfolio (if applicable).

          Does this philosophy on interviewer wear no longer hold true?

          1. Artemesia*

            If you are interviewing for something that is not a junior role then a suit that doesn’t look like the cheap black gab suit from the career section will do you better. If all you have is a plain black suit, dressing it up with an obviously expensive silk blouse or the right accessories may project less ‘beginner’.

          2. Not me*

            I think the idea is that people who have more experience don’t need to follow that advice so closely. Those of us who are entry-level or close to it need to, because we still need to prove that we can handle some basic things.

            1. InterviewHell*

              Persephone Mulberry:

              You’re absolutely right!

              I caught that after I had posted, naturally!

              Still, I appreciate your call out about it.


          3. Jules the First*

            Well, I agree with you on the professional clothing and that it should be clean, but I’m also a firm advicate that you should dress for an interview the way you would dress for the job (just a little nicer). As an interviewer, I want to see some personality. Again, that early mentor gave great advice: if you’ve got nothing suitable to wear to the job interview, consider whether that’s telling you that you might not be a great cultural fit with the organisation.

            1. InterviewHell*


              I just noticed that you spell organization with an “s.”

              So, now I am wondering if you are in Canada, the UK or another country. Would you mind terribly answering? Pardon my manners in asking the question abruptly, but I am curious as to your location and field of work and how it influences your perception of pizzazz in job interview and daily office wear.


              1. Jules the First*

                Good guess – I’m a Canadian, living in the UK, working in high-end architecture and design. (Though I also did a stint in the buttoned-up NY head office of an American engineering firm, where this seemed to hold true as well).

                It’s probaby true that I’m a bit more aware of style because of the industry I work in, but I also believe that everyone will be happier in a job where they feel they can be themselves, so I would still advocate that you show your personality in your job interviews (just maybe tone down the rainbow hairdo if you’re interviewing at an auditor’s office!)

            2. AnotherAlison*

              Wait, “I want to see some personality?” My personality is a black suit with a white top. : ) I’d be faking it if I wore florals or fuchsia. Which is fine. I probably wouldn’t fit your organization, but my work look is fine for my boring, traditional industry job.

              1. Jules the First*

                But if white shirt dark suit is your personality, you’re going to wear it differently than someone who is deliberately wearing it to avoid distracting the interviewer.

            3. Kyrielle*

              Heh. Interviewing here, in tech, the expectation is that someone will show up somewhere between business formal and business casual – dark skirt or pants, appropriately contrasting button-up shirt. Suit jacket optional. Tie for men optional but usually omitted (no one will look at you oddly if you wear it, though, unless it’s perhaps a gag tie).

              My ‘dressing it up’ was a teal shirt instead of a white or off-white, though that’s mostly because I couldn’t find an appropriate shirt in one of the few shades of cream that don’t make me look like I need to go seek medical care. White is *not* my best color.

              Day to day work varies from business very casual on down, except at the manager level. I’m arguably over-dressed today, in slacks and a button-up shirt with a collar. (I like the shirt, though, so life goes on.) T-shirts with pictures/words are more common, and one of my coworkers wears cargo shorts on the regular. (It’s 48 degrees outside. I think he’s nuts. But not for the business appearance of it; just because I’d be freezing every time I had to set foot outside the building, if I tried that.)

              1. Honeybee*

                I’m in tech too, and we have the same interview expectations – dressier than business casual, but not quite business formal (although no one would hold it against you if you showed up in a suit). For my interview I wore slim navy slacks, a light blue floral button front shirt and some black flats. It also kind of depends on the department – the SDE interviewees can go a little less formal, whereas marketing and program management need to go a little more formal. (That also reflects how we all dress on a regular basis at work, too).

        4. anonanonanon*

          I really think this might be a regional or industry thing, and I think it’s going a little far to say any women who wears a white blouse or all black is going to be viewed as an admin or assistant. It’s not out of place to see that on higher level employees at my office and I don’t think anyone is going to assume our department VP is a junior assistant because she’s wearing a little black suit and white blouse.

    2. the gold digger*

      I work in an office with almost all men. There are a few young women engineers – they volunteer disproportionately to organize and clean up after any kind of potluck or event. Makes me cringe. If I actually knew them, I would give them the Jules Rules.

      1. OP*

        Yeah I’m VERY conscious of stuff like that. I never do any of the birthday party/cake/card planning (although I love baking cakes), I never volunteer to make coffee at meetings, I don’t take minutes at meetings, etc. It sucks that I even have to think about that stuff, but it is what it is.

        1. olives*

          Yeah – when I first got into industry as an engineer I did a lot of that kind of thing. Over time I’ve noticed that nobody, and I mean nobody, else does. Ever.

          So I stopped. And now, even though I like to be conscientious and help out – I stop myself so that I don’t get trapped in that role.

          I wish there were a good way to divvy up these kinds of tasks among people, but from past experience, in general people (especially men) won’t chip in on social-lubricant tasks unless there’s a significant social or financial penalty involved.

  11. Mike C.*

    I wouldn’t blame you at all for putting your coworkers on the spot and directly asking them why they presume you are your boss’s secretary. This is really shitty behavior on behalf of your coworkers, I’m sorry. :(

  12. Elle*

    I am of the opinion that you could put whatever title you like wherever you want to put it, and it is not going to stop anyone. Your proximity to his office is the problem.

    1. fposte*

      Yup, I agree. Desk by boss’s door + female = admin.

      A guy at that desk isn’t going to be spared that completely either, but I would bet he’ll get it less.

      1. Ad Astra*

        It may also help that whichever guy they sit next to the boss’s office will have a longer tenure with the company, so coworkers are more likely to be aware of his function instead of assuming he’s an admin.

      2. KiwiLib*

        Could be an interesting experiment – swap desks with a male co-worker and see whether he gets the same things happening? (And if so, how quickly is it shut down?)

  13. Temperance*

    I think you need to stop answering calls from the front desk and reject any packages that are directed to you. When people treat me like a secretary, I respond by failing to do the secretarial tasks assumed to belong to me.

    I was able to get out of this by getting a bigger office away from the secretarial stations. See if you can do that.

  14. Meg Murry*

    Although to be fair, this may also be a situation where “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar”. After all, the people working at the front desk or in shipping and receiving often carry the rank of admin (or a rank lower than admin) and they are good people to have on your side, so it might be worth taking a walk down to the front desk one day during a non-crazy time and saying. “Hi, I’m Jane Smith, and I’ve been working in as a System Administrator in IT for about 6 months now. I notice whenever CTO has a visitor you and your staff call me to inform him. However, I am not CTO’s assistant – our department doesn’t have an assistant and he keeps his own calendar. In the future when he has guest please call his line directly, it’s extension 1234”. Or if CTO is often going from meeting to meeting, he may want the front desk to call his cell phone #, etc.

    I’ve found that it’s always a good idea to keep the front desk and shipping staff on your side, especially if they are the ones who have to buzz you in when you forget your ID badge, help out when you get a big delivery, need them to help you out when you accidentally have your personal Amazon packages shipped to work instead of home [been there, done that] etc. You don’t have to be apologetic about it, and you can put your foot down a little more forcefully after you’ve told them politely once or twice, but starting politely doesn’t hurt.

    Also, is there any chance that you got assigned the old phone that was at the desk you are in now, and that on old phone lists is might just say “IT department”? I worked at a place that whenever someone left it went on the phone list just as “XYZ department” and the newbie would get all the general calls for XYZ department for a few weeks/months (and sometimes years) until the lists were updated.

    1. evilintraining*

      Might also help to add a nameplate with your title. (Under the assumption that people actually read.)

    2. Connie-Lynne*

      Yes — for the front desk etc., a call or visit us in order anyway, since they won’t be up on her floor to see the physical relocation.

      Probably someone erroneously told them she’s the admin. I find with non-technical folks the phrase “engineer” or “engineering specialist,” while not strictly accurate, is useful in conversation to describe a Sysadmin’s function.

  15. Ad Astra*

    It wouldn’t be unreasonable at all for OP to ask her boss specifically to switch her desk with someone else’s. It’s not necessary to have unclaimed desk space available. It sounds like this office has plenty of men they can sit up front instead of OP.

  16. AnotherAlison*

    Has it been considered that the boss actually needs an admin assistant? I’m another technical-female-in-a-male-world, so I get it. But, if people are repeatedly having problems getting meetings with the boss, and the mail room can’t get his signature for packages, that needs to be addressed, too.

    1. OP*

      Yeah, he’s notoriously hard to get a hold of, not because he isn’t available, but because he will ignore his phone/emails when he’s working on something. That’s actually a really good point, it may be worth bringing up to him (at the same time I request a desk change) that he could use an admin to manage this stuff for him.

      1. TL -*

        No, don’t! It’s definitely not your job – let him figure it out or deal with the consequences. If you in particular have a hard time getting in touch with him, mention that you have a hard time doing so and let him know how it’s impacting your work – but you’re not an admin and you should not act like one, even insofar as to tell him he needs an admin.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          I would agree it’s not the OP’s job to point out that the Boss needs an admin. I don’t know how that part of the problem gets solved, but it is really aggravating when there is a senior person that you have to stalk to get an answer from. I think it’s somewhat natural that Tom-from-accounting would ask around whoever is nearby to try to find the Boss. (In this case, it’s gone beyond that and people clearly think the OP IS the admin.)

  17. OP*

    Thanks for the advice Alison (and everyone else)! I will definitely scout out the office and see if there are any open desks nearby. I think someone else in the department is leaving in a couple weeks, so I may try to snag his desk. Part of the reason it hasn’t been possible in the past is because our department is split up into two groups – my group is the two desks right in front of the CTO’s office, and the other group is further away. If I can convince my boss that this is important enough to allow me to sit with the other group, using some of the wording you guys have suggested, I may have a chance.

    1. Meg Murry*

      I know people shuffling cubes is annoying, but if one person is leaving anyway it might be worth discussing what the long term thoughts are for the group and whether it makes sense to do a moderate re-shuffle to allow for room for either/both groups to grow. Or maybe the person in the cube next to or across from your teammates could move to the newly vacated cube, and you could move there?

      If there is any chance the vacating person’s cube is moderately desirable for any reason (quieter corner, has a window, etc) I might try to plant that seed into one of the cube dwellers nearest to your group. This totally depends on your boss’s management style but for some of my previous bosses if we presented it as a done deal that just needs his rubber stamp “Bob leaves March 1st, so Joe is going to move into Bob’s cube and OP is going to move into Joe’s cube”.

      After all, the biggest pain in the butt about moving people around from cube to cube in my past experience was getting IT to make sure all the drops were activated in the cubes and getting the phones moved, but you guys should be able to have that covered :-)

    2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Honestly, I think your best bet is to be really direct with your boss in making this request:

      “Boss, I’d like to discuss moving my desk to Cluster B. As you know, a lot of people assume that I am your assistant, and I’m asked to do a lot of administrative tasks that don’t make sense for my work stream. To be frank, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m the only woman in the department. I’m frustrated that our team members are making a sexist generalization about me, and I think if I move away from your space it will help reinforce the fact that I am a Systems Administrator, like Deray and Marcus.”

  18. Jo*

    One other trick might be to straightforwardly question people.
    “can you let boss know he has so and so at front desk” – “why are you telling me this?”
    “Can you schedule a meeting for me with boss?” – “why are you asking me to do this?”
    – then let them either clearly say it is because they think you are his assistant, which you can then firmly correct, or they fumble around trying to make you uncomfortable and agree to do it just this once etc. As Captain Awkward would say, let it be uncomfortable. You have corrected them in the past, and they have not heeded your politer explanations, so time to call them out on this.

      1. junipergreen*

        Seconded! Appearing genuinely flummoxed about being asked to perform this task might be a helpful social cue.

  19. Pep*

    I had a similar situation – offices were for managers only and I was an analyst. My cubicle was outside my boss’s boss’s office. People treated me like her admin assistant all the time and I was purposefully never helpful – but that didn’t stop it from happening time and time again. When an office opened up I asked if I could have it and gave all the reasons why I needed one, despite not being a manager. And…I got it! Problem solved. I hope the OP has the same opportunity to move to a different desk. It made all the difference in the world.

  20. writelhd*

    For the people stopping by in person thing, would adding headphones as indicators of “I’m deep in concentration at my work right now” add to the message? Then you have go through the whole ritual to hit pause, take the earbuds out, and look at the person with general confusion before you get to your answer, which is “I don’t know, why would I know that?” The subtly would be lost on some, I like it in combination with Allison’s suggestion of directly saying “Just FYI, coming to me with that kind of thing is not only not my job, it breaks my concentration. Thanks.”

    1. Connie-Lynne*

      Oooh, that’s good. Admins generally can’t use headphones even in an open plan office so it sends a visual signal, too.

  21. Ultraviolet*

    I hope you’ll be able to move desks! I don’t think it will solve the whole problem though. It sounds like a lot of this is happening over the phone, and I’d bet that anyone who’s picked up that habit already won’t lose it right away if you get a new desk. So I think it would help if we could think of more things you could say to people treating you like an admin–specifically things you would feel comfortable saying to the higher-ups who are doing it.

    You mentioned that when you tell people you don’t do the mail/calendar/etc, they seem to think you’re joking or being grumpy. I’d be curious to hear exactly how they express that. Maybe we could figure out something to say in response.

    1. Ultraviolet*

      Also, if you’re not able to move to a different desk, can you rearrange the setup in the current room so that your back is to the entrance? That might help a little.

      1. MaggiePi*

        This was my thought too. Simply not facing out or towards his office or something may clue people in that you are not to be approached. Especially in combo with a name plaque and headphones.
        Depending on the layout, maybe some other visual barrier to block walk-up “access” to you.

      1. Ultraviolet*

        I’d be wary of getting a reputation as unresponsive or missing out on opportunities to impress. But if OP doesn’t think those are likely to be problems, then that could help!

    2. Ultraviolet*

      Maybe another thing you could say is, “Sorry, I know Boss can be hard to track down. I actually get a lot of people asking me to check his calendar or handle his mail or other admin-type things, and I just don’t have time to do those favors and still do my own job.”

      Or maybe (modifying BRR’s idea from above) you could say, “Sorry, none of us system engineers are able to do administrative things for Boss. He prefers to handle it all himself.” (I think this would still work if you prefer saying system administrators.)

      Or you could respond to some of these in-person requests (like people asking if boss is available or what his calendar’s like) by looking around the room and saying, “Hey guys, anyone know whether Boss is around?” Or on the phone, say, “Hold on, I’ll ask the rest of the engineers,” and then ask around.

  22. Cucumberzucchini*

    If you can’t get your office moved, instead of getting your name plate made for you, can you get one made for your CTO?

    Like one of those stand up signs like these (

    And have it read on one side:

    “CTO – Name Here – Is out of the office or on a call
    (Does Not Have Admin)
    To schedule a meeting:
    Phone – 123-123-1235
    Email –

    To drop off a package:
    Leave here with an arrow pointing below sign”

    or something similar. Then just point to it when people ask you about stuff. Then train him to turn it around when he leaves.

    1. Temperance*

      I actually think this will just project the idea that it’s her responsibility to be his assistant, and that people should be talking to her about issues with him. People will look at the sign and come over to her anyway.

  23. Stephanie*

    OP, I’ve seen a lot of passive-aggressive advice in here, and while there’s a small part of me that’s gleeful at the prospect, I don’t think it’s going to get you where you want to go. I recommend taking Alison’s advice. Moving your desk and being very straightforward; not just saying that you don’t perform that task, but that your role is not his assistant, and please stop assuming so because I’m female. Even lay out exactly what you do if someone isn’t getting it. “If you have a question or need regarding x, y, or z, I’d be happy to help.” If they still aren’t getting it, remind them of the previous conversation and ask why there is confusion. Don’t let their amnesia pass as acceptable; call them on the carpet. You don’t have to be rude or overly confrontational, just straightforward.

    Bringing gender into this may seem excessive, but it will get your point across much clearer, and this is a case where it would be appropriate. I don’t think that I would START with bringing gender into the conversation, but it seems you’ve tried being a reasonable, rational person already, and they don’t seem to be buying it. Their behavior is discrimination, and you have rights. Based on the field you are in, it’s probably ignorance and assumption rather than actual hazing, but either way, you have to be very clear and straightforward that the behavior is offensive to you. Being snide and acting confused won’t help you end the behavior or keep you in good standing with your colleagues.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I agree with this:
      “Bringing gender into this may seem excessive, but it will get your point across much clearer, and this is a case where it would be appropriate. I don’t think that I would START with bringing gender into the conversation, but it seems you’ve tried being a reasonable, rational person already, and they don’t seem to be buying it. Their behavior is discrimination, and you have rights. Based on the field you are in, it’s probably ignorance and assumption rather than actual hazing, but either way, you have to be very clear and straightforward that the behavior is offensive to you. Being snide and acting confused won’t help you end the behavior or keep you in good standing with your colleagues.”

      Start saying, “Look, just because I am a woman does not mean I am boss’s secretary. Please stop treating me as though I am. Boss doesn’t have a secretary. He schedules his own meetings and signs for his own packages. I am not his secretary, and it is frustrating to be interrupted and asked to do work that is not my job.”

      For the front desk, say, “I am not boss’s secretary. I’m in the middle of doing my own work, so I’m going to hang up, and you should call him to tell him his guest is here.” And then hang up. And don’t tell boss his guest is here. The third time, say, “Why do you keep calling me? I’ve told you, I’m not his secretary. I don’t want to be unhelpful, but I’m not his secretary, and I don’t like being interrupted for stuff that is not my job. You have his number–yes? Call him. Don’t call me again, please.”

      1. sam*

        You could also pull gender into the equation by playing a bit ‘dumb’ and turning it around on them – ask them “Is there a *particular* reason that you keep making the assumption that I’m boss’s secretary even though I’m a level 2 systems admin?”

        Then just sit quietly while they attempt to stammer out some explanation that *doesn’t* have to do with gender. And in this situation, I would very deliberately use “secretary”.

        For some reason, people tend to remember better after interactions like that.

        As a female lawyer who, on many occassions has been the ONLY female lawyer in a room, I feel your pain.

    2. Us, Too*

      I am not sure it is, necessarily, a gender thing. In my workplace, ANYONE who sits in the cube closest to someone’s office is going to be fielding a lot of questions about the person in that office. I sat near the kitchen for a while and I’d field questions about when the snacks would be resupplied. It’s a proximity thing. And, actually, to some degree it’s true. I actually DID know the snack refill schedule because I sat right there and observed the schedule every week. Just like when I set next to Head Honcho #7, I would know when he was out for the day vs. just in a meeting because I got to know his work habits (look for his briefcase under his desk).

      I bet if you put a man in that chair instead of a woman, he’d get interrupted, too. (perhaps not as much, I grant you). Because you know who sits right outside a C team member’s office typically? His assistant. :)

      1. TootsNYC*

        It’s one thing to say to a colleague, “Do you know where she is? Is she in today?” And if the mailroom guys walk over with a package and ask for the closest person to sign.

        It’s another to say, “Her guest is here at the front desk” without calling Dept Head first, or to say, “when is he free?”

        I don’t think the OP needs to say, “just because I’m a woman,” necessarily. But it might shock people enough that they’d remember, even if it wasn’t particularly true.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          It also sounds like there is a man in equal proximity, and he is not getting the same requests.

      2. Observer*

        Considering that she’s told people that she doesn’t do that and doesn’t know that, it’s NOT just a proximity thing.

    3. CharlieCakes*

      I agree, lots of passive-aggressive advice, which I know is not necessarily the intent of the advice…

      Be straight forward and neutral about it. Three strikes, then bring on the mean.

      Now, these people aren’t getting the hint. I get that. But if these people are already treating you like Peggy Olson, the last thing you need is to automatically become the office beezy (because that is what moronic, stuck in the 1940s, terrible people do…label you as simply as possible once you start giving them “sass”. Grrrr).

      Look confused? (You’ve hit a personal nerve with this one…) Please don’t do this, unless you are talking to Dr. Sheldon Cooper or someone who needs the added signals. I have two co-workers who exaggerate the confused look and it. is. infuriating. You asked a question. Comprendo. You want clarification on something. I understand. You furrowing your brow, mouth agape only makes me want to headbutt you and not answer your question.

  24. hbc*

    Repeat offenders need to be told that they’re repeat offenders. Either they really are forgetting, or they don’t get that all of their specific questions (“Has Boss gone home for the day?”, “Did Boss get that package?”, “Can you find out if Boss can meet tomorrow morning?”, etc) all have the same answer…which you’ve already given them.

    Off the cuff, I’d go with, “Same answer as last time, I don’t know.” Just a nudge to make the connection with all of their other visits.

  25. Sheepla*

    I haven’t read all the responses, but I had a similar situation. I’m a lawyer and due to space restraints I was temporarily put in a cube that was essentially an admin cube right by the executive offices. Not only did I get asked about the execs schedules, I was asked to sign for packages, fill the printer, find more coffee cups. My standard reply “I don’t think I am who you think I am” and back to work.

    1. Temperance*

      That happened to me as well while my office was being built. I will never, ever forget the jerk who walked BEHIND MY DESK to look at my phone after he asked me whether “Mr. Smith” (person whose office I was seated outside of) was available. I point-blank stared at him and said “I don’t know, I’m not a secretary”, so the jerk walked BEHIND ME to check my phone to see if his line was lit up on it.

      My response was to ask him why he did that, and remind him that I’m not a secretary and I don’t answer “Mr. Smith’s” calls, and to tell him that Jack’s secretary was down the hall if he didn’t want to bother Jack.

      He didn’t get the message and came back to me again. I was even less nice. I also let his boss know that the intern was assuming that women in the firm are secretaries by default.

  26. Crabby PM*

    This happened to me and it is a real problem if you are a woman, especially a young woman. The amount of time it takes up in your day is more than you think.

    When I first started as a project manager at this ad agency 15 years ago, they stuck me at a random open table outside a VP’s office and you can guess how that worked out. I would be leading a conference call, and people would literally hover at my desk for 10, 15 minutes, expecting me to stop so they could ask me if VP was available. I got to the point where I would tell the call, “Please hang on, someone is standing here” and the whole call (involving people from the office) would come to a screeching halt while some junior strategist would ask me if they could make an appointment. I would explain that I didn’t work for the VP. I finally made a sign and put it on my desk reading, “Hello, I am Crabby PM. I am a PM who reports to Big Cheese. I am not VP’s AA. VP does not have an AA, please contact them directly with your questions.” People complained that the sign was “rude” and I was asked to take it down.

    My manager recognized the problem, and moved me to his side of the office, because it was actually better for us to be closer to each other. This was an older company that had been around for decades and so had their office furniture. There was this huge stylized 3/4 cube, the kind that secretaries used to be given in the 70s. But the one near my manager was behind a pillar, which is why most people didn’t want it. I, of course, was thrilled. But that did not end the problem; in fact, it made it worse. I got called down to HR a week later because apparently some big honcho came to visit a neighboring executive and I was on a conference call and literally *did not see him because of the column*. His complaint was that I had “blatantly ignored him” and I pointed out that it wasn’t my job to pay attention to anyone except my manager or people on my team and I LITERALLY DID NOT SEE HIM.

    When my contract there ended I packed up with glee.

    1. BadPlanning*

      I don’t know what’s more disappointing — Obnoxious Big Wig or HR failing to say, “Dude, she’s not an admin, what are you complaining about, exactly?”

  27. animaniactoo*

    “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.”

    Have you tried calmly responding to this with “No, really, I don’t do that for him. Check with him. He’ll tell you the same thing.”?

    Either way, I would try to talk to your boss again. He’s laughing when you’re telling him about this, but in part because it’s incident-by-incident. A la Alison’s advice last week, you need to raise it with him as a big picture pattern thing rather than each small one, and have HIM (I assume he’s willing to do this) talk to people and tell them that, no, actually, you are not his admin/asst. So they should stop going to you about [__].

    In part, he needs to do that because if your dept is the only one without an admin, while the optics look worse for you, whoever is at that desk is likely to have the same thing happening to them, so I think that’s the way it needs to be approached. Moving a guy into that desk is just going to mean it happens to the guy (although, likely, to a lesser degree).

    Also, having read through some of your other postings, I would answer the repeat offenders: “Didn’t we have this conversation last week?” Start pointing out that you’re having the same convos over again *to them*. “Is Bob free?” “Didn’t we have this conversation last week?” “Do you know when Bob will have time for a meeting today?” “Didn’t we have this conversation last week?” The goal is to relatively politely make it harder for them to walk away feeling as if nothing wrong has happened.

  28. animaniactoo*

    Another thought – a pattern to be aware of. You didn’t say if this is happening or not, but if you’re telling your boss right after incidents are happening, is he actually getting the message via you, and therefore people are successfully getting to him through you, even after you say you don’t do that? So now he knows Frank wants to schedule a meeting, and Frank gets e-mailed or called to say “Hi, I hear you want to schedule a meeting, I have ___ free”? If so, that’s a piece you can break right now, by not telling him about the incidents in the moment. Or not mentioning the particular offender. If you tell him without telling him the offender’s name, it may register with him more often how often he is hearing this from you, without the sidetrack that takes over that it was Frank and he has to schedule a meeting with Frank.

  29. Thebe*

    I feel your pain, OP. Our office had an open desk plan and there was no receptionist at first. I was right in front and people would ask me to sign for packages, tell people they had visitors, direct them to the right office, etc. I’d like to think I’m a nice gal, but I’m not a people person and resent being interrupted.

    After a few weeks of the entire office cringing every time someone interrupted me (half the time I was curt and the other half I honestly didn’t know what to do) they hired a male receptionist. People still came to me instead. The poor guy had to practically leap in front of them to head them off.

    Finally I donned a set of headphones. Problem immediately disappeared. Sometimes I wouldn’t even connect them to anything — just let the cord dangle.

    Maybe I’m extra sensitive about this because I live on the first floor of my apartment building: Apt. 1. Delivery people often won’t read the apartment number on the package and just ring my bell. Now I never answer my doorbell. Obviously I need to move to a mountain eyrie somewhere.

    1. BadPlanning*

      Ha, I’m having a fun mental image of the receptionist diving in front of people to block them from you. Then the visitor, “Oh no, I don’t need you, I need that nice secretary over there.” And actual receptionist being all, “No, this is my job!! I am the one that you want!!”

  30. Macedon*

    I’ve been in your shoes to the point where a highly-ranked supervisor (who made the apparently obligatory assumptions about a new female hire in an all-male team in a male-led corner of the industry) snapped his fingers at me, following his instructions to pass on a message for a male colleague.

    My advice is: make it awkward.

    Subtlety is not key here. When called on for admin duties, dramatically stop whatever you are doing. Look them straight in the eye. Let at least ten mentally counted seconds pass as you level your best stare as the punks increasingly start to question if they feel lucky. Then, frigidly say, “Where you misinformed that I am his secretary?”

    When they apologise, keep staring. Pin your eyes to their back as they crawl away. Make it embarrassing. They deserve it.

    1. SJ*

      “Let at least ten mentally counted seconds pass as you level your best stare as the punks increasingly start to question if they feel lucky.”

      I snorted.

  31. Rubyrose*

    For the repeat offenders who come to your desk – sorry, I don’t think a nameplate will do it.

    On paper, in the largest letters you can: I am not Bob’s admin. With a smiley face.

    For repeats, have it ready to either point to or put in their hands. And continue on with your work, ignoring them.

  32. SJ*

    “* 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.”

    uuuugh, I wish this worked with one of my chatty and boring coworkers… though after 2.5 years I still haven’t figured out if she just doesn’t notice the cues or just doesn’t care.

  33. HRish Dude*

    If you can get away with it – headphones. Biggest, brightest headphones you can find.

    Nothing says, “I am not here to serve the public,” like headphones.

  34. Lora*

    Maybe because I have had a crappy day, my suggestion would be to…just stop doing those requests. Just say you’re not Bob’s admin, you don’t handle that and they should see Bob directly. And then go back to doing your work. Make a small sign, and just point at it, don’t even stop what you’re doing. As if work isn’t demanding enough, it’s too bad you have to put up with that nonsense.

  35. Marcy Marketer*

    A really similar thing happened to me to a lesser extent. I work in a primarily female department, and two new hires (both older men) wanted me to consult on a project they were leading. They’d send me emails asking me when I was free, and I got a strong impression that they wanted me to schedule the meeting for everyone. I wasn’t the project lead, so that wasn’t my responsibility, and it just felt gender-y. I just responded, “My Outlook calendar is up to date. Please feel free to send a meeting request using the attendee scheduler!” a couple of different times, and they eventually got the hint. I think they secretly thought I was being unhelpful, but I really didn’t care. Now they schedule their own meetings like pros!

    Of course no one was trying to get me to schedule meetings for my boss, but you could try that line a couple of times and see what happens. Also it’s tough, but definitely refrain from offering to help them use the meeting request feature. Also refrain from telling them to reach out to you if they have questions.

    1. Marcy Marketer*

      Okay I just thought of another funny one… another new, older male hire (say, Andrew) was not doing something he had to do in our software. He kept scheduling meetings with me or calling me in order to get me to do it for him. I would always reply, “Traditionally, this is something that Fergus provides support on. Have you tried contacting Fergus?” I came to learn that Fergus wasn’t being helpful in the way that Andrew wanted, so rather than pressuring Fergus, Andrew decided to pressure me (three guesses why…). On the final phone call, this was our conversation:
      “I’m trying to get X done. Would you be able to do it for me?”
      “Hmm… well, this is something you’re expected to do, so why don’t I walk you through completing it.”
      “Well why can’t you just do it?”
      “Your position is expected to input this into the software. Let me just teach you how to do it real quick that way you can do it in the future.”
      “Can’t you just do it this time? I really don’t have time to do it.”
      “It’ll just take a second. Open up your browser and navigate to this page.”
      “Nevermind. Thanks for your help.” Click.

      Turns out his boss had been sitting on the phone line the whole time. Luckily, I had let my boss know about this problem and the steps I was taking to resolve it, so when his boss brought it up, my boss was able to respond in a way that supported me. I think his boss said something like, “Marcy can do it so much faster than Andrew, so why couldn’t she just do this for him.” My boss said, “If Marcy did Andrew’s job, and everyone else’s, every time they asked, she wouldn’t be able to do her job, and then she’d be fired, so….”

  36. Clewgarnet*

    I was in a similar situation to OP – the only female network engineer, and sitting next to my head of department. Because I was the senior engineer, my HoD was reluctant for me to change desk away from him.

    What eventually stopped it was to give up wearing reasonably smart clothes (leggings, tunic-style top, knee-length boots) and dress in the same scruffy jeans, geeky t-shirt and Doc Martens as the other engineers. It’s a bit of a nuisance – jeans aren’t as comfortable as leggings! – but it seems to stamp my ‘engineering cred’.

  37. Sam*

    I found that redirecting folks to someone who is an admin helps too. I was the only female (nationwide) in the IT group at my old job sooooooo, I can relate. My cube was near the conference rooms though, so I got bazillon questions about room availability, even though EVERYONE had rights to the conference room calendar. One time I was working with a colleague in another state enabling a feature for the video conferencing system that was reserved for SVPs and up. His senior guy was in my office and once we got him situation, he asked me to setup a pitcher of water and a little bit of ice for him. Mind you, I’m on the phone with his IT guy, doing all sorts of nerd-ery. I made a confused face and told him “Pitchers? gosh, I’m not sure where the admins keep those. Why don’t we call them and have them set you up with that” He turned beet red, stammered a bit then mumbled “thanks let them know I’m here” *side note: setting up water pitchers for meetings was well within the admin duties at this place*

    1. Milena*

      We had a client come in to film a webinar…the woman as the owner of the company. My boss introduced her to me and said I am his right hand and that I actually make everything happen. Then he asked her how she took her coffee and asked me to bring it to her in this other room! I just said “ok that sounds good” and brought it back. I get it, a CEO of a company. HOWEVER he then had a short casual meeting with 2 people, one internal and one client. My boss asked me to put hot water in his tea travel mug..and being it into the meeting. I honestly was thinking WTF! Then after the meeting, he said I’m really sorry I had to do that but I didn’t want him waiting and I needed my tea and you were there.” I can see some people being offended but I just basically think “What’s helping him?” as I am an assistant to many and actually am not an admin. asst. I am a sales assistant and manage ad campaigns…it’s a definite mix of crazy every day!

  38. Milena*

    That is very good advice. I am sort of in a similar situation where I am actually his assistant and assist about 20 other people. Because of his level in the organization everyone assumes I manage his calendar, answer his phone and book his flights. He only has help with booking flights and our admin asst. does that. I am seated outside of his office in a cube, but It’s a good spot and we do work closely on everything else. I really like this advice, I actually just accepted the fact others assume he has a C level assistant because it doesn’t hurt either of us LOL.

  39. Liv*

    this happens to me often. I am a project accountant for a private disaster recovery business. I am usually the only female on the team and the only money person on the job… my industry is very male dominated with high turn overs and when a new super or project manager tries to treat me as their assistant I will address it if it continues I will all them what my signature line says on my email. that usually Stops it dead. a few times a new person will go to my boss and email him (he’s the cop) and he will stand firm that I’m not there for them but to make sure the job is being billed correctly and we are being paid according to our contract as well as I write up contacts and bids.
    there’s two other women who do what I do all have reputations for being a butch but it’s only because we refuse to bend to these jerks behavior. stay strong and demand to move

  40. Goya*

    I think some of it has to do with the gender roles/antiquated rules…but I think some of it has to do with laziness! People are lazy and don’t like to wait for information.

    I am my boss’s admin. asst. However, another employee (not my superior), sits directly across the hall from the boss. I sit next to him (not in direct line of sight to my Supervisors office – don’t ask me why it’s that way it just “always has been”). The front office will frequently call my co-worker to see if my boss is in her office. Not because he’s her admin asst. but because if they call me, I would have to put them on hold to get up and check the office, which might take all of 2 minutes, oh the horrors! If they call him, he can lean around his screen and give a yes/no. He and I have talked to the front frequently, but as they’ve been here longer than us, they aren’t required to change. So he and I actually get a perverse pleasure out of making things difficult for them, ie: me answering his phone and still putting them on hold, him putting them on hold and forgetting about them.

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