my male colleagues stick our assistant with all the clean-up after meetings

A reader writes:

I am a woman on a largely male management team at a nonprofit. Some of the management team members attend board meetings, including me. The executive director’s assistant, who is female, sets up snacks and coffee and occasionally more substantial buffet-type food for those meetings, which run into the early evening. At the end of the meeting, everyone leaves. The assistant stays alone to tidy up the food and put things away. There are often dirty dishes to wash, paper cups and plates to throw away, food to repackage and store, garbage to go out, and so on. It makes me crazy to leave her alone to do this — it just seems so rude and thoughtless. Ideally, everyone would tidy their own stuff and at least some people would pitch in to help her with the rest and we could all go home when everything was done.

I am new to the organization, so I’m trying to figure out how to deal with this. Sometimes, I help with the clean-up at least a little bit and I have stayed longer when there’s more work. However, I am wary about how my male management team colleagues view me when I do that. I feel like it feeds the cultural stereotype of “women’s work,” which is typically valued less than “men’s work” and also that when they see me working side by side with the exec’s assistant, they may subconsciously associate me with an assistant. It feels terrible to even think that — there’s nothing wrong with being an assistant — but I want to be seen as the leader that I aspire to be. It feels really weird to be up to my elbows in dish soap while my male colleagues walk by and wish me a cheery “good night.”

This is definitely my problem, not the assistant’s. She’s been doing this for years and while she’s happy and appreciative when I do help, she doesn’t expect it — she sees it as her job.

I feel like my choices are to grit my teeth and leave the building with everyone else or do what I think is right by pitching in and just try to stop feeling weird about it. It’s not something I’m very comfortable bringing up for discussion. Do you have any other suggestions?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 242 comments… read them below }

  1. Marisol*

    For the love of God OP, please take Alison’s advice. I am an executive assistant, whose boss is a man, in a field dominated by men, and while plenty of things about my workplace piss me off, doing my job duties is NOT one of them. As one woman to another, I urge you to resist the temptation to help the admin out. It WILL almost assuredly make you lose political capital. The cause of women’s equality is better served by you standing in your power as an executive, not by lowering yourself to a position of lesser status.

        1. Marisol*

          Thank you Sadsack. I expected some folks to take issue with that word, but I use it advisedly. I suppose someone could argue that it *shouldn’t* be work of lesser status (although I wouldn’t say that) but I don’t think anyone can successfully argue that it *isn’t* work of lesser status.

      1. TootsNYC*

        Or maybe not lesser status–but lesser difficulty, lesser specialization, lesser requirements.

        It’s valuable work–it’s just not work that needs a higher paycheck to find someone qualified to take it on.

        1. Marisol*

          I think what ultimately determines someone’s “status” is how they are viewed by others. Who has more status: a doctor, or a janitor? A CEO, or a cab-driver? And so on. The answer is obvious in each case. I’m actually more troubled by the description you offer than by the term status–it stings a little, although I can’t disagree with you for the most part.

          1. Christopher Tracy*

            Yeah, I didn’t like “lesser difficulty” either because being an executive assistant for high-level people is very difficult work. Not everyone can do it. The EAs at my company have to have advanced computer skills to compile statistical reports for the SVPs/VPs/AVPs, coordinate travel for multiple people for out of town/out of country audits, and basically run our divisions when senior management is away.

    1. BTownGirl*

      Another longtime admin here and I agree! The only time I’ve ever had an issue along these lines was years ago when when one of the female coworkers I was tangentially supporting asked me to start cleaning everyone’s leftover dishes in the office kitchen. Not dishes from meetings, just everyday lunch containers. I said I’d love to help out, but I honestly didn’t have time (and that was true). No one made an issue of it, but the idea of doing people’s personal dishes did annoy me a tinge.

        1. BTownGirl*

          Thank you! :) I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it, but I wasn’t their nanny/housekeeper/mama/wife haha!

        1. BTownGirl*

          *High five*! Sometimes you really do have to draw the line between “I’m here to make it easier for you to do your job” and “I’m here to wait on you hand and foot”.

          1. OhBehave*

            YES! An email circulates around our office about every 6 months reminding everyone that the Admin is not your mother! Clean up after yourselves.

            I would hope that those mentioned in OP’s letter at least throw away their own stuff!

            1. Christina*

              (Side note–someone left a sign like this on the microwave in my old office, “You’re mother doesn’t work here, clean up after yourself.” I added a note “Your mother shouldn’t be cleaning up after you either.”)

  2. Moonsaults*

    I would like to add the voice of a woman who has been an executive assistant for the majority of my career, even though I’ve had a different title and role encompasses handling human resources and complete office management, it all boils down to the same thing in the end, I assist the owner/general manager of the company, including grunt work.

    We are there to do this kind of set up, tear down, clean up. It’s one of the multiple things that are on our plates and I have never felt it was due to anyone else within the business putting it on me for being “the woman” in the company. I have always been treated with the utmost respect and appreciation by my bosses.

    Whereas it’s nice to have people at least bus their own tables, it’s not always a possibility if someone has to run from that meeting to the next one to keep up with the pace of whatever their job demands. As long as they aren’t making the job harder on purpose or making snide comments, then it’s really not that big of deal.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      We are there to do this kind of set up, tear down, clean up.

      And I think it’s important to think of this as set-up and tear-down, as opposed to “doing the dishes.”

  3. Tennessee INFP*

    Props on a great answer here Alison. I don’t comment much but really thought this was a great answer and wanted to let you know. When I first read OP’s letter I was hoping you would answer exactly like you did.

  4. Leatherwings*

    I think that focusing on an assistant cleaning things up is like putting a band-aid on a broken bone – it’s treating the wrong symptom of a much bigger issue which is that women are promoted less often, put in support roles more often, and given management positions less often. AAM is right on point here about hiring women managers and promoting women from support roles to other roles (if applicable). That’ll even out gender imbalances and discomfort far more than a bunch of managers pitching in on event cleanup.

    1. Anna*

      Exactly, precisely what I was thinking. She is doing her job, which is not gendered. She is a woman in a support role, which tends to be gendered. But this is not the hill to die on with that issue.

  5. Dust Bunny*

    (I say this as an assistant who is also a woman) sometimes it’s tempting to see sexism where there isn’t necessarily any.

    This sounds like a totally normal part of job duties for certain positions. I used to do this for lunch meetings for one of our related organizations (until they changed format. Now another assistant does it). It’s not because I’m a woman or he’s a minority or whatever: It’s because we’re assistants and this is part of what we do. I also sweep dead bugs out of the overhead lights when the crickets get really bad in the summer since this is beyond the scope of duties of our regular housekeeper.

    The issue of it being a man-heavy field may be a concern, but this is not the place to fight that battle. If she were another admin of supposedly-equal professional status and they were leaving her to fetch coffee and do housekeeping, that would be an issue, but she’s not, and you’re kind of making it worse by skipping out of your management job to do the “women’s work” while they move on to actual management. You’re part of the management team: You would serve everyone better by enlisting another assistant or one of the janitorial staff to help her if there is too much cleanup to do in a reasonable amount of time.

  6. valereee*

    OP, if the boss’s assistant were a man, would you feel you needed to help him clean up after meetings? I think you are likely hurting yourself in your mostly-male environment by seeming to PERCEIVE this as “womens’ work” when you stay to help. It’s not womens’ work. It’s assistants’ work.

  7. Grey*

    Yeah. This isn’t necessarily a gender thing. When senior management visits my site, I do the same thing. And the roles are reversed. I’m a man, they’re women.

    1. Generic Username*

      Yep, same here. I’m a male admin in a female dominated industry. (Although everyone generally pitches in with the cleaning up afterwards, but that’s more our office culture).

      1. Vanesa*

        I understand what everyone is saying but I think it’s so frustrating when people don’t pick up their own plates. I’m not an admin, but the way I grew up and was raised I would never just leave my dirty dishes on the table when it doesn’t take long to throw it away. It’s just so frustrating that sometimes upper management can’t walk to the kitchen to get their own lunch or even water. I think more than sex/gender it has to do with class.

        1. Jaguar*

          Yeah. A lot of the discussion here has focused on who is tasked with cleanup, which I think is besides the point. Nobody should be tasked with it. People should be expected to clean up their own messes. I don’t feel uncomfortable with the idea of administrators planning meetings / ordering food / arranging things. That’s work that takes time and it makes sense to have someone responsible for it. Cleaning up after yourself is such a basic expectation of civilised society. The idea that someone is too busy/important/whatever to clean up after themselves is not something I can agree with.

          1. Vanesa*

            I completely agree. That’s what bother me the most too I think that cleaning up after yourself is something everyone should just do. No one is too important/busy/whatever to do this. I mean it’s a simple task that everyone should take care of for themselves.

            1. thomast*

              Even if every meeting attendee takes their paper plates/cups/napkins to the trash after sweeping any crumbs onto the plate, there’s still packing and putting away the food left on trays, the unused paper goods, etc. That’s what the OP seems to mostly be talking about.

            2. Jaydee*

              I think it makes sense to say to the other managers, “Hey, let’s make things easier for Jane by clearing our own stuff before we leave.” Then Jane has less to deal with as far as bussing dishes and dealing with other people’s food mess and can focus on clearing away papers, binders, packing up the projector, etc.

          2. TootsNYC*

            well, I’ll dump my own plate in the trash, but I’m not dealing w/ leftovers or wiping the smears off the table.

            Whoever’s in charge of setting up the lunch can do the breakdown.

            If I organize a birthday lunch, or something, for the people who work for me, I do the setup and the breakdown. I may be the manager, but it’s “my” mess, even if it isn’t my personal one, bcs I had the task of creating the event.

            If I’m a luncheon attendee, I’m not cleaning up anything but the plates, etc., that I personally used. It’s not my mess.

            1. Vanesa*

              Yeah, that’s I am saying. That everyone should clean up their own personal mess. I understand it’s the admins job to set up and break down, but picking up your mess/crumbs you left on the table is just common courtesy!

  8. Jared*

    I have experienced something similar but by being a healthy-looking male in my mid-30s it has been expected by female bosses in the past that I would do all heavy lifting, assembling of furniture, and various other “male” tasks — many of which I am not at all suited for and which were not part of my job duties.

    1. Retail HR Guy*

      But that’s not similar at all. What OP is describing are the executive assistant’s actual job duties.

    2. Moonsaults*

      This reminds me of when I just grabbed my boss’s newly purchased office chair and started assembling it. He’s a very able bodied man and I’m a woman. It was one of those moments where he didn’t expect it, he figured someone would put it together, some day if he was lucky. I just happened to do it right then.

      Whereas I get so many sexist weird remarks from others who are not within the company more than anything. They see me doing “dirty jobs” (you know, those ones that require I get out of a chair and go look at a truck before it’s unloaded, oh heaven forbid!!) and they’re like “Oh you’re not one of them prissy princess girls I see.” Yeah…and I’m the one with the bad people skills. Goodness gracious the crap that falls out of the mouths of some people, let alone their misguided expectations.

      1. afiendishthingy*

        “It was one of those moments where he didn’t expect it, he figured someone would put it together, some day if he was lucky. I just happened to do it right then.”

        I’ve had a shelving unit in a box in my apartment for literally YEARS because I’ve been holding out the same hope.

        1. Moonsaults*

          LOL, I do this with my own furniture or shelves. I bought the wrong screws awhile back, probably six months or so, that shelf will hang itself…maybe before I move or maybe not.

      2. Temperance*

        I LOVE building furniture. I don’t do it at work, but it’s totally my thing at home. And I AM one of those “prissy princess girls”.

      3. Koko*

        Our culture seriously has no idea what to do with athletic women. The Olympics reporting coverage made that quite clear.

        There was a great quote circulating on Facebook from the women’s shot put gold medalist talking about how she loves hair and makeup and clothes and she loves the shot put and she’s never been able to separate the two. And she shouldn’t have to! Our society puts forth this idea that “real” women don’t do sports, only “masculine women” (often called tomboys when young, because we can’t just call a girl who like sports a girl). Sigh.

        1. Moonsaults*

          That lead to many of my massive insecurities when I was younger. Being a taller and physically stronger woman, many people made it out to be characteristics that meant I shouldn’t even try to bother with fashion or make-up, etc that my build and athletic abilities meant I wasn’t capable of being pretty. It took me until my late 20s to push that all away and say “No, I’m strong and pretty, you can all learn to deal with that.”

    3. Kiki*

      After two years of weightlifting competitively, the guys now ask me to move heavy stuff and open jars. Cracks me UP. I’m 58, female, 5′ 2″. And strong as [inappropriate word here].

      1. Barefoot Librarian*

        This is awesome! My brother once caught himself handing me a jar that he couldn’t open. He was having a conversation with someone and just did it impulsively. I, being the burly woman that I am, opened it and handed it back. We both had a good laugh over it, but it pleased me immensely that he didn’t have any sexist notions about a girl not being able to open a jar that a guy didn’t. :D

    4. Koko*

      As a woman who lift weights–not enough to give me a bodybuilder’s figure or anything, but enough that I can pick up and carry just about everything you would ordinarily encounter in a normal office–one of the things that annoys me most is men insisting on carrying heavy objects for me. It’s fine to offer, but damn if they aren’t always so. persistent. about insisting that I shouldn’t carry a box of copy paper by myself. It’s vaguely insulting, not so much the assumption that I’m weak (which is annoying but less offensive because it’s a reasonable assumption to make even if wrong), but that after I tell him I’ve got it, he apparently thinks I’m incapable of assessing my own strength or foolishly overestimating myself.

      I deadlift 115 and squat 135. I think I can handle 50 lbs of paper in a box with handles.

      1. Kiki*

        They used to do that with me as well, until I told them I pull 300. In other words, I can deadlift THEM and their sister. ha ha Seriously, that’s what changed it up around here. That said, though, HR actually doesn’t want us lifting anything, they are worried about workplace injury. Just be firm, and hey put some weight on that bar. You’ve got this.

        1. Wednesday*

          My response to those types of overly-helpful people is usually something like “I toss people around in Judo. This is nothing.”
          On the flip side, I’m now known as the “one with muscles” for hard jobs around the lab and putting together new furniture that comes in (also being materials management).

          I like doing that stuff though, so I’m happy.

    5. Julie*

      I think a more apt comparison would be a (male) manager in a female-dominated office being worried that the (male) maintenance guy was constantly putting together the furniture, doing heavy lifting, etc. and felt the need to help out. It’s not because the maintenance guy is male that he’s doing all the heavy lifting, it’s because it’s part of his job to lug around the bags of salt for the parking lot or whatever.

      Similarly, the executive director’s assistant isn’t cleaning up from the meeting because she’s female, it’s because clean-up from meetings is part of her job. (As someone who used to hold this role at a number of organizations, I can confirm that a lot of time this sort of clean-up does indeed fall under the assistant’s job description.)

    6. Jenna*

      I’m a woman, and I was in charge of picking up the mail from the post office box. There were as many as twenty full buckets of mail, and I was the one who moved them all into a vehicle, drove them to the office, moved them into the office, and sorted the(frankly sometimes really dirty) mail. Rain or shine.
      I actually loved this part of my job. I got to get out of the office and move around, and I liked it FAR more than data entry. It was also part of the reason I got to dress in far more casual clothes and shoes than most people in the office. However, some people in the office would ask me why I didn’t ask one of the guys to do it. Because it’s part of my job duties, not theirs, and I actually like it better than some other tasks?
      Here’s the thing, though.
      Part of the reason that I was ok with moving heavy stuff was that I was permitted to dress in a way that made it safe and reasonable. If I had had to do all that in a skirt and heels? No. Someone wearing pants and stable shoes gets to do all that. Same goes for anything up a ladder, or requiring balance. I have enough trouble just walking in heels and a skirt when dress codes require. I hate heels so much.
      I wear pants and shoes that I feel stable in any chance I get.

      1. Rana*

        Oh, man. That just gave me flashbacks to one of my high school jobs. I was hired to be a stockroom clerk at a department store, and most of the people in that job wore t-shirts and jeans (because, you know, the job involves a lot of lifting and box-wrangling and you’re in the back room 100% of the time, so who cares?). But because I was new, and young, and female, they wanted me to be able to fill in with dressing room duties from time to time, which meant I had to dress like the main floor staff… in nylons, skirts, and heels. UGH.

  9. copy run start*

    I think this demonstrates the social conditioning women are subjected to. I’d hazard most of the men aren’t worried about the female assistant cleaning up. Personally, I know I’d be resisting an urge to help her too, since I was raised in a very traditional family where the women and female children were expected to assist with cooking and cleaning while the men socialized. It’s very hard for me to not pitch in whenever I see someone cleaning up.

    1. Leatherwings*

      Really good point. I don’t think anyone should worry about the assistant cleaning things up (but those people should instead be worrying about getting women in management roles), but if the LW is indeed a woman, it’s definitely demonstrative of social conditioning that she’s the one concerned about it and wants to pitch in.

    2. Jaguar*

      No, I a guy and used to feel compelled to help out when I was in a company that did a lot of catered lunches / other stuff that required the admins to clean up. All but one of the admins were women, and I would help out when the one male admin was left with a cleanup task as well – the compulsion is exactly the same in me at least. I think I did lose some “political capital,” as mentioned above, but I also bristle at the idea of politics so I didn’t care.

      I always found it an awkward position to be in. I hated the feeling that I was above doing that kind of work (and I personally hate leaving a mess – I scrupulously clean up after myself even at McDonalds and am aghast when people just leave all their garbage on the table), but I felt like I was patronizing the admins if I did help out. The patronizing feeling felt less bad, though, so that’s what won out.

      1. Leatherwings*

        I don’t think copy run start was implying dudes never feel that compulsion, just that it’s more likely that women do because there’s a lot of social pressure around that, that’s all.

        1. Marisol*

          Yeah, Jaguar, good on ‘ya for being a guy who cleans up after himself, but you are not typical, and women definitely are socialized to do the cleaning. If you don’t believe me, just observe your family this Thanksgiving and see how many men, besides you, are doing the chores in the kitchen, versus socializing in the living room. Now I don’t know your family obviously and you may be a model of progressive thinking but…hopefully you see my point.

          1. Jaguar*

            Hah. I may not be typical. We have holiday meals on my mom’s side, and she has three sisters and one brother. My uncle helps with the cleaning, but by numbers alone, it winds up being women doing most of the work. My aunt’s (30+ year) boyfriend does the vast majority of the cooking.

            In my immediate family, I have two brothers and no sisters. Growing up, everyone cooked and everyone cleaned. Typically, my dad prepares most meals and does leftover dishes.

            1. Temperance*

              Ugh. My family “tradition” is that the menfolk watch football while the womenfolk clean up after them. It’s disgusting.

              1. Anon7*

                Same. I’m the only female in my family (brother, dad, and uncles), and there is nothing so irritating as hearing the yearly round of “We should all get together and have a nice meal and relax!” I’m always tempted to reply, “Relax? Sure, how about this year I relax and you guys clean up for a change?”

                It’s no surprise that last year, when I simply refused to clean up after them, they all pitched a fit about how much work it was to clean up after this big meal, and how maybe it wasn’t worth it, and did they really need to cook all this food? Funny how none of them ever thought of that before, when I was doing the clean up all by myself.

              2. Barefoot Librarian*

                This absolutely rubs me the wrong way. I remember being at a boyfriend’s house for Thanksgiving when I was in high school. It was my first exposure to this type of thing (my house was very egalitarian). I helped the women do the cooking and meal prep, then everyone ate, and the guys went to watch football while the women cleaned up. I put my foot down and told off the guys (I had been dating this guy for a while at that point and felt I knew them well enough). It did shame them into getting up and helping that one time, but sadly it didn’t last. They were back at the TV as soon as I stopped paying attention. Bleh.

              3. Al Lo*

                When I was a kid, our family tradition at Christmas dinner was to draw jobs — clearing the table, washing, drying, putting away, cleaning up wrapping paper (everyone wanted that one, because it took the least time), etc. I don’t know when that stopped, but I definitely remember it being a part of childhood Christmas at my grandma’s house.

            2. Pickwick the Dodo*

              My fiancé is an amazing man who ~always~ helps clean up after big meals. In fact, he’ll clean up even when we eat at my parents house! I feel like I’m fighting back at the patriarchy because I tend to sit around and socialize instead of clearing up (but actually I’m just naturally lazy and messy).

          2. Aim away from face*

            >observe your family this Thanksgiving and see how many men, besides you, are doing the chores in the kitchen, versus socializing in the living room.

            I noticed exactly this when I was a kid growing up in the 80s. Men smoking in the living room watching TV, women cleaning up and doing the dishes. I decided then and there that my gender would never relegate me to clean-up duty.

            1. Your Weird Uncle*

              YESSSSSSSSS. Me too. (I was a stubborn kid and would hide in my room and read after dinner, but now that I think about how often I got away with it, I look back with a smile….)

              I have a fiance who will do the cleaning up after dinner, including but not limited to family holiday dinners where my brother-in-law will sit on the couch and fall asleep and let my sister do the washing up AND looking after their children. My fiance and I are working really hard on breaking this cycle with his two young sons. Even if my dad/uncles/brother-in-law want to sit in front of the tv after Thanksgiving, it gives me some hope that my fiance and I are making a difference for the future, by teaching them that yes, men are responsible for their share of making a household run.

          3. James*

            I would disagree. Maybe in some areas it’s expected for men not to help, but my experience has always been that men are just as willing to help clean as the women.

            I’m not saying “…and therefore sexism isn’t a thing”. Rather, I’m just pointing out that this concept isn’t as homogenous as is implied by many here. The culture of the USA is far from uniform, after all.

            1. Leatherwings.*

              Well my experience is that men haven’t. The women in my office are among the only ones who manage to follow through on their cleaning duties that are supposed to be split between everyone. So yes, it’s not totally black and white. But c’mon I think reasonable people can acknowledge that cooking and cleaning are often still viewed as women’s jobs that many men don’t really do or focus on at work the same way women do.

              Idk I just think people should be able to make general statements about systems of oppression without everyone jumping in and pointing out all the exceptions they’ve ever heard of. So yes.

                1. Leatherwings.*

                  Well Betty Friedan and an entire movement that happened after her would disagree, so I’ll just direct you there instead of arguing with you.

                2. Katniss*

                  It is a form of oppression. It means women spend significantly more time doing and worrying about these things.

                3. Anna*

                  It’s not and I’m trying hard to not assume you’re a man based on your screen name, but oppression is insidious and pops up in weird ways. And what Leatherwings is saying is that patriarchy, which has made domestic chores “women’s work,” is a system of oppression and this is just one outgrowth of that system.

                  #notallmen #yesallwomen

                4. Klem*

                  Really? Whether someone is oppressed is up to them, not you. As a 50+ year old recently divorced former wife of a traditionally-raised Mid-Westerner, I can testify to how an uneven division of labor (woman works full time and does all housework and child care) results in feelings of oppression. Luckily, having all kinds of skills has made the transition to single-hood much easier for me than for Ex.

                5. Marisol*

                  Ok, does this mean you would be willing to do the majority of the cooking, cleaning, and childcare in your household, leaving less time and energy to spend on your career and thus earning a smaller paycheck and less career satisfaction among other things, while your partner skates through life having more fun, more money, and more respect? I think if you experienced something like this, you might be more inclined to see it as oppression.

                6. Alex*

                  let me start off by saying that I probably could have phrased my comment a little better. I am all to familiar with the “pink ghetto”, I work as an LPN but I do acknowledge that other pink ghetto occupations have it a lot worse. At least I get a living wage. I completely agree that there are many ways western society is unfair to women. It’s just that when I see instances of stuff like this happening and I say something about it and compare it to oppression, people are going to write me off as being melodramatic and not listen. They will point out places like Syria, Iran, etc.. as where the true oppression exists; however, them saying that doesn’t really help out people like Klem. So I am pretty much stuck.
                  ~BTW Klem. I’m glad you were able to escape that.

                7. Leatherwings.*

                  @Alex – I’m sorry, I’m a tad confused. In my view you’re saying: You don’t call sexism oppression because others dismiss it. Right? So instead you decided to dismiss my comment as a stretch?

                  We don’t have to play oppression olympics. We can fairly say that women in Syria can be much worse off and that we are privileged in comparison without having to downplay sexism that is very much in play in the US.

            2. Marisol*

              In cases like this, I always defer to hard data that sociologists have collected to really know what’s true, but I don’t have any so can’t add anything in that regard. I agree of course that the USA isn’t homogeneous, although I *think* that rather than being regional, changes are more due to things like age, education, cultural/ethic background, etc. But again, that’s my best guess.

              I think that a young family is probably less likely to have traditional division of labor, as opposed to an older family–I am 43, my parents and aunts are retirement age, cousins in their 30’s, etc. And so I imagine that as time progresses, traditional roles around household chores will extinguish. A common-sense observation, probably nothing you haven’t contemplated before.

                1. Vanesa*

                  Leatherwings, I’m not quite sure what you mean by you can’t separate them.

                  I mean for example people who grew up in a higher social class tend to leave their trash on the table, but people who grew up in a lower social class will pick up their own trash and throw it away. Generally, not saying this applies to everyone

                2. Leatherwings.*

                  I’m saying that gender and class intersect in complicated ways. I don’t know if I agree that people who grew up well off are more likely to leave trash lying around but if we assume that’s true, I think men of a higher class are even more likely that women of the same class to do it, because men generally aren’t expected to do chores the same way women are.

                  And the same is true of people who grew up on a lower socioeconomic rung of the ladder – women in that position are more likely than anyone else to feel pressure to clean up after themselves and others. So I don’t think you can say “it’s about social class rather than gender” because it’s almost always both.

              1. Temperance*

                I honestly really don’t. I worked at a Denny’s for far too long, and our clientele were far messier and enjoyed being doted on much more than the people who came into the 5-star French place where I worked.

          4. many bells down*

            There’s been a video going around my friends’ Facebooks titled something like “Every guy knows this mystery” and it shows a dude explaining to his girlfriend that their house has a magic laundry basket and coffee table. He puts stuff in/on it and the next day it’s magically clean!

            1. Allison*

              Hurr hurrr taking my girlfriend for granted is funneh, hurr hurr!

              Also, have you seen the totally hilarious Oatmeal comic instructing people (let’s face it, instructing dudes) to act terrible at loading the dishwasher so a housemate (let’s face it, a woman) will get fed up and insist on doing it? Sooooo funny.

              1. Marisol*

                You’ve inspired me to make new plans for this evening. First I’ll buy a “no fat chicks” bumper sticker for my truck, then I’ll track down those super-funny videos and amuse myself with all the sexism! I can’t wait!

        2. Allison*

          It’s often pointed out that women are told being willing to clean up is part of being a good person, so they get little to no appreciation for doing traditionally feminine things like laundry or dishes. In fact, there’s a viral video that shows how the result of these tasks are noticed, but the woman’s effort isn’t (the guy showing his girlfriend how the dirty clothes just magically appear, clean and folded). On the other hand, a man so much as dries a dish and people act like he’s such a good man for going above and beyond to help the women in the house. We talk about how men “help out” with housework – you don’t help with chores in your own house, you just do them!

          So yeah, gender definitely plays a role in how people tend to perceive their share of household tasks.

            1. Dynamic Beige*

              That’s right up there with “You don’t babysit your own kids — you parent them”

          1. Photoshop Til I Drop*

            The only thing worse than a man who “helps out” with the housework is a man who “baby sits” his own kids. No, that’s called parenting!

            1. Vanesa*

              I think this relates to how single dad’s get so much praise, but single mothers get so much criticism.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        It’s not that you’re above it, it’s that it’s not your place. It’s literally part of my job description. I don’t want my bosses cleaning up because that’s not what they’re supposed to do–they’re supposed to deal with other bosses, vendors, clients, etc.

        1. Jaguar*

          Yeah. It’s just something I’m really wired against. I clean up my own mess. And if I’m cleaning up my own mess, I can’t not-help clean up the rest. I’ve even carried plates back to the kitchen (I don’t actually enter the kitchen) at restaurants if it seems like the waiters are too swamped. It’s pathological for me.

          1. Observer*

            Yes, that’s actually pathological. As swamped as the waiters / busboys may be, your bringing those plates to the kitchen is not making things any better for them.

            1. Jaguar*

              Part of this comes from working in an ice rink with a bar in it that coworkers and I would spend a lot of time in. Some of us (probably about five at most from a total of maybe thirty) would take our dishes back to where they had to go because we were known as working in the building (and grab our food when it was ready because waiting for the waitresses to get to them was a losing proposition, frankly).

              I can’t think of when I’ve ever done it at a full restaurant as the plates are taken before the cheque arrives. But for diners or things like that (especially when it’s pre-paid), I take the plate up to them when I’m done and they always seem grateful for it. Obviously, they could be being polite to a customer even if the customer is being a nuisance, but even at places that know me, I’ve never had any objection beyond polite “you really don’t have to do that” stuff.

          2. cataloger*

            I often stack the plates on the table so they at least have less gathering to do, but don’t go so far as putting them somewhere unexpected.

            1. Loose Seal*

              A friend of mine who has been in the food service career her whole working life asked me not to do that. Apparently, in many places waitstaff get into serious trouble if it looks like the people at the table are trying to move things along, such as stacking their plates up.

              The only two cleaning things I will do in a restaurant are: grab napkins to help mop up after a spilled glass and attempt to at least straighten the area around us if we’ve had a toddler eating at our meal. And as soon as the server shows up and says they’ve got it, I back off immediately (and increase the tip since we made such a mess). I would hate to know that I got someone in trouble by “helping out.”

          3. Unegen*

            Please don’t do that; it makes restaurant workers start sweating bullets and thinking about words like SLICK FLOORS and LIABILITY and BAD YELP REVIEW.

          4. Sarah*

            Ehhh, I know others have chimed in on this, but please don’t do that in restaurants.

            Neatly stacking the plates with the utensils on top and collecting cups and napkins into easily-gabbed groups should be as far as you go in a restaurant; a customer getting up and approaching the kitchen is generally a huge flashing WARNING – DANGER! sign for restaurant employees that something is going terribly wrong, so they’ll drop whatever they’re doing (which might have been way more important than clearing dishes) to deal with whatever problem they think you’re having, meaning you’re actually inconveniencing them and making their jobs harder by interrupting their flow and preventing them from managing their time most efficiently.

            Also, the person who ends up taking the plates out of your hands two feet from the kitchen door is often not the same person who would have been tasked with collecting them off the table when you left (server or host who happened to spot you vs. busser who would have come over with a bin to carry everything).

            Also-also, you’re not really saving them any time, since they’ll still have to go over to the table and wipe it down after you leave no matter how clean you were, so you’re just adding trips to and from the kitchen for them.

            (Obviously, none of this applies to buffets or fast food places where clearing your own table and taking your tray back is the norm.)

            1. Sarah*

              (And someone above mentioned that stacking plates can look bad in some establishments, so maybe don’t even do that.)

        2. TootsNYC*

          “not your place”…

          That reminds me of something Miss Manners once wrote (that I can’t find now) in which she said that it’s condescending to try to do the butler’s job for him.

          That it’s a mark of respect for the person AND for the job to not act as though it’s some horrible chore that you should save them from by butting in to things that don’t concern you. Or by being overly friendly with people with whom you are not really friends (like, the waitress, who can’t just blow you off, bcs she’s working).

      3. Moonsaults*

        I clean up after myself when I use the coffee bar or drink fountain at a convenience store, it’s blown so many minds.

        That’s just a personal thing for both of us though. I have had the GM stop me from doing some menial cleaning or supply restocking, he’s just used to doing it himself and doesn’t want me to feel obligated or whatever his idea is going through his head. I think a lot of it is him being worried about ever being perceived as a sexist but my response is always “No, my job is literally to make it so you don’t have to do this kind of stuff, go run the place, I can stock the fridge and wash a couple cups, dude.”

        Just be kind to everyone, don’t leave a bigger mess than necessary, be friendly and acknowledge them for their had work. That’s honestly much better than trying to help out, you’re probably in their way anyways :P

    3. The Optimizer*

      In an old job, I used to help our assistant clean up after team luncheons. I wasn’t management at the time (the most she ever did for me was order occasional supplies or help out with filing if our dept was slammed), she was my friend, it was better than going back to the office and I often got to take home some of the leftovers! It would usually be the assistant, me and the IT guy, who also stayed because he was a good person, our friend and didn’t want to go back to the office either.

      I would bristle at the expectation though.

    4. Dorothy Lawyer*

      Me too, I’d be resisting an urge to help her (but because I was raised in a family where EVERYONE helped clean up.)

  10. Retail HR Guy*

    Is this what it has come to, that women shouldn’t even be allowed to do traditionally women’s work anymore? Because “equality”?

    Unless OP would have just as much of a problem with a male executive assistant doing his job in this situation, OP is the one being sexist here.

    1. Leatherwings*

      That’s ridiculous. That’s not what the LW implied at all. She’s just uncomfortable with the appearance of “women do the cleaning around here and men do men things like management”

      As Alison pointed out, that’s not what’s happening because the duties aren’t assigned based on sex, but on job description. LW isn’t being sexist and nobody is saying women can’t do what were/are considered to be feminine “womans” work.

      1. sunny-dee*

        I think what Retail HR Guy is saying is that the OP *is* being sexist in assuming that the assistant is cleaning up because of gender discrimination instead of it being, you know, her job. And this is true even if the OP is female; the implication is that it’s inappropriate or demeaning for women to do cleaning or that it’s discriminatory for a woman to have a job that includes cleaning in the responsibilities.

        1. Leatherwings.*

          I know what he’s saying. That’s not what sexism is. A woman looking at another woman and saying “hey, women shouldn’t have to be exclusively relegated to this job” isn’t sexist. In this case, it’s not quite the right frame to be looking at it, but it’s not sexist.

          1. Leatherwings.*

            Perhaps a better way of articulating it: That’s like calling out someone for reverse racism because they pointed out a difference in the way racial groups are being treated. Recognizing systemic isms isn’t an ism itself.

        2. Anna*

          “Oh yeah, we’ll you’re being __ist for recognizing __ism” is used only to shut down uncomfortable discussion about any given ism. It’s exhausting to be told that even addressing an inequality perpetuates it. That’s not how it works. You don’t solve a problem by pretending it doesn’t exist.

          1. Leatherwings.*

            But can’t we just treat everyone equally? I just don’t SEE differences between people.


        3. Retail HR Guy*

          Thank you, yes, this is what I am saying (and ALL that I am saying). Given all the other reactions to my post here one would think I was asking OP to always walk three steps behind her husband and speak only when spoken to.

          Obviously I can’t read OP’s mind and so I could be wrong, but the impression I got from the OP’s letter (and still get, when I re-read it) is that OP is appalled that a bunch of men would ever ask a woman to pick up after them, not that OP is appalled execs would ever ask an admin to pick up after them.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Nobody’s saying she can’t do it . . . on her own time.

      Her professional equals are the other managers: She should be with them. I’m not my bosses’ professional equal. They should not be doing my job.

    3. Marisol*

      Tone it down please. What it’s “come to” is a woman questioning how she should behave given that she values equality between the sexes, or “because equality” in your parlance. Well-meaning men and women wrestle with these kinds of questions all the time, and asking someone else who can advise with authority is a great way for all of us to learn.

      I’m picking up on a rather regressive subtext in what you have written. “Is this what it has come to…?” (what what has come to? The feminist movement?) “because ‘equality,'” (using phrasing that subtly belittles the ideal of equality between the sexes) and suggesting that the OP might be sexist (a favorite tactic of those arguing in favor of the status quo) suggest to me that you have an agenda you are not overtly stating.

      1. Retail HR Guy*

        I agree that my tone was a bit too dismissive. My apologies.

        In my head, the “it” in “what has it come to” is something like the modern need to feel like a crusader against injustice to the point that one has to invent injustices everywhere you look. I find this attitude to be particularly annoying, hence my overly dismissive tone.

        I put “equality” in scare quotes specifically to indicate I was talking about something other than actual equality, which is of course valuable. So no belittling there.

        I suggested the OP might be sexist because, given my impression of OP’s letter, I feel that the OP seems to be the one being sexist. It’s an opinion, not a “tactic”.

        Lastly, no, there is no hidden agenda. I am not a paid plant or Strom Thurmond’s former speech writer or the treasurer of the Association to Keep Women in the Kitchen (the good ol’ AKWK) or anything else like that you may be suspecting. I was just trying to be a part of a normal discussion, but it looks like I have hit a nerve with you and a lot of other people so that turned out to be not what happened.

        1. Gaia*

          Wow. Even this post is incredibly dismissive You really should reconsider how your post comes across.

        2. Plaster*

          I feel like you’re going to get some stormy replies to this, so I really hope you can hear me out here: I just get very alarmed to hear an HR person dismiss outright any class of complaints about possibly biased behaviour as “looking for injustice”. I don’t want to accuse you of anything or put your back up. Just, please, keep in mind that many of us who have faced insidious sexism all our lives often have to assess whether a situation that may not look to you like sexism has echoes and red flags of past sexist experiences we have had. What looks like “looking for injustices where they don’t exist ” to you looks to me like pattern-matching with experiences you haven’t had (therefore can’t pattern-match to). Sometimes that can result in a false positive, as in this case. But in many cases the pattern is one we acquire through years of experience that you haven’t had, and just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Just like you might see patterns in an HR complaint that I might not see, and make a different judgement about it than I would because of your professional experience, I might make a different judgement about whether a situation is injust than you based on my experiences of being subjected to biased behaviour. I think in almost all cases these types of complaints deserve at least your sincere consideration. I guess what I’m trying to get at is a reminder that except in cases of malicious malingering, people who make complaints about sexism really feel they are being wronged–it’s not some ideological game, it can hurt very deeply.

    4. Willis*

      I think the OP’s question would still hold even if the admin were a man. She feels bad that someone ends up having to stay later than the rest of the group to clean up after them. But, if she, being the only woman on the management team, is the only one who helps to clean, is she feeding into a cultural stereotype that it’s her place to pitch in with that because she’s female? (And I think the advice would be the same.)

  11. Meg*

    They most certainly shouldn’t be *leaving* trash behind or dirty dishes in the meeting room. Basic housekeeping is a must for all employees. Making sure your paper plates and cups go into the trash can isn’t the EA’s job, but I wouldn’t expect the managers or whomever to take out of the trash (trash that’s in the bin), wash the dishes, and repackage the food though. But at least put the dishes in the sink or a wash bin or common area, and the trash in the bin. That’s as much as I’d expect from all employees.

    In fact, my company has meeting room etiquette that says “if you make a mess, clean up after yourself” which includes putting trash in the bin and no crumbs on the table. This applies even to our CEO, who has his own EA.

    1. all aboard the anon train*

      Yeah, this is the only thing I would have an issue with. It’s common politeness to take your plate and drop it in the trash when you leave. In the different offices I’ve worked at, whoever orders the food and sets up the meeting is the one cleaning up the empty pizza boxes or wrapping up extra sandwiches. But everyone who attends always throws out their own trash. It’s a little weird if they’re not throwing it out on their way out of the meeting tbh.

    2. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

      I think this varies company to company, industry to industry.

      We would never expect board members to clean up after themselves, and in fact, as a senior manager, I have offered to talk trash out of a board members hand and thrown it away for them.

      In my very first job as a marketing assistant, my job was not only to set the conference room before a meeting, it was to clear it once the client left.

      1. Pwyll*

        I think it absolutely depends on the type of event/meeting as well. If we had disposable plates, I’d pretty much expect people to throw out their own trash. But when we had small Board receptions in the office with wine, it was 100% expected that you left your wine glass on the table. It was just impossible to expect 20 people to maneuver in and out of our closet-kitchen.

        1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

          For some of our task force working lunches, I think board members leave them by accident more than laziness. It’s not uncommon for them to be chatting with another board member and walk out, forgetting about their plate.

        2. Vanesa*

          I agree if it’s a guest or client then it makes sense a little more sense for the EA to pick up their dishes, but if it’s employee they should pick up their own dishes from the table. To me not picking up your dishes gives the impression that you are better than them.

          Maybe it has to do with how I was raised and my culture, but I always taught to pick up my own dishes, even when I go to someone’s house. I don’t have brothers, but my dad would do this as well and my boyfriend also does this. I thought it was common courtesy to pick up your own dishes.

      2. I'm Not Phyllis*

        Definitely a culture thing – my board members clean up after themselves all the time. Sometimes they look at me like I have two heads when I try to clean up after them.

    3. Moonsaults*

      I’d have to see the board room, to be honest.

      When I go to seminars for the workers comp company, they specifically state to leave your trash behind, they’ll do all the clean-up. It’s easier given the space, where the garbage is located, etc.

      If it’s cramped, having everyone crowd to put their dishes in the sink is going to take more time than having one person designated to clean up afterwards.

    4. Marisol*

      It often is the EA’s job. You don’t mention what you do–you may be an admin who isn’t expected to clean up–but a lot of us have commented that we do that as part of our normal and customary job duties. I appreciate the egalitarian sentiment, though.

      1. Meg*

        I’m a software engineer. We often have meetings during lunch, or lunch and learns. Or people bring their lunches to meetings if they don’t have time to eat normally for whatever reason. The EA would coordinate lunches for “working lunches” – meetings during lunch, lunch and learns, whatever. But your personal trash (like if you got a slice of pizza on a plate and a soda can) is supposed to be thrown out. Finished with your drink? It goes in the trash (or recycle bin). Plate empty? Trash. Washable plate? Fine, leave it. Napkins all over the table? Trash it. EA takes care of the pizza boxes and whatnot, takes the trash out of the bin to take it out, but we find it really rude and inconsiderate to not clean up after yourself in a meeting room.

        I am shocked that it is the norm to be slobs in other industries.

        1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

          But you are a software engineer who is a colleague to the EA attending a working lunch…not a member of a non-profit board attending a director’s meeting, which is the OP’s situation.

          It’s not slovenly for a board member to leave their plate, they are a there as our guests offering support to the organization. Just like I wouldn’t ask a dinner guest to put their dishes in a sink, I would be mortified to see a board member cleaning up (especially some of the high-powered, well-recognized names on my board).

          1. Meg*

            I was a software engineer for a national non-profit who presented demos of the software that I was creating for them to the board of directors and CTO during meetings where lunch and/or refreshments were served. Anything disposable was your responsibility to make sure it made it to the trash can. It was the EA’s responsibility to make sure food was put away, washable dishes washed, and trash taken out of the room. That’s the only problem I have. If it’s not explicitly told to leave everything behind, even board directors should tidy up after themselves (and only themselves).

            Wine glasses is one thing. You don’t throw away wine glasses. If your napkin is the only thing that is disposable, sure leave it. But often it’s been in my experience that if you don’t serve yourself, you don’t bus yourself either. But if you’re responsible for serving yourself, you bus yourself too.

            My current employer is a global leader in big data and analytics whose clients range from airlines, banks, retail stores, credit card companies, insurance companies, etc. If the client has to get up to get their own food, they throw away their own trash. If they sit and are served, then they aren’t expected to do anything afterwards, like eating a restaurant.

        2. Marisol*

          Well my guys aren’t slobs, and it would be considered extremely poor form if they were. It’s a business lunch, not a frat party, so things are still pretty orderly despite the used dishes and such. But yes, cleaning up is frequently the norm. As for being shocked, you’d probably also be shocked if you learned how well I’m compensated to do it ;)

    5. Julie*

      As others have said, I think it depends. And even if people throw out their individual plates and cups (assuming they’re disposable), you’re probably still gonna be left with serving trays, leftover food, and suchlike. At one of the organizations I worked for, when I was the Executive Director’s assistant, we had meetings for Board members and major donors a few times a week. Different people at each meeting, obviously. Board met once a month, Exec met every three weeks, different committees met with varying degrees of regularity, etc. But overall it worked out to 1-3 meetings I helped coordinate per week.

      People were generally good about picking up after themselves, but even then I had to allocate about a half-hour after each meeting to tidying up, putting away the leftover food, bringing the serving trays back to the kitchen and washing them, collecting up and recycling / shredding leftover handouts, etc. It was just part of the job, and it would have been part of the job regardless of how fastidious every member was with their personal dishes.

      1. Vanesa*

        I get that it’s the admin’s job to clean up and put everything away, but not picking up your own plate and whatever other mess you made and throwing it away – I mean come on. Half the time the trash is by the door anyway. I get that if it doesn’t get the done then it’s the admin’s job, but that’s beside the point because common courtesy you should throw away your own plate in the first place.

        1. Marisol*

          Vanesa, trust me on this, as a professional EA with years of assisting high-level executives, it really depends on the company. There is nothing wrong with an honest day’s work, and the admin doing this get a paycheck. You seem to think that there is something wrong with the task–let me assure you that’s not the case. As Julie says above, “it was just part of the job.” Please get over your incredulity.

          1. Vanesa*

            I don’t think there is anything wrong the task. I think there is something wrong with people not picking up after themselves.

          2. Big Hair No Heart*

            I didn’t read Vanesa as thinking there’s something wrong with the task. In fact, she seems to be saying that the task (throwing away your own trash) is so commonly done by everyone that it should be second nature, and to just leave it there seems a little rude. What is there to “get over” about thinking that way?

  12. Important Moi*

    Your job is not to help clean up, so don’t do it. There’s nothing demeaning about cleaning up if that’s your function. There’s nothing demeaning about not cleaning up if that’s not your function. You and the admin have different functions.

  13. Bwmn*

    Alison’s advice is really wonderful here, and I also want to highlight what can happen in a version of a flip side.

    Our office has an office assistant who was specifically told when she was hired that tidying the kitchen (i.e. running/emptying the dishwasher) or conference room after a meeting was not her job. That she should not be asked or expected to do this kind of work. Additionally our office’s cleaning service is just garbage and floors – no additional kitchen support.

    The office attempted to put forth a notion that “everyone” would tidy after themselves. The end result was that more collective tasks (such as the dishwasher in particular) weren’t owned or situations where someone would have back to back meetings there could be a situation where the conference room wasn’t able to be addressed in a timely fashion based on other meetings. For the office assistant she was left being told by her manager that she should insist on telling people that cleaning wasn’t her job, but it would often read as unhelpful or where she would only say yes to the most senior requests. Because the hope that everyone will pitch in simply did not result in timely tidying and left problems like having no clean glasses/cups for meetings – these tasks were then later assigned formally to the office assistant.

    Instead of that just being part of her job, she was told for months that it wasn’t her job and she should view such tasks as beneath her. Then when they were assigned to her, it was also clearly upsetting. By having such tasks assigned, it’s just the job. And it’s an important feature of the job! That means that for meetings, someone knows their role – whether it’s setting up/shutting down or leading the discussion.

    1. Marisol*

      Yup, everybody loses with the first way you mention. (Sad perhaps, as it would be nice to think others would be responsible for themselves but true nonetheless.)

    2. Pwyll*

      I’ve seen this happen before too, and I’m always baffled by the surprise of the Boss when these gray area tasks aren’t completed because they weren’t assigned to anyone. Don’t tell people things aren’t their job and then magically expect group mentality to solve them.

      1. Bwmn*

        While it was happening it genuinely was baffling. Even if people aren’t using the kitchen in a full sense like they would at home, using utensils or the occasional water glass/coffee mug, when it’s a whole office that adds up quickly.

        What I’ve learned in some other offices though, is that the best way to hold people accountable to their personal tidying is if you can actually tell others what the jobs of others include. In an old job, our kitchen had no dishwasher and our cleaning crew in the addition to other tasks would put dishes from the drying rack back into cupboards. Every now and then someone would get busy and not clean their dishes, but whenever those lapses would build up – there would be the specific staff wide email saying something to the effect of “Our wonderful cleaning team is tasked with putting dishes back to make the next day ready for work – their job is NOT to clean your dishes”. There was a very specific call to employees – clean dishes, and not some vague “we’re all here together pitching in to stay tidy”.

        Regarding the OP, if the cleaning situation is getting beyond the assistant tidying up after the meeting and is extending into people leaving their plates at the table – that may be a point to address. But to have cleaning/tidying be an assigned task is no more or less necessary and important than a million and one other office tasks.

        1. Gaia*

          I have an office of 60 and no one is assigned the job of running the dishwasher (we provide real plates, bowls, flatware, mugs, glasses, etc). But the expectation has been set that if the dishwasher is full, you turn it on. If you come in and it is finished running, you empty it. If it is running and you bring a dish into the kitchen, you handwash it.

          Somehow, all 60 of us manage to do this on a regular basis. I cannot understand how this doesn’t happen in other offices where this sort of cleaning up isn’t a person’s job.

    3. Paul Pretzel*

      I previously worked at a school that taught outdoor hiking and camping skills where we had a similar dynamic. Everybody was supposedly expected to demonstrate good E.B. (expedition behavior) and pitch in to clean up after themselves by taking care of their work areas and the common areas (break room). This was supposedly what was taught on the outdoor courses. It didn’t really work out very well in the office and usually it fell on the admins, interns and lower-level workers.

      Every once in a while a higher up would condescend to wipe out the microwave or wash a pile of dishes left in the sink for which they would be lauded, a big deal would be made out of it, and it would be used as an example of what everyone should do.

      1. Bwmn*

        The exact thing would happen during the period of “we’re all doing this”. If any senior leadership person did it, it was a major vocal production about their contribution.

        I will also add that because we have a dishwasher, senior staff was also the most likely to run the dishwasher at about 11:45 so that no one in the office would have access to the office forks during lunch time. Leaving the office to steal a plastic fork or eating lunch with a spoon isn’t the end of the world, but it would always serve to show what the value putting thought and consideration into such tasks.

    4. I'm Not Phyllis*

      Yes I think this happens in a lot of offices. Unfortunately people can’t seem to clean up after themselves (though this is in an office setting I’m speaking of, not at director’s/board meetings). Couldn’t blame her for being upset after it being repeatedly implied that those tasks were “beneath” her.

  14. Persephone Mulberry*

    Amen to Alison’s answer. At my last company I started in an assistant position where I was responsible for meeting setup and clean up, and after I transitioned out of that role it took some time to get comfortable with just walking out after a meeting and leaving the new assistant with the clean up duties.

  15. Government Worker*

    I totally agree with Alison. I think this would grate on me in the OP’s place, too, though, but more as an organizational culture thing than a gender thing. I’ve worked in organizations where leaving a big mess for the assistants to clean up was pretty normal, and I’ve also worked at more everybody-pitches-in nonprofits where at the end of a big meeting the ED or board chair might say “Hey, could a few people help us put the chairs back/carry the leftovers to the kitchen/gather up the flip charts so that Jane isn’t here all night?” And usually just calling attention to it would mean that everyone would at least throw away their own trash and a couple of other tasks would get done quickly, and the lower-level staff would stay and do the rest.

    Everyone in a 20-person meeting taking a minute or two to clean up their own mess and help restore order doesn’t really keep management from focusing on higher-level stuff but can make a big difference for the assistant who has to do the grunt work. When I was an assistant it also felt like kind of an acknowledgement of my contribution to the meeting, when someone noticed and called the group’s attention to it instead of just walking away from a mess and taking for granted the fact that someone else would clean it up.

    For some kinds of events in my nonprofit experience, all staff members stayed to clean up while all board members left, which I think is what the OP is after. But it doesn’t sound like she’s in a position to make that cultural shift happen. Given that, I think Alison is spot-on about OP not staying to help out.

    1. Jaguar*

      Yeah, it’s the company culture thing that bothers me most about it. Cleaning up after yourself is such a basic thing and it shouldn’t be something certain people are too important / busy / senior to do. You need someone to flush the toilet after you as well?

      1. Big Hair No Heart*

        Ha! I’d like to share your last sentence with a few people I know who are “too busy” to throw away their trash.

    2. Willis*

      Definitely agree…even if the admin is the one who ends up repackaging food or emptying the trash, it’s basic politeness (and super easy) for everyone at the meeting to throw away their plates, push their chairs in, etc.

      Also, it seems like the timing of the meetings make it more noticeable since the admin ends up staying later than others. If it was two in the afternoon, it wouldn’t be weird for the OP and others to head back to their desks while the admin tidies the room. Maybe it sticks out more in this case since everyone but the admin is going home immediately afterwards, but sounds like that is just part of the job!

      1. Julie*

        With regards to the admin staying later, she may have something worked out with her manager for this. I know when I used to stay late to help tidy up from evening meetings (or come in early to set up morning meetings), I’d get that time off as flex time. Yeah, it sometimes sucked to be at work at 7:30 on a Tuesday morning or 9:00 on a Wednesday evening, but taking a half-day on Friday (or coming in late on Monday) and my manager being perfectly okay with it? That was nice. :)

  16. Pwyll*

    The opposite of this scenario is very fascinating to me. I’m a male. Back in the day I was an Executive Assistant to the CEO. I generally attended Senior Staff meetings (which were new to the company about a year into my tenure) to do everything from setting up the meals, to ensuring no one ate the designated allergy meal (CEO was gluten intolerant and literally passed out a few times by accidental gluten contamination), to taking notes and clarifying due dates or other information, to cleaning up afterwards. After the first few meetings, I noticed that some of our senior staff would help me clean up the room. At the time, I found that very kind of them.

    But I noticed similar things did not seem to happen in other meetings with female assistants. There, at the end of the meeting, everyone left and the admin kept cleaning up. To be sure, it was her job, and there were no complaints on her end. But there was a disconnect. It irked me. It still irks me. Why is a male EA “getting a leg up by proximity to the CEO” but a female EA is assumed to be at the fulfillment of all her career ambitions? Grrrrr.

    That said, if it really bothers you to see a female cleaning up after the meeting (even though it’s her job), the answer is to throw away your own mess, maaaaybe the ones next to you, before leaving. You can be considerate without doing her job for her.

    1. Marisol*

      I love you for being concerned about this issue. I had already planned to say that before reading your last paragraph, with which I vehemently disagree and so now must spend time explaining why. Anyone who wants to see equality in the workplace should NOT encourage a women who is not an admin to do admin tasks. They will lose status in the company and promote unhealthy stereotypes, whereas acting like an executive and not doing those tasks will help them as individuals, while also helping the greater cause of female equality, simply by being visible. In essence, to borrow (with some exaggeration) from the civil rights movement, you are suggesting the OP be an “Uncle Tom.” She’s not helping the members of her sex by helping clean up; she is hurting them. I say this and I am an admin. If no one in management cleans up after themselves and if that is the culture, then she should not do it either.

      But again, I really do appreciate the spirit of your comments. I don’t think it is all that common for men to notice disparities like you did–that you were getting help that your female counterparts did not.

      1. Kelly L.*

        I don’t think it’s “doing admin tasks” for the OP to throw out her own personal trash on her way out–that seems totally normal to me. Pwyll isn’t talking about staying behind to wash dishes or sweep the floor, etc.

        1. Marisol*

          If it is part of the admin’s job to do a task, then it is an admin’s task. There are no absolute rules on what constitutes an “admin task,” but in the OP’s case, cleaning up is indeed the responsibility of the admin. So I’m telling her not to do the admin’s work. The same could be said of expense reports, typing memos, or all sorts of different office tasks. Sometimes the manager does it. Sometimes the staff does it. It’s not the kind of work it is that is relevant, it’s the fact that it has already been explicitly assigned to the EA.

          1. Pwyll*

            I get what you’re saying. In my own mind, though, there are lots of things I do at work to make life easier for our (male and female) admin staff that I absolutely do not need to do. I could make them send every piece of mail, print out every document, etc. I think a big part of being an effective boss, though, is recognizing what things I can do to keep things running smoothly for everyone. I can mail my own damn letter because, right at this moment, having Admin prepare the litigation binders is a better use of both of our time. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s his job.

            My point is less about the gender of the admin or the executive, though. I’m just saying that there are little things everyone can do in an office that make everyone else’s lives easier. In the given scenario, that’s throwing out my own plate or stacking it at the end of the table on my way out so the admin doesn’t have to lap the room a few times. That adds no more than 20 seconds to my day, and makes her life easier. I might not do that if I am already late for my next meeting, but otherwise I’d rather err on consideration than rules as to whose job it is to clean the plates.

            As Kelly indicates, though, I’m not saying the executive should be helping the admin to clean the whole conference room, just mitigating her own mess.

            1. Marisol*

              First, it sounds to me like you are a genuinely considerate person, and I imagine your team appreciates it. But I think you fail to recognize something. Implicit in what you’ve said is that both genders should be treated equally. But the fact is, they are *not* treated equally. An act performed by a man has a different impact than an act performed by a woman.

              When you help an admin out by doing administrative tasks, people think, “what a nice guy he is for helping.” But when a woman who is not an admin does this, she is reinforcing a stereotype. People probably don’t think anything consciously. They just unconsciously get one more message, however small, that women should do “women’s work.” People observing get this message, and the woman herself gets it. It’s one small act. But all those acts add up to an entire mindset that permeates and informs a culture.

              So if you are advocating that people be “gender-blind” as it were, and just help people whenever they can regardless of anyone’s gender, you’re ignoring the real challenges women face, which is how they are seen.

              To give another example borrowed from the civil rights movement (not even sure if that’s the right term to use any more…maybe BLM would be better) let’s look at how cops treat african americans compared to white americans. I am a middle-aged white woman. If a cop gives me grief for some reason, I have no problem arguing with him. It’s only happened twice that I can recall and not for anything dramatic. But I’m not afraid to do it. Usually the cop is younger than me, and I know my rights and have plenty of cultural capital. So I’m not intimidated.

              Can you imagine someone saying to a black person, “don’t be afraid to argue with a cop because as a citizen, you have every right to do so”? It would be absurd. It’s not nice to contemplate, but black and white folk get treated differently. We might WISH we could ignore race, but we can’t. Or I should say, white people can ignore race. Ignoring race is actually a privilege only afforded to white people. In the same way, ignoring gender with no negative consequences is a privilege only afforded to men.

              It doesn’t matter if you are only suggesting the OP mitigate her own mess. None of the other board members mitigate their own mess. So the optics of a woman doing it can hinder her. The CEO she takes a meeting with will note unconsciously that she does not appear to be management material.

              Please note that I am a female executive assistant. Given that, one might think I’d say, “yes, please do pitch in whenever you can,” but I’m saying the opposite because I am a staunch feminist and I want women to succeed in the workplace.

              And honestly, I’d advise a male executive not to help the admin either, at least not in the scenario the OP is presenting. Maybe doing so at other times isn’t a problem, but after a board meeting I don’t think the CEO will notice his subordinate helping the admin and be impressed, especially when someone else is busy asking him about his golf game.

              1. Jaguar*

                Does this come to a point that it’s minor enough to be overlooked?

                I worked as a graphic designer (in a support capacity) at a major company for a few years and would often help admins out cleaning up. I knew I was putting myself in a position to be seen as devalued by doing it and still did it anyway. It was a choice I made because I placed my values over the slight loss of status associated with it.

                I think it’s a lot to ask individual people to not make an informed choice because they’re expected to carry the flag for feminism or equality. I don’t think it’s wrong for a female executive to clean up after herself if her male peers don’t even after she’s aware of the feminist complications with it.

                1. A Bug!*

                  I don’t think your comment and Marisol’s are actually in conflict. Marisol isn’t asking anybody to not make an informed choice; she’s saying that people in the OP’s position should be properly informed that there’s often a hidden and significant cost to that type of kindness so that they don’t incur it blindly and unwittingly.

                2. Marisol*

                  If a woman wants to shoot herself in the foot, she is free to do so. I never said otherwise. Many women make this choice. Heck, Phyllis Schlafly is still alive and kicking, making her horrible recommendations that women not work and that young men look for a woman who isn’t a feminist.

                  I am not asking the OP or anyone else to carry the flag of feminism at a personal cost. I am saying that in this case, the feminist choice is also the choice that benefits the OP the most. It would be different if, say, a woman had a boss who said blatantly sexist things to her, when she wasn’t in a position to quit (maybe she needed the health insurance or whatever) and I exhorted her to be a good feminist and tell her boss off and then quit, consequences be damned. There are times when our practical needs outweigh the need we have to uphold our ideals and I have no problem with that whatsoever.

                  I am advocating that women not deliberately work *against their own interests* by doing the tasks of the people below them on the org chart. Telling people not to act against their own interest seems pretty straightforward to me. Moreover, you agree that helping the admin entails a loss of status. So I don’t understand where you’re coming from at all. I mean I get that you value helping more than you value feminism, but I don’t understand why.

                  As an EA myself, I think I benefit more by having women stand in their power in the workplace than I do by having them do tasks that I am *paid* to do.

                  You ask if there are cases where the “help” is minor enough to be overlooked. My opinion is yes, of course it can reach a *de minimis* point. If you are a woman and your work is outstanding in every way, you bussing your dish back to the kitchen one time probably won’t matter. The problem is that so many of our actions are unconditioned responses, and for that reason, I personally prefer to act in a way that does not undermine me whenever I can, because, among other reasons, I know that there are numerous other things I do, things which come naturally to me because of my conditioning as a woman, which I am unaware of. Things such as: apologizing too much, smiling to be ingratiating when everyone around me is making a serious “business face,” etc. Lots of things like that I do automatically. And then sometimes I feel regret when I realize I undermined myself. So when I remember to consciously act in a way that is in alignment with my values, I do so.

                3. Jaguar*

                  Right. I just read your post as “helping, even if your natural inclination to help, is hurtful to women,” which I think is taking things pretty far, and I wanted to suggest that it’s perfectly fine to understand that there are gender problems by acting in traditionally female ways (or male) but still make the choice to act that way. If that wasn’t your intent, then nevermind.

                4. Marisol*

                  This reply is for A Bug! – Bug, I thought exactly the same thing at first–the OP is asking for information, so I gave her my informative answer, but after much reflection, I think Jaguar is saying *she* herself understood the professional hit she would be taking by helping her admin friend, and did it anyway, and that generally speaking, no one had the right to expect her to do otherwise. I take issue with this, but whatevers.

                5. Marisol*

                  Oh wait a minute…you’re that Jaguar from earlier, who is a man. I thought you were a woman who deliberately sabotaged herself just so she could help the admin and I was getting pretty annoyed. Nevermind – long story short, what *you* do will be perceived much differently than what a *woman* does, even if you two are performing the exact same tasks. Help all you want.

                6. Jaguar*

                  Man, I don’t know. If we agree that not helping is a bad behaviour men get away with expecting women to do, it seems pretty clear that the solution is to confront men about it. Telling women they shouldn’t help even if they want to and are aware of the gender issues involved seems like a serious loss of perspective on the matter.

                7. Marisol*

                  Jaguar it doesn’t work that way. If by “confront” you mean have a conversation about the disparity between the sexes in order to bring about change, well that’s what I’m doing with you and with Pwyll. And yet look how much the two of you are resisting. There is nothing at stake for either of you, and yet you won’t take in ideas which are considered established fact by many. These are not my original thoughts. I’ve learned them through research. I would imagine you’ve heard at least some of it before. But you remain unconvinced that I know what I’m talking about.

                  Now if you two, who have nothing to lose by conceding my points, won’t do so, how do you think the men who *do* lose their privilege will react? They won’t go along with it. Who would willingly go from not having to do gruntwork, to doing it? Some men do; most don’t.

                  If we take “confront men” in a more general sense–well, that is what women do when we refuse to do a disproportionate amount of tasks. In fact, this is a battle women have waged on many fronts for many years, with both actions and words. Confront men? What on earth do you think we have been doing all this time? With the protests? With the legal battles? With the sociological research? Et cetera…Et cetera…Et cetera…Et cetera…

                  And moreover, why should the burden be on women to *explain* why we shouldn’t have to do something that is not rightly our responsibility in the first place? We don’t have to explain jack shit, and given that, there is no need to confront anyone. We simply have to not let ourselves be exploited, by not doing tasks that we should not reasonably be expected to do. It’s just that simple. Our obligation is to ourselves, and it’s not really our job to negotiate our equity with you. Nor is it our job to educate men, to get them to understand our point of view, although I and many others frequently try.

                  I am quite discouraged that in the face of all the evidence that women have an uphill battle to achieve social equity in the workplace, your response is that WE have lost perspective and that “it seems pretty clear that the solution is to confront men about it.” Wow. So it’s just that simple, huh? How very patronizing.

                  Lest you think I misunderstand you, I get that you are probably envisioning a single, specific office that is treating women unfairly, while I am broadening the issue out to society at large. But no matter what the scope of the argument, effecting change is neither simple nor easy, because the phenomenon is so pervasive and so insidious. It is YOU who lacks perspective, and that is the very epitome of male privilege.

                8. Jaguar*

                  You’re reading an awful lot into what I’m saying. But it also sounds like you’re coming from a perspective of telling me rather than discussing with me. I agree with most of what you say and disagree with one part. If you’re not open to disagreement and see yourself as educating me, I guess the conversation is over.

                  I will say, though, that I was not accusing all women or feminists of a loss of perspective. I was saying that telling women that they should not be helpful represents a loss of perspective. We agree that (some) men have bad behaviour. We disagree that encouraging women to match that bad behaviour is a worthy ideal. I think this becomes more clear when we apply the same logic to more destructive gender disparity issues. Should women be encouraged to hit men when they’re angry because of the way they traditionally haven’t and men traditionally have? I would argue stopping the bad behaviour is the worthy ideal. It’s one that men and women both have an obligation to address.

              2. Pwyll*

                Hmm. Thanks for writing this, it gives me a lot to consider.

                I’m not entirely sure I agree with everything you’ve written, and will need to reflect to figure out why I feel that way.

                This is one of my favorite things about this site. It constantly gives me something else to consider in order to be a better worker/manager/person.

              3. TL -*

                In my old workplace, we had a bunch of small fridges on the floor kitchen. The fridges were gross. They smelled bad and had suspicious sticky substances in them.
                The amount of time it would’ve taken me to organize a clean-up would have been very small and I had the social capital to do it. But we already had problems with sexism, with women doing the notetaking and caretaking and cleaning tasks because the men were doing more important things, losing projects on maternity leave, and the men doing more important things. So I didn’t.

                Eventually, two women organized the event and I roped a few of the men who I knew used the fridges into helping. (I mean, they were happily willing to help once someone had organized, started, and told them exactly what to do.)

      2. Pwyll*

        BTW, I blame my strong female household upbringing, My grandmother imparted in us stories of hitting the glass ceiling as an accountant at one of the largest male-dominated teapot companies in the world (they forced her into retirement at 80 after passing her over for CFO something like 15 years in a row for younger men who didn’t even have their CPA licenses), and that it was as much our responsibility to see women treated equitably as it was our employer’s.

        1. Marisol*

          I appreciate that you value equality, and I trust that you have good intentions, and are a kind and conscientious person. I think we might have some slightly different perspectives, however, about which I have gone into at length above. I guess in a nutshell, I think the real problem women face is unconscious bias. And in battling that, every little bit helps. Hmm, had I thought of those sentences while writing I might have shaved off a paragraph or two.

      3. N.J.*

        Can you explain a bit the meaning or symbolism you are trying to communicate with the Uncle Tom example? Try as I might, I can’t make the connection here with the archetype of Uncle Tom and am curious about how you came to this example.

        1. Marisol*

          Yeah the comparison wasn’t perfect to begin with. It’s been a long time since I’ve read that book, but in a nutshell: it took place during a time that slavery was still practiced. One of the characters, Uncle Tom, was so good-natured that he was cooperative with his slave holders and (if memory serves) was loyal to them and spoke well of them.

          I don’t know if people still say it much today, but decades ago, a black man or woman could be said to be “tomming” if he/she was acting in a way that was conciliatory to white society. This was said of Louis Armstrong; I *think* it was because he himself was such a genuinely happy guy, and sometimes blacks were forced to put on a show of happiness to appease whites. So in a context like the pre-civil-rights era, just being joyful could be suspect. Whether Armstrong was “tomming” or not is debatable. Sarah Vaughn (or maybe it was Billie Holiday) said something like, “of course Louis toms, but he toms from the heart” which is a little too complex/ambiguous for me to unpack here.

          Long story short, if you are acting like an Uncle Tom, you are cooperating with your oppressors.

          1. Marisol*

            Oops the book was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by…Harriet Beecher Stowe I think. She wrote it to help end slavery. I think.

            1. Marisol*

              Oops again – just reread your question and it seems you are already familiar with the basics and didn’t need that explanation. Ok, the comparison was based on the idea that, just as Uncle Tom inadvertently supported slavery by being an agreeable slave, so women who are willing to endure a sort of second-class citizenship by assuming they *must* take care of thankless, traditionally female tasks are reinforcing the already entrenched sexism. Hope that makes sense.

                1. Marisol*

                  I didn’t say anything about house slaves or field slaves. I accurately, if briefly, explained the use of the term “tomming” and gave an example of its use by an important historical/musical figure. As it happens, it was Billie Holiday, not Sarah Vaughn, who said, “of course Pops toms, but he toms from the heart.”

                  I said at the outset that the comparison was made “with some exaggeration.” One problem I encounter when discussing women’s rights is a lack of cultural tropes to draw from. So I have to go to the civil rights movement, rather than the women’s rights movement.

                  If you have a better way to express the notion I describe, I am interested in hearing it. However, absent any further explanation on your part, I will not honor your request. I have communicated my points respectfully, and that is all I owe you or anyone on this site.

                2. Marisol*

                  So I did some research and realized I may have inadvertently used a racial slur by referring to “Uncle Tom” and “tomming.” Moreover, in giving an explanation, I made the mistake of conflating the actual character in the book, a character Stowe intended to be noble, with the way the term is popularly understood.

                  It must be thirty years since I read Uncle Tom’s cabin, so I don’t have much recollection of it, and I think the only time I ever encountered the concept of “tomming” was in my jazz history class, where I learned the quote from Billie Holliday above. I knew the term was an insult, but I did not realize it was a slur. In fact, I have been googling around and haven’t found a definitive answer; nevertheless, words used in the 40’s will not have the same connotation when used today, and common sense suggests this word is best avoided.

                  I apologize if I have given offense.

              1. Sue Wilson*

                Let’s try not to use one system of inequality as an example for another. There’s inevitably some ignorance that occurs, like believing that Stowe’s allegory was in any way helpful or useful to anything or not understanding that a white woman’s take on black survival at the time was racist as all get out.

                1. Marisol*

                  Sue I agree that the word/concept I used was not the best and I regret the error. Please have a look at my post above.

                  I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with comparing different systems of inequality (to use your phrase) however. A comparison can be a valid way to get a point across, provided that the depiction is accurate. Sometimes people get their facts wrong (as I did) but I don’t think that’s any more egregious than the other kinds of errors people make in their argumentation, at least not to the extent that you’d want to ban that kind of comparison.

                2. N.J.*

                  Actually, people do use systems of inequality as a framework to compare against and understand other systems of inequality. I’m surprised that you took offense to Marisol’s comparisons. Stowe’s allegory is laughable nowadays and the character of Uncle Tom has massive problems, which is why we look down on it today. But it would be disingenuous to say that the book did not have value back in its day or that it did not make an impact or prove useful. It’s a condescending and ridiculous character, but you have to realize that when Stowe wrote this book, many people viewed black people, free or slaves, through a dangerous and distorted set of lenses: they vowed us as animals, liars, rapists, killers, thieves and heathens. To the white predominantly Christian audience of that day, creating a character like Uncle Tom, who was over the top in his servility, displayed fawning love of his white masters, was non-violent & non-threatening and who displayed a devotion to the Christian religion, gave that audience a martyr figure they would root for. Stowe created a character who was above reproach within the narrow confines of character and morality and virtuosness as they were defined in those times. Marisol’s attempts to compare some of the themes from the more modern meaning of the insult of calling someone an Uncle Tom and the quicksand of navigating feminism, equality and the fight for women’s rights within the situation presented by this particular letter were not misguided nor hurtful. I didn’t necessarily understand where she was coming from at first, but she gave a valid explanation and admitted herself that it wasn’t a perfect comparison. There are few perfect comparisons. The comparison of the struggle for an end to slavery and the civil tights moved to to the current struggle for equality for women is not a bad one, even if they differ in their historical evolutions, level of harm to the targeted group and particular manifestations.

              2. N.J.*

                Thanks Marisol, now I get your usage here. Sorry for the additional response further down this thread I didn’t see this response of yours originally. Interesting point and comparisons, never would have drawn that particular connection, but your explanation here does raise some good comparison points.

          2. N.J.*

            I am actually very familiar with the book, having read it, the theme of Uncle Tom, and the negative associations of the word when applied to the behavior of an individual etc. I just can’t figure out what you meant by your Uncle Tom example here and was curious how you were using it within the context of your comment?? I should have been clearer in asking my question.

            1. Marisol*

              I hesitate to go further into this, as I chose a term out of expediency which I am now realizing is offensive. An inoffensive, though I must admit, less apt, term would be “sellout.” I don’t know how else to explain what I meant beyond my third response to your question, which I suspect you may not have read. Here is what I said below, with the caveat that I misstated what Stowe’s titular character represented, while accurately describing the term as it is popularly understood:

              “Oops again – just reread your question and it seems you are already familiar with the basics and didn’t need that explanation. Ok, the comparison was based on the idea that, just as Uncle Tom inadvertently supported slavery by being an agreeable slave, so women who are willing to endure a sort of second-class citizenship by assuming they *must* take care of thankless, traditionally female tasks are reinforcing the already entrenched sexism. Hope that makes sense.”

              I am happy to clarify but I am not pushing hard for this argument. I’d prefer to let it die.

              1. N.J.*

                Thank you again Marisol, unfortunately I hadn’t seen your earlier response (thread nesting,!!!!!!!). I responded there now.

    2. Been There, Done That*

      You make exactly the point I’ve been thinking the whole time I’ve been reading this post/comments.

      “Back in the day” you were an EA–so you advanced. Tying in to a comment farther up about concentrating about getting women into management, how likely is a female assistant likely to advance if the image people have of her is that she cleans up dishes and food? Trust me, at least some of those people are seeing her as a waitress/handmaiden, not advancement potential. (And no, there’s nothing lowly about being a waitress, but if you’ve gotten your education, put on your suit, and bust your butt for management, it’s not how you want to be viewed).

      And you refer to the females as admins, not EAs–and there is a difference. There’s a hierarchy of administrative support, and lumping entry-level receptionists in with career EAs blows off the experience and capabilities required to successfully support an executive.

      And in my opinion, getting that from women managers is far worse than getting it from men. Back in the day I moved to a firm to “move up” from secretary to assistant to a director, and only after I started was I told that I was to provide reception desk relief. I felt like I’d been thrown back to the bottom, after learning high-level computer skills especially for a job that also required a college degree. One manager told me in so many words that when they put someone of my skill level on reception, you knew you weren’t going anywhere in that company. And whenever my woman director saw me at reception, she’d sing out, “Look at you-u-u-u!” as if she were goo-gooing to an infant.

  17. cataloger*

    I have nothing to add but agreement on the advice, but wanted to say that the pink broom/dustpan in the stock photo is perfect.

  18. Allison*

    While there’s nothing inherently wrong with having an admin assistant clean up after meetings and such, it is kind of rude to be a total slob, and leave more of a mess than you need to just because you know someone will clean it up for you. It’s like being at the movie theater, yes there are ushers who will go in there with trash bags, but it’s not hard to throw your own trash away. Don’t take the admin for granted!

  19. male admin*

    I am a male admin with another male admin on staff and we’re the ones who are responsible for setting up and cleaning up. The higher ups (faculty, in my case – I work in a university) rarely help us, including male and female faculty. And, while I definitely appreciate the rare faculty who do help out with cleanup, I would NOT expect them to help. It’s part of my job duties, not theirs.

  20. OP*

    I think I am the original OP for this letter. Alison’s answer was very helpful in re-framing this situation as the assistant’s job which I should let her do. It was a lot easier after that to move on with my day after the meeting ended. I especially liked the point about the real leverage being getting diverse qualified candidates into leadership positions. If I felt a twinge of guilt as I walked by the assistant without carrying anything or offering to wipe down tables, I bent my thoughts towards coming up with one action item I could take to support that larger goal! Interesting footnote – the new person in this position has come up with a whole different system for food and meeting prep which is much less labor intensive and she’s often walking out the door with the rest of us now anyway.

    1. Product Person*

      Nice, OP! It’s good to see you were able to re-frame the situation and move on.

      As a product manager in a very male tech environment, I had always to think extra hard what message I was conveying. So, for example, when in my startup the female admin assistant sent an email asking for help moving chairs for an all-hands on meeting, I’d wait and observe — after a few of my male colleagues had volunteered to help, I’d join them and help too. But I’d not be the first to jump to help out with this task because this could easily give the wrong impression that this was a woman’s job and make it even harder to get our male staff to chime in.

      Likewise, when someone said in a meeting, “we need to clear the whiteboard before we leave”, I’d pretend to be collecting my papers and ignore the suggestion (the commenter was typically looking at me, the only female in a 15-people room!).

      It’s unfortunate that we have to pay attention to the message we’re giving just for being a woman, but that’s the reality and better deal with it than reinforce stupid stereotypes.

  21. Megs*

    As a former admin, I agree with the advice and general gist of the comments with one caveat: if you have done something that will make the admin’s job more difficult, it is REALLY appreciated if you at least offer to help. In my case, I was in charge of getting deliverables ready and out the door. It was expected that I would stay late if necessary to get things to the last FedEx pick up, or to walk them to a nearby drop-site with a later pickup. My favorite people to work with were the ones who would stay and help during those late evenings, as it was almost always their fault stuff hadn’t gotten done earlier.

  22. Biff*

    Awww man. This is so awkward. I completely understand where the letter writer is coming from.

    I’m the sort of person who is inclined towards cleaning, to say the least. (Ok, fine, you could probably have surgery in my kitchen with no detrimental effects.) I think if I were faced with this situation, I’d say “Hey let’s make it easy for Marrissa and scrape these plates, stack them over there and pile the cutlery on top .” Or something like that to indicate to everyone that we can be kind and thoughtful to those that support us, and also that we value the work she does without necessarily taking too much time away from our own roles and duties. But that’s just me.

    1. valereee*

      I wouldn’t. I’d be tempted to, but I’d resist that temptation. It’s not Thanksgiving Dinner, where if some woman doesn’t say, “Hey, let’s all pitch in to clean up,” the men will feel free to move directly from the table to the couch and the women will feel forced to all head to the kitchen for a couple of hours’ cleanup to prevent their hostess from having to clean for days. This boss gives his assistant the job of set up and clean up for meetings, and this woman is new to the organization. When she’s got her own assistant and is running her own meetings, she can stand at the end of the meeting and say, “Okay, thanks everyone — please bus your own area to make cleanup easier for Terry,” or whatever, but for now she needs to stop assuming her male boss is giving his female assistant a cleanup job because of sexism.

  23. Art_ticulate*

    This is so fascinating to me, because I just started working at a place with this kind of culture. Before, I was always at places with small staffs where everyone truly did pitch in to help and no one left until everything was cleaned up. I’ve already been told several times by various coworkers that I’m not expected to help and that I’m actually just getting in the way when I try to. It’s so foreign to me, though! I’m honestly not sure I’ll ever get used to it. So I get where OP is coming from, sort of.

    I think the thing that stuck out to me more with this letter was that everyone leaves the assistant alone in the building. Maybe it’s a perfectly safe part of town, but that actually concerned me more than her cleaning up alone.

    1. Moonsaults*

      I’ve locked up for years and worked by myself at my previous office that was in an industrial complex, in the industrial side of town. I’d be frankly pissed if someone stayed behind for my “safety”. Unless it’s dark and a walk to your car, that’s the only time I can understand the need for a buddy system to be in place.

      This sounds like it’s probably a rented room for meetings in a building. She’s most likely isn’t the only one in the building, depending on the size of the facility. It just means that everyone else is going back to their offices, which could be scattered among different buildings, depending on the company itself.

      1. Julie*


        If it really is a dangerous part of town and she felt unsafe being the last person in the building, I’d expect that’s something she’d bring up with her manager. If I were in her position and someone stayed behind to keep me company while I was cleaning, that would be fine. But if they stayed behind because they were worried about my safety… that would irk me.

  24. SuspectedDragon*

    Female executive admin here – cleaning up after lunch meetings is a part of my job and it’s never felt weird. But I always appreciate it when people take the time to just toss their trash on the way out. I am not a fan of picking up someone’s soiled napkins or food wrappers or whatever that they left strewn on the board room table. So OP, if you feel the overwhelming need to chip in, just throw your trash out and let the admin handle the rest.

    1. AnitaJ*

      Also a female EA, and I agree. It’s my job to clear up the conference room, but pouring out your half-empty cold coffee cups or warm sodas, putting your mugs in the dishwasher, or scraping your plate into the trash is…not great. I’d love it if people just took their own trash from the table to the trash can (about 0.5 feet), and I’ll take care of the rest. A lot of people seem to forget we’re in an office and not a restaurant.

    2. valereee*

      Yeah, to me it’s just rude not to bus your own area. And as a woman, I wouldn’t feel funny doing that even if my all-male colleagues were leaving their own. I’d hope that eventually me doing it every time would make them THINK about what they were doing. Really the admin’s BOSS should be the one who stands up, picks up his trash, and walks it over to the bin, but even if he doesn’t, even one person in the room doing it can make people think.

    3. Pluot*

      Yeah – I’m also a female admin, and while I don’t expect my coworkers to take out the garbage or deal with the leftovers, leaving your trash on the table is just rude. If the CFO can throw their disposable dishware and napkins away, the staff accountants can, too.

  25. Susiedoesbooks*

    In the company I work at, our executive assistant is a MAN! And he does exactly that – sets up for executive board meetings and cleans-up afterwards. It would never occur to me to stay and clean-up with him – it’s his gig. However, when we a cake for somebody’s 10 yr anniversary or going-way, that’s not his gig so all pitch in (particularly the supervisor). So, just let her do her job. :)

  26. Anon for this*

    I am a former admin turned accountant. We typically have weekly snacks that the admin shops for and sets out. (Think fruits, veggies, chips and dip, etc). If it has not been cleaned up after lunch, I often clean it up, as I cannot stand that the perishable food (like dips) have been left out for that long. Occasionally, someone will come and help out. Our admin complains if she has to clean it up, and I’d rather pitch in rather than listen to the complaints. Any suggestions???

    1. Temperance*

      Let her complain. You’re an accountant, not an admin/secretary, and it’s not going to help your career to be handling secretarial tasks because she whines about doing her job. This is especially true if you worked at the same place as an admin where you are now an accountant.

      1. Marisol*

        Yes. “Let her complain” is exactly my advice. And get comfortable with the food going to waste. I hate wasting food too–when it happens I think what a “sin” it is and I am not religious–or if it’s not wasted but reused the following week and that grosses you out, don’t eat it. Do nothing. Take no action. Do not help. It is not your problem.

      2. TL -*

        Definitely let her complain. It is not your job and you should not be cleaning it up. If she complains to you, change the subject or smile and say you’re sorry but that’s the job and you need to finish calculating the deductions on dragon food for on the Targaryen account.

      1. Moonsaults*

        Oh I could try to be helpful instead of just wanting to know why she’s such a whiny brat. I’ve had tasks I don’t particularly like but to leave them for someone else seems so unfathomable.

        Is this the office admin that works for everyone or does she report to someone in particular? I think that it needs to be addressed by whomever manages her. If she’s an admin for the office and you are a manager of sorts, you should tell her to quit whining and that she needs to do tasks fully. She puts the dip out, she puts the dip away after it’s been out after break or lunch is over.

        Assign tasks in this case because nobody is offering to do them. Stop doing it for her because that’s exactly why she whines and dodges the task. I don’t like cleaning up after people either but if you stay on top of it, it doesn’t snowball and pile up. What would you do if she said ‘I don’t like filing, I’ll just leave this entire box of paperwork sitting in the to-do box and hope someone else does it!’. I’ve had that happen in my first job, the little tasks would just sit until someone, like yourself, got tired of it sitting there and took care of it. It’s not a good system.

    2. valereee*

      I would not continue to do this. It is not your job. I would talk to the admin’s boss — maybe the admin is not clear on the fact that this is her job. If she doesn’t want it to be her job, she needs to negotiate this with her boss. I can see why she objects, and maybe there’s a solution — maybe each week, it’s someone else’s turn in rotation. But it is not YOUR job, and as a former admin you probably don’t want to be seen as the go-to person when the admin isn’t doing her job.

  27. stevenz*

    Alison is right on target, as usual. But I have found that this is less of an issue in government. I think we’re all so beaten down that there is a more egalitarian spirit and often the higher-ups, male and female, help out after a meeting.

    My own experience similar to this (I’m male) is when I was appointed with “staffing” a very high level advisory task force. I have done that before, so I had a pretty good idea of what it would involve – research, report writing, presentations, drafting findings, recommendations, etc. But boy was I not expecting the reality: making plane reservations, processing expense claims (one of them really hit the minibar hard!), ordering lunch (they had second thoughts when the first lunch I ordered came to about $85 a head), and stuff like that. With a masters degree and a long professional career working on really important stuff with some really important people, this was a shock. And, I wasn’t good at it at all; witness the luxury lunch. It was really demoralizing because that sort of thing was definitely NOT in my job description. I left before the task force finished and I understand they didn’t accomplish much.

  28. PolarBear*

    I am a PA who has mostly worked in large corporations. The places I have worked have in house caterers and cleaners and I have never been asked to clean up.

  29. Mark in Cali*

    I am male and I’ve been an admin before and I’ve had to to plenty of clean-up after male and female employees because it was part of my job.

    That said I’ve waited tables and have been in a variety of service jobs. Now that I’m in business, on a salary I will still clean up empty boxes from treats left in the kitchen or crumbs on the counter, usually tasks left for the admin.

    We can talk about boundaries and this and that, but for gosh sake, if you have a moment just help clean up!

  30. I'm Not Phyllis*

    As an EA, I can say that I appreciate the offer to help. I work for a smallish NFP and my CEO (male) and his right hand (female) often help me clean up after meetings – including getting up to their elbows in dish soap. And even though I appreciate the help, I don’t expect it, and sometimes I feel like the time could be better used networking further with their colleagues and board members (though I’d never say that – I don’t think it’s my place).

    I see it as part of my job to clean up after a meeting, just as it’s my job to set up before a meeting. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing to take your own personal garbage to the bin on your way out or to pick up a few items as you go. In an old, old job the thing that used to drive me insane was when people would leave their empty coffee cups beside the garbage but not put them in the garbage! I think even just taking care of your personal mess is more than enough help – the assistant will appreciate it and I can’t imagine anyone looking at you differently because of it.

    1. kapers*

      As a former EA and a current manager, even if event breakdown is specifically an admin’s job, I greatly prefer to work in “pitch-in” culture. A pitch-in culture to me is where, at the very least, you bus your own junk, and as a bonus, you make an overture to help if you have the time (but you listen if the admin tells you your help isn’t helpful– sometimes there’s no room or it’s too many cooks or the admin prefers to handle.)

      However, pitch-in culture only appeals to me if the offers come equally from men and women, which has NOT been my experience. In my experience, admins have been female and management mostly male, and pitch-inners have been female.

      So I do not fault the OP for helping, nor for questioning it.

  31. PolarBear*

    Is this a USA thing? I’ve never been asked or expected to help. If it was in my job description I would but that’s why we have cleaners and catering staff in our offices.

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