should I pretend to be bad at work I hate?

A reader writes:

My partner offered me some surprising career advice the other day and it’s been weighing on my mind since.

I had been venting about a bad week at work. I have ended up with a really tiresome and time-heavy task that has nothing to do with my actual role in the business and instead is much more like admin. Think purchasing office furniture or going to the bank to cash checks. Anyone could do it, but we’re a small business, so someone had to take one for the team, and that ended up being me.

The thing is, it always ends up being me doing these things. I’m a 20-something woman, but I’m no less senior to most of my colleagues and no more qualified for the task in hand. I’m a friendly and helpful presence around the office, so I think perhaps it’s just easy to ask me. Perhaps there’s a bit of sexism involved? My colleagues are majority male and I work in a male-dominated industry.

In the past, I’ve tended to just dig in and make sure the necessary things happen to keep the business going, but I started to realize that my colleagues always manage to side-step those sort of tasks. I started getting frustrated, and I vented to my partner.

His advice surprised me. He told me, “You need to be strategically bad at some things.” In other words, if I continued to excel at the tasks that are actually within my job description but deliberately sucked at the other stuff, I would be able to avoid that stuff in the future. He warned that being helpful in the way that I am could be holding me back in my career. I could be unconsciously slipping into a support role when I should be spending my time gaining skills that would help me move onwards and upwards in my career.

His point really threw me. Are other people doing this? Is it even ethical? Or team-spirited? Is there a better way to achieve the same end? I’d greatly appreciate your opinion!

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 408 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Jennifer

    Being strategically bad at things is not good advice, particularly since the work you’re complaining about is really simple stuff that a high schooler could do. If you mess that up, they may not want to give you more complicated things to do.

    He does have a point that you maybe are being a bit too accommodating. Don’t volunteer for it and gently suggest that someone else do it when you are asked. Alison’s script is good. Best wishes!

    Reply
    1. Annette

      Yes. New hire can’t read the directions on a copier or coffeemaker. My thought – this individual is not bright. Probably harms women more than men (subconscious expectation that women should be good at this).

      I don’t know what to do about this problem. But playing dumb = sure to backfire on young woman in male field.

      Reply
      1. Hapless Bureaucrat

        Agreed, I think this often looks a lot worse on women than men. It’s kind of a know- your-office thing. If your skills are otherwise well-respected or you’re in an industry where no one is expected to know a skill like event planning, it’s probably less risky to be strategically bad at things.
        But this is a classic double-bind for women. Get relegated to admin, or get perceived as less competent.

        Reply
        1. AnnaBananna

          I remember reading something …somewhere, GAH, I think it was a tongue in cheek look at tiger moms but it basically said that this ‘play dumb’ strategy is employed by men frequently with their wives so they don’t have to be in charge of the task ever again. It was an interesting theory, and I couldn’t tell you it’s accurate, but wanted to mention it since it was topical.

          Reply
          1. Gazebo Slayer

            Oh yeah, “deliberately be terrible at housework so you’ll never have to do any” is definitely a thing.

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            1. MsChanandlerBong

              Like when Ray told Robert to purposely screw up his wedding invitations so he wouldn’t get stuck doing any more wedding-related tasks.

              Hank ‘n’ Pat MacDougall request the honor of your presents-” Robert, you spelled “presents” like gifts! It wasn’t supposed to go out! You even put the wrong date! It’s the ninth, not the sixth- people are gonna show up three days early! And what is this? “Attire optional”?! It’s black tie optional! “Attire optional” means maybe naked! There’s going to be nude people! At the church! On a Wednesday!

              Reply
            2. Sapphire

              Can confirm. A friend who works in finance overheard a conversation between two alpha bros at the gym where they talked about putting a red sock in with the whites in the dryer, so they wouldn’t have to do laundry when their girlfriends asked.

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          2. Susana

            Yep, I ran into that at my last job – a man who was of the “oh, honey you vacuum so much better than I do” sort managed to get me to basically do his research because I had the contacts. I started giving him the absolute minimum if what he wanted. Only way to shut it down. Sorry, but if LW does a stellar job at the admin stuff, she’ll be the admin, by default, no matter what her real job. So what if they think she’s”dumb” at that? If she’s good at her actual job, that’s what matters. If she’s being judged more by her admin pitch-ins… she should leave anyway.

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            1. Tan

              I agree it’s not a case of being bad or incompetent it’s a case of doing the minimum and /or playing dumb, or simply asking so many follow up questions they give up and think “I’ll do it myself”. Better yet, if you can get away with it “mum” / “pity” them when they ask e.g. “Cindy, you are so good at filing can you put this away for me”. “Your a big boy I’m sure you can do it, it’s just a case of hiding things using the alphabet”. If they persist with a “well you seem so much quicker than me”. Something like “Well let me show you, come along: this is “Document”, so should be under “D” like dog and comes after C on this shelf, see?”. Not all work environments are the same (the bosses I’ve had would respond with any complaints about this treatment with “why were you ask how to file something?” etc) but it works really well in a male dominated open office.

              Reply
      2. ursula

        Yeah, this. A woman who can’t make coffee, take competent notes, or tidy up is just going to seem kind of stupid and useless to colleagues (and possibly make them even less likely to give her important tasks that need attention). There’s no outsmarting the patriarchy, and feigned incompetence only works for dudes.

        (Sidenote: This is a tactic I have seen dudes use a lot re housework, which maybe gives me a knee-jerk resentment to the idea.)

        Reply
        1. Hapless Bureaucrat

          Yeah, that was my thought too. I bet this tactic has worked for the partner in the past, or for men he’s seen, and he doesn’t know it’s a lot more fraught for women.

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          1. Kathleen_A

            I actually can’t make coffee, and I’m perfectly competent in other respects. But in my case, I don’t drink coffee, which is why I know how to make it in only the vaguest possible way, which is why nobody ever asks me to make it. :-)

            But to get back on topic, my experience is that you can play inept at a few tasks and get away with it without any major repercussions. But to get out of a lot of them, you need to be a little more assertive, and Alison has provided some great scripts to help you do this.

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            1. Aggretsuko

              Yeah, as a non-coffee drinker, don’t ask me to make it. I don’t CARE what makes a great cup of coffee and as long as I am not a barista, no big deal.

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              1. Amy Farrah Fowler

                ditto, I hate coffee, and could not make a decent cup if my life depended on it. Thankfully, I also work from home and never need to make coffee for anyone.

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                1. BookishMiss

                  Yep, I never drink coffee. Gives me migraines. I’m sure my dad taught me how when I was little and thought it was something fun and grown up, but I’ve since replaced that knowledge with brewing a mean cup of tea.

              2. Librarian of SHIELD

                I don’t drink coffee and have zero interest in how it’s made. Once when my office was hosting the higher-ups from HQ, everybody was busy getting ready and my boss asked me to make the coffee. When I told her I didn’t know how, she looked at me like I had three heads. I ended up finding a video on YouTube, and even then my first attempt was so bad we had to throw it out and start over.

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                1. Rainy

                  I do drink coffee but I’m awful at making it. I don’t know why. I’m an accomplished home cook and baker, and I pour a great cocktail, but I can’t make a drinkable cup of coffee to save my life. My husband makes and brings me coffee in bed every morning.

            2. Blue

              One of the few admin type tasks my coworker does for others is make coffee for a weekly meeting, and I’ve already expressed that I will not be taking over that duty when she retires next year. I’m an anti-coffee person myself (I don’t care how much sugar is involved, I will never not find it bitter and gross) and it’s convenient to be able to say, “Trust me, you don’t want me to make your coffee since I can’t fathom what “good” coffee would even taste like.”

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              1. londonedit

                I don’t drink tea, but seeing as I am British and tea is integral to the fabric of British society, I know how to make a decent cup of tea. I might not be drinking it myself, but I know how to make a standard cup of tea that will be acceptable to most people, and I also know the difference between weak/strong/just a splash of milk etc. Because it’s nice to be able to make a proper cup of tea for people, whether that’s friends or family or work colleagues, even if I’m making myself a coffee or throwing a herbal tea bag into a mug for myself. I’m not going to refuse to make other people tea just because I don’t drink it!

                I definitely think, though, that OP needs to be careful about not becoming the ‘office mum’ or getting stuck doing all the traditionally ‘female’ tasks. But the way to stop doing those tasks isn’t to be intentionally bad at them, it’s to have a grown-up conversation in the office about the fact that these admin-type tasks exist, and they need to be divided up among the workers. Of course, maybe Jane will be better at ordering furniture and Fergus will be better at making coffee, so you can certainly assign the tasks on that basis, but they shouldn’t be dumped on one person and that person shouldn’t always be female.

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            3. Jennifer

              True but if you needed to take a job as an admin for whatever reason, I’m sure you’d pick it up pretty quickly. It’s not very complicated. That’s my point.

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            4. Wake up!

              Plenty of people who don’t drink coffee make coffee every day. It’s not hard. I’d really question someone’s intellect if they said they didn’t know or couldn’t figure out how to make coffee (as opposed to some other reason for not being the coffee maker)

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              1. Artemesia

                I on the other hand, really question someone’s motives in always asking the woman reporter, or lawyer, or professor, or accountant, or software developer to make coffee while not expecting her male colleagues to do so.

                Reply
                1. Galloping Gargoyles

                  I can make coffee but I can’t make coffee that people want to drink. The first time I made coffee for a former boss, he asked me if I was trying to kill him. Apparently it was that strong. Which is how my dad liked it. When I made him coffee, it was one scoop per cup plus one extra. Apparently that is not how you make coffee for the majority of the whole world. :-) I have since learned to tone it down slightly but really, I’m much better at making tea… at least, tea that I enjoy lol I can look up directions or a recipe but I almost guarantee my one scoop does not equal someone else’s one scoop. It has nothing to do with motives or lack of intelligence but lack of experience as I am not a coffee drinker nor do I play one on TV or the Internet. :-)

              2. Librarian of SHIELD

                I mean, you could decide to question someone’s intellect over not knowing how to make coffee, but that would be a silly reason. I don’t drink coffee, and it had never been a part of my job description, so why in the world should I be expected to know how? It doesn’t mean I’m dumb, it literally only means that I had never made coffee before.

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              3. Kathleen_A

                Of course I could learn how to make coffee, but why should I? I don’t like it, I don’t drink it, and plenty of people who do like and and do drink it can make it, so it’s not like I’m depriving my coworkers of some valuable service if I let someone else take on this task.

                So yes, I could learn to make coffee, but I never have…and if learning how to make it means that someone’s going to badger me to make it, then I’m glad I never have.

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              4. Eukomos

                Every once in a while it becomes necessary for me to make some coffee and I always have to google how to do it. I’m certainly not accumulating any skill at it, if there’s any trick to it that isn’t in the first page of google hits I’m not going to know it. I’m a tea person and I’m sure it shows in my coffee skills. I’m not going to poison anyone but I also don’t think people are going to ask me to be the coffee making specialist in the office any time soon.

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              5. SarahTheEntwife

                If it’s going to be someone’s standing job to make coffee, it’s reasonable to think less of them for not being able to figure out how. But if it’s just a default “hey, Jane, can you start the coffee for the meeting?” I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Jane to say “I’ve actually never used this coffee maker; can you ask Rob to do it?”. Because yes, Jane can surely figure it out, but her time would be better spent doing her actual job if there are other employees who are more familiar with the coffee maker.

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          2. ursula

            Yeah, sorry, I didn’t mean that you will be tested on these 3 things, as a woman! I meant that if you happen to be seen doing ‘simple’ tasks like this badly, people will draw negative inferences about your general competence. I didn’t word it clearly, sorry about that!

            Reply
            1. Hapless Bureaucrat

              Right. Which is why the advice to women tends to be “just don’t do those tasks if they aren’t part of your PD.”

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            2. Wake up!

              I thought what you wrote was clear. A woman pretending to be bad at basic office tasks will be seen as incompetent whereas a man who can’t do or says he can’t do the same tasks goes unnoticed.

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            3. Artemesia

              I agree. Don’t be bad at it, but make clear from the beginning that it is not something you do. ‘Oh I am not great as a note taker, it would be better if someone else took that on.’

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          3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

            Can confirm! I’m generally considered pretty sharp and capable – I’m a software developer with a CS degree and more years of experience in the field that I would be willing to admit to in a job interview. But for a few months in my 20s, I was out of work and my son was a toddler and we needed money, and out of desperation, I took a job as a secretary at a private school. The school itself was in a different town, so I was only responsible for the office work – I was really and truly awful at it. One thing I remember vividly was my boss leaving exasperated notes, asking why no one had watered the potted plants again… because I could not for the life of me remember about there being potted plants and it being my responsibility to keep them watered! These things happen. Likewise, I brew great coffee for my family, but would probably either honestly forget or get the proportions wrong if I had to do it several times a day for a group of coworkers (because my coworkers’ tastes in coffee are probably not the same as my family’s and there is no way I would remember both). We do exist.

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        2. bwooster

          I have never had to take notes in any job I ever worked because my handwriting is atrocious. I don’t think it’s ever reflected badly on me.

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          1. Antilles

            I think it would depend on how much you use the strategy. If you’re strategically terrible at *one* thing, then people probably won’t raise their eyebrows at you in general – some people have terrible handwriting, some people are terrible at making coffee, some people are bad at tidying up. So whatever, bw’s handwriting is bad so we don’t ask bw to take notes any more.
            But if you’re strategically awful at several things, then you quickly get into the “…and how is OP so bad at everything?” territory.

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            1. Sarah N

              I mean, presumably OP is going to keep on being awesome at her ACTUAL JOB? I don’t think I’ve ever judged someone’s intellectual skills or job capability based on whether they can get our (evil, evil) copy machine to work.

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              1. Antilles

                If it’s just the copy machine? No, of course not.
                But if you can’t figure out the copy machine AND can’t figure out the coffee machine AND can’t figure out how to order lunch for the office AND can’t figure out how to go to the bank to deposit checks AND etc…yeah, I think people will start judging your intellectual capacity or at least questioning your common sense.

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                1. Boone9

                  Respectfully, if I am a female employee surrounded by equal-in-position-to-me male employees, and those male employees and/or managers are essentially going down a list of, “Hey, Female Employee, can you figure out the copy machine, make coffee, order lunch for us, and deposit these checks?” – I don’t care what they think of my ability to be their secretary. Because I’m not their secretary.

                  And the answer is “no.” It’s a complete sentence.

          2. Seeking Second Childhood

            @bwooster Around here, “taking notes” is most likely on a laptop that has been brought into the conference room. No handwriting involved…

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            1. Steph

              Agreed. I’m an admin with terrible handwriting, and I’m often asked to take notes because I type 100+wpm.

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        3. Asenath

          I can’t see it working for dudes, either. I’ve encountered situations in which they got away with it, of course – but generally the exasperated people (usually women) who do the work know perfectly well it’s just an act to get out of work. It’s just easier to do the work yourself than to force the issue, and maybe end up having to clean up after Dude and THEN do it.

          Cut this off by not volunteering in the first place – and if you’ve been volunteering, and are now sick of it, use Alison’s examples to find a more plausible reason than incompetence to not do it any more. I think pretending incompetence could too easily backfire – and is unlikely to fool anyone.

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          1. EH

            Yeah, the guys I’ve noticed get out of these jobs by refusing to take them. “Oh, I don’t know how to do it, but I bet Jane does, ask her!” or, they’re “too busy with important things” to do it. I’ve seen it more in domestic situations than professional ones, but it works in both.

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            1. BookishMiss

              This reminds me of the episode of That 70s Show where Eric gets out of wedding registry shopping by picking the ugliest fork possible. Yes, sometimes “I’ll just do it myself” is the best option when faced with “Idk I’m just bad at it, women will do it,” but sometimes pushing back is really worth it.

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              1. Librarian of SHIELD

                In the first episode of Agent Carter, one of the men says he has important work to do and asks Peggy to do his filing by saying “You’re so much better at that sort of thing.” She responds with “What sort of thing? The Alphabet?”

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                1. Susan K

                  There’s an episode of The Office in which Pam and Ryan have a standoff over who should clean the microwave. Ryan says, “I’m just so bad at that stuff. I would probably make it worse.” Pam says, “How would wiping it with a paper towel make it worse?” Ryan replies, “Oh, I don’t know. I would find a way!”

          2. pancakes

            I completely agree. And am always amused when people give non-actors advice that calls upon them to be a convincing actor. I used to edit demo reels for actors, and even among pros there’s considerable variance in their abilities.

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          3. Collingswood

            I’ve seen plenty of guys be bad at and/or just fail to do work and it seems to get them out of it no repercussions. So, I have to disagree that it doesn’t work. (I’m an attorney, for reference.)

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        4. pleaset

          F#ck guys who feel this way. If a woman can afford it in your career, don’t put up with it. Say no.

          I realize I’m a guy so it’s easy for me to say, but we really need some pushback on the make coffee stuff for women. It’s horrendous.

          Reply
          1. Artemesia

            I managed to avoid most of this by not being willing to do it. But it is harder if you take it on and then don’t want it to be your job forever. There is a sort of vibe some of us manage to give off that prevents men from assuming they can stick us with women’s work. I can’t quite distill it although I managed to do it during my careers, but part of it is establishing boundaries early on and not throwing oneself into being the ‘office Mom’, the cookie maker, the one who always jumps up to clean up after the events. Once you have established yourself you can bake with impunity.

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            1. Veronica

              This has been my strategy as well. The hardest part at my last job was that, if I didn’t volunteer to do a caretaking task, it just didn’t get done. The manager who took care of birthday treats left, so we stopped celebrating birthdays because I was unwilling to take it on. One year I planned a company barbecue and when the time rolled around the following year, I was about to go on a long vacation, so I got the ball rolling and left a list of next steps for my boss. When I got back from vacation, he hadn’t done a thing and the barbecue never happened. It was hard for me to just let those things go, because I wanted it to be the kind of workplace that did fun stuff, but I was unwilling to let it all fall on my shoulders.

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        5. Susana

          And what about the men who seem unable to do it – are they seen as incompetent? I doubt it. Her partner is right to a degree – she should not screw up these tasks, but don’t do them well either. Or it is ALL she will be doing. At least they’ll probably pat her on the head and say, good girl, though.

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        6. JamieS

          While I’m sure this would happen to some women, in general this sounds more like something people (especially women) imagine will happen then something that is likely to actually happen.

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    2. Engineer Girl

      If sexism is involved then the punishment for failure will also be disproportionately harsh.

      And frankly, passive aggressive responses to problems aren’t the best solutions.

      Reply
      1. Oh no, not another Jennifer

        +1 That was exactly what I was thinking and I loved how you worded that. I absolutely agree.

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      2. Suzy

        I agree. Pretending to be bad at something could backfire (for the reasons people noted above) but also it is passive aggressive instead of being direct. Much better to be direct and say “unfortunately I am busy with X (work related task) and I dont have time to do Y (admin task).” And either someone else will do it or it won’t get done…. either way that’s not your problem alone to fix. Maybe the office needs to hire an admin person but they have not had to because staff like you have been covering. Definitely stop volunteering. And redirect those requests elsewhere. I think it would also be OK to say “I did Y (admin task) and Z (admin task) the last time. I think its someone else’s turn to help out.” But simply, if you want to be treated like an equal you have to see yourself as an equal and expect equal treatment.

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      3. Susana

        But the men are using “passive aggressive” solutions – and winning. They will NOT promote her and see her in a more positive wya because she orders cake and takes notes better.

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        1. Engineer Girl

          There’s a double standard at play. And passive aggressive responses are always bad regardless of gender.
          The appropriate response is “You didn’t hire me to be the admin. Can we get someone to do these tasks or at least distribute them?”
          If they push back then the next step is “I’m concerned that I’m being given admin roles because I’m female. You didn’t hire me for this and it’s an inefficient use of company resources.”

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          1. Susana

            Absolutely, EG! The point is she should not just do the grunt work because it’s easier to do it than make waves.

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    3. Salyan

      Speaking as a career admin, there is actually skill involved in administrative work. Sure, ‘anyone’ can do it, but not ‘anyone’ can do it well. The OP should definitely focus on skills and opportunities that match the career she is wanting to do, but please don’t denigrate admin skills.

      Reply
      1. Washi

        I think of the skill involved in being an admin as being about keeping a lot of balls in the air and managing difficult personalities, etc. But in my previous experience as an admin, no one task is actually particularly skilled (otherwise you would get paid more), the skill comes from getting all these odds and ends done efficiently.

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        1. Sammie

          Admins are actually paid very well – in those companies that understand it takes a very particular kind of skillset to pull all those tasks off. And some admin tasks require a lot of skill – if they didn’t, then my incredibly intelligent non-admin coworkers would be able to do them no problem, but they can’t and I can. And, by the way, I have seen them try and I was the one hired to clean up the mess because no one else could do these tasks – it’s just not the way their brains work.

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            1. pope suburban

              Right? My last job paid, no kidding, the starting wage at In N Out. Granted that this was a massively dysfunctional workplace, with a deeply prejudiced CEO, but it also wasn’t that far out of line with other postings. That’s not really reasonable for a bookkeeper and general office manager. Frankly, if the burger joint could have guaranteed me 40 hours, I’d have taken that instead, because the treatment would have been better!

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            2. Who Plays Backgammon?

              This is why I say “admin” is a bulls**t title that’s become a collective catch-all for everyone from the entry-level typist to the executive assistant to the CEO. And many “admins” are doing specialized jobs such as facilities management, contract negotiation, event planning, marketing, etc., only without the title, pay, or RESPECT, because they’re just, you, “admin.”

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        2. Prairie

          Maybe you feel that admin work is not difficult because your talents align with the skills needed by admins. But there are plenty of people who are good at other things who cannot organize a meeting, take notes, anticipate needs, solve problems on their feet, manage relationships, etc.
          Part of the reason it admins don’t get paid a lot is because it’s seen as women’s work. Not because it does not require skill. (For a great illustration of this concept, look into how coding was a low paying job when it was predominately women, and it became high paying as it became male-dominated.)

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          1. Librarian of SHIELD

            This. I work in a field that is female dominated primarily because administrators realized early on that it would cost them less to run a library if most of their employees were women. We’re still not a very well paid field given the amount of education required.

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          2. RUKiddingMe

            Also males in female dominated jobs (think nursing for ex) get paid more than women with equal skill and experience.

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        3. Dumbo

          There’s a lot to unpack there about how we value labor, and how certain types of jobs get segregated (and then devalued). For example, a lot of the jobs that pay terribly are ones that keep the world moving- clerks, cashiers, stockers, cooks, etc. It’s not that these tasks have no tangible or appreciable value, it’s that we’re encouraged to look down on them in order to justify the low wages given for them. Perhaps people who are underpaid are just that: underpaid. Perhaps they’re just as industrious or capable as people you think deserve your respect or a living wage. This is a fundamentally unkind attitude to carry around. I’m not sure whether you’ve ever been in a position where people have looked down on you or made awful assumptions about your capability/background/worth, but it’s not fun, and it’s especially grating coming from people who rely on you to function well (in or out of the workplace). Whether that’s a reminder or a new piece of information, it might be worth thinking over.

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          1. Washi

            ….I was one of the underpaid admins we’re talking about, and as I said above, I do think it takes skill to be a good one! And I believe that everyone is entitled to a living wage for work they do.

            My point was just that in my own experience as an admin doing a lot of data entry, office housekeeping, etc, is that doing any one of my tasks one time is not hard for a lot of people – lots of office workers can type in one email address correctly. It’s typing in hundreds of email addresses correctly that is challenging. Basically, I’m trying to say that the OP isn’t really “being an admin” and denigrating it, because that’s a whole different job with very different dynamics.

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          2. CM

            This reminds me of the Douglas Adams piece (it’s from one of his novels, I forget which) where everybody had to leave the planet, so they divided people into A, B, C, and D groups and launched them into space — but by design, only the A and B people (doctors, lawyers, finance people, executives) were actually sent to the new planet, and the rest (hairdressers, janitors, people who sanitize public telephones — this was written in the 80s) were just hurtling through space forever. The A and B people soon died out from a quick-spreading virus transmitted by public telephone receivers.

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      2. Amethystmoon

        This is true. I’ve done data entry for most of my career. In my last job, my male coworker was terrible at doing administrative and data entry tasks. I think he was bad at it for reasons that weren’t entirely his fault — he had a poor memory, but even with memory problems, there are things people can do to mitigate that, such as writing down and reading notes, and he didn’t do any of that, as far as I could tell. He also couldn’t multitask very well and was not detail-oriented at all, which is something one needs to be to do administrative tasks.

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      3. Jennifer

        I do think that there can be skill involved in admin work. I’m in an admin role too. I was referring to the specific tasks she is being asked to perform here and there, like going to the bank or picking out furniture. Those aren’t that complicated. Being in a full-time admin role can indeed be challenging.

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      4. Seeking Second Childhood

        Non-admin here. Put me in front of [technical software package] and I’ll make it sing. Ask me to coordinate a move and it won’t be efficient.
        I have HUGE respect for people who can run a department like I cannot.

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      5. It's Pronounced Bruce

        This is the really key point here. I often give the advice “never get too good at doing something you don’t want to do,” but that doesn’t mean you should just do a terrible job when given simple tasks and look like a dummy. It means that you shouldn’t set up a situation where people know that they can toss [insert non-preferred work here] at you and not think about it again. Being capable of handling something is not the same as being really good at it.

        Because yes, anyone can do lots of things and take care of them when needed. But that’s not the same as being the go-to person, the one who will quickly and flawlessly execute something better than everyone else. It’s when you occupy that specific role that suddenly you get stuck doing that kind of work forever, since people will naturally gravitate towards handing tasks off to the person they know will just make it happen in the best and most expedient way.

        You don’t need to be bad at it, you just need to not be the best choice. You’re shooting for average, I guess.

        Reply
      6. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

        +1000 – I posted about my experience above. I tried and it was honestly the only job I was awful at in my entire career. I’ve worked on the shop floor at a manufacturing plant, as a counselor in a kid camp, etc and was good at all that, but the office admin work got the best of me – believe me, I tried, because I needed that job and because the boss docked my pay at least once for making a mistake. It is a skill like any other, in the sense that some people will not be as good at it as others.

        Reply
      7. Collingswood

        I don’t think people are intending to denigrate admin skills. The issue seems to be that women get stuck with their job, PLUS admin work, whereas men tend not too. If it’s not your actually job or what you are rewarded for (in raises, bonuses, etc.) this takes away from the time you have for your job-related tasks.

        I definitely appreciate good admins. They can help make my job a lot easier!

        Reply
        1. I Took A Mint

          This. Clearly admin work needs to be done by somebody, and isn’t it just easier to have women do it, since they’re so good at it and it’s so hard /s

          Reply
      8. Who Plays Backgammon?

        I would also say that baking cakes and cleaning the microwave are NOT administrative duties. You’ll notice many admin jobs call for degrees and other high-level skills and knowledge. Unfortunately, many people still view “the admin” as the office elf, or the auxiliary helpmates to “the team” rather than integral to the team.

        Reply
    4. The New Wanderer

      I think it makes more sense to reframe the situation as “Be less available for these kinds of tasks” not “Be strategically bad at them.” Strategically bad will backfire more than it will help, because people aren’t reliably going to make the connection that that Sara is really good at her work but really bad at admin tasks, therefore don’t saddle her with admin tasks before they decide that Sara is just bad at some things and therefore not a good employee.

      But be less available for genderized, non-career-progressive tasks, definitely.

      Reply
      1. BridgeNerd

        I agree completely. I don’t think being “bad” at anything on purpose is a smart move. I’m a woman in engineering and this sort of thing happens all the time. One strategy that has worked well is that instead of saying “No” for requests like “Can you organize the spring picnic?” I like to use “I am fully extended at this time.” It’s not a hard No but also makes the point clear. I am senior enough now that I can ask junior staff to takes notes and I have strategies to avoid things like clean up, cubicle decorations, and fetching coffee. I also never apologize when turning down these requests.

        I focus on being extremely helpful within my area of expertise, so there isn’t the risk of “she’s a generally unhelpful person.” If I’m getting coffee before a meeting, I will offer for others, so this isn’t about manners or being polite, either. Instead I’ve worked hard to be helpful and accommodating in my area so the requests I get aren’t housekeeping in nature and instead people come to me with technical questions (which I happily oblige). But it is a problem that women have to think about that men typically don’t.

        Reply
        1. Jen S. 2.0

          But it is a problem that women have to think about that men typically don’t.
          —————

          This for me is the crux of the issue as asked. It’s not that it’s the end of the world to be bad at something, or even to be strategically bad at something. It’s that doing so in the workplace comes with professional risks for women that it does not for men, and the boyfriend in question clearly has never had to give that issue a thought. The LW would be WAAAAAY better off being strategically assertive, not strategically incompetent.

          Reply
          1. EPLawyer

            This is what I am wondering. Women pitch in because “small office” and “want to be a team player.” What do MEN consider a team player to be? Because it ain’t making the coffee or fixing the copier jam. Or should women just stop worrying about being a team player and be “me first” since that seems to work for men?

            Reply
            1. Working Hypothesis

              The problem is that there really isn’t a good solution for women right now, except to keep slowly hauling the world into a less sexist way of thinking about reality. Because I think you’re right that most men don’t think much about being team players at work — they don’t have to. Being personally ambitious and primarily aiming at one’s own individual gain will get a man called a rock star, and deferred to, by people who assume that because he’s made clear that he won’t do anything that doesn’t benefit him selfishly, you’d better ensure that everything you ask of him *does* benefit him selfishly… or, horror of horrors, you might lose him and his ambition and talent.

              There are a few management writers/consultants who are starting to push the idea that it really isn’t smart behavior on management’s part to cater to these guys by now… “The No-Asshole Rule” and a couple of similar books are out there, and a few managers are even listening. But it’s not the way to bet in any random company. Mostly, selfish focus on a man’s part will make the people around him believe he’s better at his work than he really is, and therefore must be placated — there are actual studies on that.

              The same behavior definitely does not yield the same results from a woman. Women who act like men in this fashion will only get “Not Team Player” branded on their personnel file, and their performance evaluations will suffer for it. Because women are *supposed* to be team players in ways which men simply aren’t at this point. Sure, men who play well with others are pleasant to work around and gain the loyalty of their co-workers, but more often than not, they won’t get the admiration of their managers in the same way the self-centered ones will. But women who don’t efface themselves in order to make their colleagues’ lives pleasant will be seen as failing in a critical performance duty… a performance duty most managers honestly have no idea they are assigning to the women they manage but not the men. Meantime, a woman who *does* go out of her way to be the glue that holds her team together will usually not simultaneously be able to do the work she was officially hired for at the same kind of pace that is possible for her male colleagues who are not having the load of glue-type tasks dumped on them… and her performance evaluations will suffer for that, too. She may be seen as good at her job, but she won’t be seen as “as good as Fred,” because Fred isn’t spending 15 hours a week doing tasks the manager and other team members don’t even see unless they don’t get done. But *when* they don’t get done, it’s because Jane isn’t a team player… never because Fred isn’t a team player.

              There’s not a way out for individual women, except to avoid working at places which aren’t seriously good at dodging all the unconscious institutional sexism problems. And there aren’t enough of those. The way out for women as a whole is for the world to grow up, but sadly, that takes a lot of time.

              Reply
              1. Starbuck

                I love this, do you have a blog?

                What you say about women having to just avoid sexist workplaces is so true.

                Reply
            2. Legal Beagle

              Maybe a good balance is to pitch in once, to be a team player, but the next time say something like, “I was happy to fix the copier last time, but I can’t be the one to do it every time. I’m happy to show you how once, and then you’ll need to ask others.”

              Reply
              1. EPLawyer

                Why should you have to show someone how to do a basic task like GO TO THE BANK and hand over money. Or unjam the copier. Women are not born knowing how to do these things. A man can figure it out without being shown as easily as a woman can.

                Reply
                1. Librarian of SHIELD

                  Unless the copier is ancient, it will tell you how to unjam it all by itself! Just follow the instructions on the screen, my dude.

            3. Susana

              Totally. Too much worry about whether they’ll all like you if you don’t do a smashing job at organizing the company picnic. Don’t screw it up, but don’t put any more effort into it than anyone else at teh office would, or you will be doing it ALL THE TIME. And no, doing it well will not get you promoted – it will get you pegged as the person who does admin or grunt work (not the same). Which is fine if that’s your job – but it isn’t, and LW doesn’t want to do it.

              Reply
          2. Jen S. 2.0

            Good question. Is it that doing whatever is necessary to get the *work* done is their definition of team player, but they don’t consider the peripheral pieces to be part of the work? That is, the work has a much narrower definition, and faffing about with the coffee and supplies isn’t part of it?

            (…that reminds me of a comment I read on another site, where a wife noted that her husband’s definition of “doing the laundry” ends when he hits start on the dryer…)

            Reply
    5. Save One Day at a Time

      The LW obviously knows how to do these tasks, as they’ve done them before. The male coworkers are finding ways to sidestep these jobs, there’s no reason she shouldn’t be able to as well

      Reply
      1. MissGirl

        Yep, I think her boyfriend let her in on what men are doing often to get out of tasks they see as beneath them. “My coffee is just so bad but you make it so well.”

        I’ve heard men do this all the time, and it’s totally obvious they’re doing it and they don’t care. And then someone eventually does it and that someone doesn’t look better for doing it.

        Reply
        1. German Shortaired Pointer

          I’ve even had former romantic partners try and pull stuff like that. “Can you please do my laundry for me? You’re so much better at folding clothes!” IME there’s a definite double standard out there (in the work world and without) that a woman who isn’t good at cooking/cleaning/organizing is dumb, incompetent or lazy but a man who is bad at those same things is just too busy being good at other “more important” things.

          Reply
          1. EH

            Yep, I had an ex who wouldn’t even strain the damn pasta while I was down dealing with the laundry. “Oh, I’ll mess it up! You’re so much better at it!” UGHGHGHGHGHGH IT IS PASTA HOW HARD IS THAT?! Really, he didn’t want to have to pause his show and help out for a sec with the meal he was about to eat.

            Reply
            1. VictorianCowgirl

              This is why I always end up single (that may be an exaggeration but I have negative patience for this kind of horsepoo). That man would be eating drive-through if this happened in my house.

              Reply
              1. VictorianCowgirl

                Hit return too soon. As well as in the workplace. I got very good at saying “looks like you’ll all be having bad coffee if you can’t read the directions on the bag” once I moved out of an admin role and was asked to make the coffee by default for being the only woman.

                Reply
                1. Amethystmoon

                  I don’t understand why companies can’t just buy K-cup machines. There is literally no skill involved, just making sure the water basin is full.

                2. Librarian of SHIELD

                  I’m just gonna say, following the instructions on the bag is not necessarily a foolproof method of getting coffee. The first time I tried, the coffee can had a chart that showed how many cups of coffee grounds to put in for the number of servings you want. The can comes with a cup inside for scooping. Did the instructions mean *that* cup? No. They meant a regular measuring cup, but they didn’t actually *say* that. And I maintain that the terrible coffee that appeared as a result was not entirely my fault. :D

            2. MayLou

              Ha I was recently highly amused to see a het couple of my acquaintance (been married for at least 40 years) have a very similar exchange. He asked her to serve his dinner for him, because he would spill it on the tablecloth. How do you live for the best part of seven decades without developing the skill of serving food without making a mess, but somehow being able to EAT the food tidily? It made me chuckle, but there didn’t seem to be any benefit in pointing out the imbalance to them. Like I said, married over 40 years. I think the dye’s cast by this point.

              Reply
          2. Iconic Bloomingdale

            So true about the double standard. A friend of mine used to argue with her former husband about housework that needed to be done around the apartment (of course she felt she had been saddled with the lion’s share of it). And after one particular argument, he told her he didn’t want to do the housework and didn’t particularly care if it wasn’t done because any guests who visited would think to themselves, “NAME OF WIFE keeps such a dirty home” – not him.

            Notice I said he was her former husband.

            Reply
            1. IronLadyforthis

              I used to iron all our clothes. I was taught to iron at age 5 and like my clothes neat, so I was good at it. When I got a job with more hours and a longer commute I no longer had time to do my husbands shirts, so I told him I’d show him how and he could do his own. He tried sort of jokingly saying that it wouldn’t matter if they were wrinkled–he’d just tell everyone his wife refused to iron his shirts! I said that was fine, but he was the one with a professional reputation to uphold and it was up to him if he wanted to risk looking rumpled. He decided to do his own ironing; never learned how to do it as well as I did, but competently enough to look presentable. I let go of the perfectionism and he gained a skill.

              Reply
          3. Persephone Mulberry

            Not to get too off topic, but after 15+ years of being married to, accommodating, and eventually divorcing a master of learned helplessness, I am not here for the “you are so much better at” refrain for mundane household tasks, making appointments, etc. in a future relationship. I will stay single forever first.

            Reply
            1. VictorianCowgirl

              Preach!!! Solidarity, my friend.

              This applies to my work history as well. I do not perform admin tasks (actually, I perform all my own admin tasks, because I kick butt at it and like things to be a certain way) at work for others, and I decline hard no with a sweet smile. They stop asking after a while.

              Reply
            2. Cassandra

              As a recent divorcee for similar reasons, PREACH IT. Single 5eva; I am never putting up with that again.

              Yanking this back on topic… I’ve seen the “same people asked to do what the office considers scutwork” happen even in female-dominated professions and workplaces; it just tends to be hierarchical rather than strictly gendered.

              One thing that sometimes helps is asking for a scutwork rota. That way — if the rota is actually enforced, which is admittedly a potential pitfall — everybody does it, nobody shirks, nobody gets dumped on.

              Reply
            3. Working Hypothesis

              I breathe a sigh of relief and embarrassment here. I have to admit that I’m the one who does the “I’m scared to try, you’re the expert!” stuff at my house, almost entirely with things involving computers. My husband and my brother (who lives with us) are both professional techies and I am a massage therapist who has never learned more about computers than how to use a point and click system when everything is going smoothly. When it’s not, I yelp for help. That said, I fix their sore muscles for them, and they yell for me to deal with it when something comes up in my area of expertise, too. So maybe it’s just division of labor?

              Reply
          4. mayfly

            If someone is bad at basic life skills like folding clothes and cleaning, they need *more* practice, not less.

            Reply
            1. Aro

              That’s literally how my mom dealt with it when I was a kid.
              “I can’t do [common task], i’ll mess it up!”
              “Well, if you practice enough, you won’t mess up!”

              Reply
          5. Elizabeth West

            I had a BF who cleaned the house in addition to doing the outside chores, and even cooked–until I moved in. Then a lot of it fell on me, including the outside stuff when he had other things to do. It wasn’t until we broke up and I moved out that I realized how much work I’d been doing and how exhausting it was.

            Reply
        2. Burned Out Supervisor

          They might even gaslight you a little bit by insinuating that you like a particular task. “Oh, why don’t you plan the party, you love that social stuff!” Uh, no, I don’t.

          Reply
          1. Bigglesworth

            See I love the social stuff, but I hate planning social events for work. Catering, plates, setting up, etc., stresses me out in a way that spreadsheets and reading caselaw does not. I’ve had people ask me to plan stuff because I’m good at other stuff and it really caused a decline in my real work because it took me so long to do it. Never again.

            Reply
        3. It's Pronounced Bruce

          Oh yeah, the boyfriend here was letting the LW in on the secret. Like, hey, you wanna know how all your coworkers are somehow avoiding this…?

          How/if women can actually execute these same shenanigans with out repercussions is totally variable, but the advice itself is rooted pretty firmly in reality.

          Reply
    6. Samwise

      Being deliberately bad at easy chores is not at all a good idea. You do not want to look incompetent.

      I would not “gently” suggest — OP’s co-workers are not going to pick up on it. Try these:

      Sorry, can’t do it! Try Bob!
      Oh, I think it’s time to share the joy! One of you guys can take it.
      You know, I’ve done it the last few times. Let’s rotate the chores; Manager Name, could you write a list or figure out a procedure so that everyone pitches in with these chores?

      Or just name it:
      Guys, you may not have noticed, but I’ve been the one to go to the bank/take out the trash/plan the party the last couple of times/for the last 8 months. And since I’m the only woman working here, that’s not a good look. So, time for you all to pitch in!

      And regardless, OP should talk with the manager per AAM’s script (even if she gets it to stop on her own), because the manager needs to be alert to this sort of thing going forward.

      Reply
      1. MintLavendar

        Yeah, I think being explicit about it (to the degree that one can, given how precarious one’s role might be) is the way to go. I think most dudes understand why “it’s not a good look” to have a woman who is ostensibly your equal doing all the housework. If they don’t, then they need to understand it quicklike.

        Reply
      2. Jennifer

        It’s “gentle” compared to what I’d REALLY want to say, which is, “Oh, heck no! Tell Bob to get off his lazy can and go to the bank.”

        Reply
      3. Susana

        That’s great – but not sure it will work. They don’t CARE if a young woman is going all the grunt work, because they don’t want to do it and figure eventually she’ll be so worried about being liked she’ll pick up the slack. Try saying no, if that works. But if it KEEPS being put on you, get it done, bare minimum only.

        Reply
    7. Manders

      In general I try not to be “strategically bad” at anything at work, but there have been times when I deliberately didn’t pick up a skill I could have learned (like fixing the copier or doing the filing) because I had the feeling my non-admin role was going to become a dumping ground for admin tasks.

      At my last job I was also the woman who was considered “bad” at feminine things like cooking for potlucks and planning parties. That would have hurt me if I stayed in that industry, even though those things weren’t in my job description, so I decided to switch to an industry where those aren’t treated as normal parts of work for women but not men.

      Reply
      1. Sloan Kittering

        Yeah, there’s a difference between being deliberately bad at something and just cheerfully not engaging on it. My Male Coworkers: Anybody know how to fix this copier? I need to make copies before the meeting. Me: not me, how about (male coworker)?

        It seems mean, but if I volunteered even once, I would be the copy-making/ copier-fixing person for life. Ask me how I know …

        Reply
        1. Boomerang Girl

          I had a conversation with a woman (Amy) on my team about not engaging. I noticed that Amy was doing a lot of admin tasks on the team despite the fact that she has other work to do. She had expressed some concern about that herself. One day, we were working together (2 of us) in a room where the whole team of 8 people was sitting around a table. Someone needed help with access to a system and Amy immediately turned to help him, despite the fact that she and I were in the middle of something. When I asked her later why she did that, she said it was because it was easy for her to help him. I pointed out that there were 5 men in the room who could have helped the coworker and who were not in the middle of a work conversation. Amy didn’t seem to get my point that she deprioritized the business strategy work we were doing to do something administrative that anyone else could do.

          Regarding the husband’s advice, I did that once when I was younger. My boss asked me to make coffee and I warned him that as a non-coffee drinker, I didn’t think I would be able to make a drinkable cup of coffee. He moved on. However, whenever clients came to visit me, I always offered them coffee and managed not to poison them!

          Reply
      2. LQ

        I’ve leaned into not volunteering, but also letting skills decline.

        Say we got a new copier, I deliberately avoided learning it. I had been so accommodating and helpful when I first started, luckily swaps like that make it easier to cut way back. “Oh I haven’t been printing much since the fancy new ones came in. The number for the help desk is 5555.”

        Reply
        1. pleaset

          It’s possible to be like this with coffee – “Sorry, I don’t know that machine.”

          This won’t work if you actually use it for yourself, but if you don’t, don’t learn.

          Reply
      3. Working Hypothesis

        My mother went to law school in the 1960s, and was all too familiar with the process by which women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg were shunted into legal secretary work instead of lawyer work. She didn’t want it to happen to her, so she very deliberately never learned to type. She’s still a two-fingered typist who takes forever to send an email, but she consistently worked in attorney positions from the time she passed the Bar till she retired.

        Reply
    8. 3107

      I think some of the things she mentions are fine to be strategically bad at. I would totally say “I actually have terrible taste in furniture” or “nobody seems to like the office supplies I order” if picking furniture or office supplies wasn’t my job and only fell to me because I was a woman.

      Reply
      1. LilyP

        I think *saying* that to get out doing it would be fine, but agreeing to buy the furniture and then purposefully picking something ugly or expensive would be a bad plan.

        Reply
    9. Omg.

      But… she’s not a high schooler. Or a cleaning lady, furniture purchase, coffee-fetcher, etc. Personally, I’m a woman with an expensive education. My vagina does not equal = high school level work. Hire a high schooler then. The rest of us will just move on to companies that actually value us to make them money beyond how well we can “tidy up.” Being bad at things that aren’t Woman’s Work doesnt make you stupid. Just let her do her job she was hired to do and pay her for it! How hard is that?

      Reply
  2. Enough

    I have/am willing to pitch in on most things. But I was banned from making coffee at one job because mine was terrible. And my notes would only make sense to me. I feel taking good notes requires actual skills to do right and directions on what they are expected to include.

    Reply
    1. Copenhagen

      I’m interning at a small two-person office (part of a larger organisation). I had my boss make a cup of coffee for a client I was meeting with, since I realized in that moment, that I had no idea how the coffee maker worked.

      Reply
  3. bwooster

    I am a woman working in an IT role for a government agency. Our kitchen lives between my desk and the ladies’ bathroom.

    One day on the way back to my desk, I passed our admin doing some dishes. Without even thinking about it, I walked up and started drying. It was a thing I’d seen my male colleagues do, including my superiors.

    Right at that moment, a manager about three levels above me walked past, stopped, smiled and said “Aww…some things never change: ladies helping with the washing up!”

    It’s been 2 years and the only dishes I’ve washed and dried since have been my own.

    Reply
    1. The New Wanderer

      Wow. That is the worst. I really hope the admin stopped doing anyone’s dishes but her own too (unless explicitly part of her job).

      Reply
      1. bwooster

        It either is part of her duties or she sees it as such. She does do dishes after a meeting for example, where a lot of people from other locations come to ours. And this is in Britain, so there’s ALWAYS at a minimum cups and spoons after every meeting.

        It is definitely not part of my duties though but to be honest, I never gave it much thought until that point. I’ve read warnings about not caretaking especially in a majority-male environment that I work in. However, I’d never really policed myself and my actions before that moment, but I sure as hell do now.

        Reply
        1. Elizabeth West

          It’s often part of an admin’s duties–I’ve had jobs where yes I did the dishes and kept the kitchen/break room clean. I’ve seen it in job postings, too, though mostly in smaller businesses. At Exjob, a much larger company, everyone did their own dishes and the outside cleaning crew did the kitchens at night.

          That manager is a butthead.

          Reply
    2. The Man, Becky Lynch

      I’d crawl so far into HR’s rear about the discrimination issue that they’d be picking pieces of my hair out of their mouths for years. That guy needs to be fired, it wouldn’t have stopped me like it did you because that’s not doing anyone any good just for the sake of one dingleberry who can’t help but wear his sexism on his sleeve. I’d use it to cut him into pieces professionally and destroy him instead by letting everyone know about it.

      Reply
    3. Sara

      I’ve work in my family business for 30 years. My father used to complain quite often that since I get in at 6:00 am, I should start the coffee for him (he was almost always the next one to get in.) The admin prepared the pot the night before – all I had to do was press the button. So fine, I pressed the button even though I don’t drink coffee. Then he quit drinking coffee, and I dropped that task like a hot potato.

      Reply
  4. Elle

    The Cut’s title is pretty unfair to the OP; she’s not an assistant. She stated in the post that these duties have nothing to do with her actual role in the business.

    That being said, pretending to be awful at something just to get out of doing it is a terrible idea.

    Reply
    1. Jamie G

      A more generous reading is to take “bad assistant” to mean “bad at assistant-type duties”. If someone couldn’t make copies or take phone messages or make coffee or whatever, they would be a bad assistant (even if their actual title is something different).
      But I agree, they could have phrased it more clearly.

      Reply
    2. Save One Day at a Time

      I wonder if they came up with that because it’s not her job she would pretend to be bad at, it’s a different set of tasks and skills entirely.

      Reply
    3. MissGirl

      I don’t know. I think her boyfriend let her in on what men are doing often to get out of tasks they see as beneath them. “My coffee is just so bad but you make it so well.”

      Reply
      1. Tisiphone

        Back when I was about 8, my tactic to get out of the post-holiday feast cleanup was to point blank refuse to help unless Cousin Stanley was to help, too. Whichever one of my male relatives was closest got pointed out as the required partner. In my family, it was more important that the boys and men sit on their butts doing no work than it was for every single girl and woman to deal with the cleanup. And the prep. And the setup. And the planning. And the…….

        It’s 2019. This dynamic needs to have already changed.

        Reply
        1. Auntie Anonymous

          If it helps any, my brother and sister (much older) tended to sit on their butts doing no work after holiday parties at gramma’s. But my nieces & nephews? ALL of them were clean up team, as was my husband. I was the one hand-washing the good dishes so I became traffic coordinator “what next, Auntie Anonymous?” When my nieces male partners got in on the act, I knew things were changing for the better.
          And I took glee in finding a task for my brother & sister too — I kept sending gramma out to “keep them company” so she wouldn’t overdo it and pass out.

          Reply
    4. Morning Glory

      Agree, completely. And she’s not angling to get a better job, she fears getting unofficially downgraded into more of a support role for being helpful. Really unfair title.

      Reply
    5. PersephoneUnderground

      Yeah, the title is misleading- it may technically fit but really it’s almost insulting in the way it sets up the letter. She’s not trying to get ahead, she’s worried that people (like the writer of that headline) will unofficially downgrade her to an assistant.

      Reply
  5. Aspiring Chicken Lady

    I think a simple, “I am not available to do that” is an awesome strategy, especially if paired with a flat stare of incomprehension.

    I certainly am one of those who will hang back and pick up the empty pizza boxes after a meeting, but I am also aware that it is a draining trap to always allow people to volunteer you for distracting tasks.

    My current favorite trick when people start “suggesting” things like cake or potlucks is to simply say, “that sounds great… what day will you be planning that for?”

    I’m also ok with pointing to the distracting task and saying “Gee, boss, can’t get to this other important task because of distracting task that Other Person asked me to do. What would you suggest?”

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      There’s always some, “Is there some reason YOU can’t do that? I’m as busy as you are.”

      Or, “Is there some reason YOU can’t do that? It’s not job, actually–if you’re the one that needs it to be done, you should probably do it.”

      Reply
    2. PlainJane

      A variant on this strategy: “I’m not available to do that right now, because I’m busy working on [something strategically important to the organization]. Could you ask someone else?” That tells them no and also highlights the difference between substantive work and the task you’re being asked to do.

      Reply
      1. Legal Beagle

        Unless it was my boss/a clear superior asking, I would just say, “I’m busy, sorry!” The reason I can’t is not because the task is menial, but because this specific menial task is not my responsibility. No justification or excuse needed.

        Reply
        1. SarahTheEntwife

          In this case I like giving the explanation because it re-emphasizes the fact that she’s doing key work, not just whatever mysterious lady-business she has that of course can be interrupted to fix the copier.

          Reply
    3. Anon16

      I hate this strategy. Someone at my office is employing this strategy and I have no idea what I did or why she seems annoyed with me. Had she told me what was going on, I would’ve happily adjusted my behavior but I have no idea what changed. Everything previously had seemed fine.

      To be clear, this is about saying something with a weird face or acting cold – this woman does this with everything with me and I have no idea what I did and it’s annoying.

      Reply
  6. Delta Delta

    I was in a role once that ended up getting a lot of admin work dumped on me when we lost a member of the admin staff. When it felt like they were never going to hire someone I asked the boss to pay me my salary plus half an admin salary. Magically someone got hired in about a week.

    Reply
  7. Save One Day at a Time

    Someone on this site once commented that their thing is that they don’t make coffee and plan to never learn so they will never be given that role. That has never worked for me, even though I am the actual worse at making coffee I have still gotten assigned to it. But that person made it work!

    Reply
    1. irene adler

      That strategy has worked for me. To this day, I have no clue how much coffee to add to a coffee maker.
      However, I do not ever drink coffee, so that also had bearing.

      “I do not make, for I do not partake…”

      Reply
      1. Antilles

        Same here. In my experience, people *immediately* rescind the “hey, do you mind making coffee?” request once I explain that I don’t drink coffee and have never made it before.
        To this day, I have no clue how much coffee to add to a coffee maker.
        …Wait, there’s an actual target amount of coffee beans to add? I’ve never made coffee either, but I always assumed you just fill it all the way up.

        Reply
        1. Hope

          People who like a really, REALLY strong cup of coffee might be thrilled with that approach, but it’s definitely not how that works.

          Reply
      2. Tisiphone

        Tea drinker here. I do loves me some Turkish coffee and I have the cezve and tiny cups for home use. But how to make standard coffee? No clue.

        Reply
        1. MayLou

          I once got criticised by my employer (I was a nanny/au pair) for never offering to make her a cup of tea. I said that I’d be very happy to make her one whenever I was working, she just had to ask. She said no, she didn’t mean as part of my job, just as a nice thing to do since I was living in her house. That it was the accepted thing to offer to make tea for everyone when you make it for yourself. I pointed out that I didn’t drink anything except water… but I’d be very happy to get her a glass of water whenever I was at the sink if she wanted. That was a weird job.

          Reply
    2. The Man, Becky Lynch

      It depends, that person didn’t drink coffee either, so it made sense to also never make it. If you drink it, then that’s probably why that strategy isn’t working, they see right through you.

      Or is it that you say you don’t know how and then someone is all “I’ll show you, you put this many scoops and this much water. Boom, now you can do this every day!” Which is what I do if someone tries to piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining. Don’t know? Cool, let me show you, now you do. I’ll even write you some frigging notes and put it on the coffee maker for you. [This is why I don’t get saddled with this kind of task because I just show everyone how to use the printer and make cheats, then I say “Oh it’s on the printer, right on the wall there, byeeeee.”

      Reply
    3. Manders

      Hah! I actually was so bad at using a particular coffee machine in my office that I broke it multiple times. Fortunately, my boss didn’t mind, since it did allow us to get a much nicer and less delicate machine.

      Reply
    4. Cameron

      “I know this is really weird, but I’ve never made coffee before and I don’t drink it! Guess you’ll have to ask someone else.”

      Reply
    5. Triplestep

      The career advice my mother gave me (a woman) when I was just starting out was “Never learn to make the coffee or work the switchboard.” For context, today she is 87 and I am 55, so she did mean “switchboard”! She knew very well that only women were called upon to step in when the switchboard operator was on break or out sick.

      Reply
      1. wordswords

        I know someone (in her 70s or 80s, not sure) who never learned to touch type, because she knew if she could type she’d get shunted sideways into secretarial work instead of her actual job. Apparently it worked!

        I found it a lot easier to be patient about helping her with tech questions after that anecdote.

        Reply
    6. Antilles

      When I first moved from a cubicle into an office, my first office was adjacent to the copier. The very first piece of advice I got, so quickly that I hadn’t even finished plugging in my computer, was “Never fix the copier”.
      I was foolish and didn’t listen. Very quickly, any time the printer jammed, someone would look into my office and ask me to fix it. It took months upon months to finally beat it into people’s heads that no, I’m not some Magical Copier Wizard, read the status messages yourself and do exactly what they say.
      When I started at a different company and again got an office near the copy room, this time I’d learned my lesson and never touched the thing except when it was specifically holding up *my* print job.

      Reply
    7. Sloan Kittering

      I was so weirded out when a male colleague in an admin role younger than mine said they didn’t know how to make coffee. They had never been asked before. I used to have that job and it was squarely within my responsibilities to make and clean up the coffee for all meetings. I cannot think how he managed to reach mid-career without ever having to do this (and I’m still not sure he wasn’t just feigning helplessness so that I would do it for him). Believe me, I ignored his protestations and marched him over there to show him how to do it, and I didn’t let him welch in future meetings.

      … he’s now a project manager and probably makes twice what I do, sob. I still make coffee for meetings and I guarantee he’s never done it since that time.

      Reply
    8. Richard Hershberger

      I am also reminded that there was a period in the 1990s when I was careful not to let on that I can touch type. It was the only useful thing I got out of 8th grade. Back in the day, executives never learned to type. That’s why they had secretaries. This is long gone now. We don’t have secretaries, but we have computers. Knowing how to type (my kids’ teachers call it “keyboarding”) is simply a life skill nowadays. But back in the day there was a real status element to it. It wasn’t even that they would start giving you menial typing tasks. The mere possibility put you in a lower category.

      Reply
      1. The Man, Becky Lynch

        Ah executives who can’t type still exist, bless their hearts, they sure do. There are a ton of people in the workforce who struggle with keyboarding and their “30 words per minute” typing speed.

        We just call them executive assistants now, secretaries very much do still exist. We changed the name to remove ourselves from those old stereotypes though.

        Reply
        1. iglwif

          Yeah, I used to work for one. I could never understand why Word documents I sent him came back printed out, written on, and scanned as image PDFs, instead of with tracked changes and comment balloons in them like *literally everyone else in the company* would do it … until one day he was in the office where I work and I happened to walk by and see him typing. Hunting and pecking, sloooowly, with two fingers.

          (People can and do type very fast with 2 fingers! This was not that.)

          Reply
      2. Wakeens Teapots LTD

        I graduated high school in 1979, for time reference. It was well known in the 60’s and 70’s that “smart girls” should NEVER learn to type.

        Well, I despised handwriting (chicken scratch horrible mine was) but loved writing so I taught myself to type in elementary school and took typing in 11th grade, feeling guilty the whole time.

        Turns out computers were just minutes away and the disadvantage became an advantage! (there was the small Word Processor era that jammed me up with “favors”, but I was young and on balance, I advanced my career rather than set it back with my mad typing skillz)

        Reply
        1. Cercis

          I graduated in 1991 and took typing as a sophomore. People were scandalized, I was an honors student, I was going to be a boss (hah!) I didn’t need to know how to type. I’d seen the future, I knew it was computers and so I wanted to learn. So I did. Then when no one else signed up for pre-calc, they looked at my transcript saw typing and thought “hmmm, secretarial work, let’s put her in accounting”. I noped out of that into an ag class. I see now that accounting might have been helpful, but at the time, I knew how to balance a checkbook and they really didn’t cover much beyond that in that class.

          Reply
          1. iglwif

            I graduated from high school in 1992, and typing class was mandatory for all students at my high school. Good thing, too, since it turned out university profs did NOT want handwritten term papers…

            Reply
    9. Move Over Thrawn - Florian Munteanu is BIGGER than you!

      I admit it. I’m an admin and the idea of making coffee and washing dishes at work makes my skin crawl. So far I’ve not been called upon to do it.

      Reply
  8. Alton Brown's Evil Twin

    On the one hand, you have to consider whether this is sexist/agist and act accordingly.

    But if it’s not, then being ‘strategically bad’ at something ends up being a negative-sum game for the entire organization.

    Reply
    1. Save One Day at a Time

      I mean, I don’t think the fact that it’s sexist/ageist is even in question. Consciously or otherwise.

      Reply
  9. INeedANap

    I think it can be really useful to call out the wider pattern, instead of just not being available for tasks.

    “Hey, you probably didn’t realize this, but I’m doing a lot of the basic admin work – I’m taking checks to the bank, purchasing furniture, and restocking the kitchen. Let’s sit down and figure out how to spread these around more fairly.”

    Most reasonable people will say “Oh, jeez, you’re right. Why don’t you keep handling the checks, and we’ll have someone else take over the kitchen and furniture stuff.”

    Reply
    1. bwooster

      “Let’s sit down and figure out how to spread these around more fairly.”

      I actually wouldn’t even do that. It’s too close to emotional labor that women are expected to do at home or the ever-popular “Dad’s babysitting the kids!” It shouldn’t be her job to figure out how to spread these tasks around. I understand that she might feel like that’s a required middle step at this point, but I think it’s important that the letter writer understands that not only is the admin not her job, it is it also not her job to figure out how to make sure that her male co-workers pick up the slack.

      Reply
      1. Massmatt

        Then what do you suggest? the end result here is unfair but how are you expecting it to change and improve without a conversation? No conversation means perpetuating the status quo.

        Reply
        1. SciDiver

          I think it’s entirely fair to make this an issue for the manager to figure out without having a sit-down so LW is involved in divvying up tasks. Especially if these are time-consuming or things aren’t getting done, she could say something like “I’ve been happy to step up and take on my share of these admin tasks when we’re in a pinch, but I can’t really keep running errands/ordering furniture/keeping up the shared kitchen since it’s cutting way back on the time I can spend on Teapot reports”.

          Even if it’s not a huge time suck, LW could point out the pattern and say “I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been assigned pretty much all the admin tasks, and I’m a little concerned about how we’re distributing those. Of course I want to pitch in the same as my peers, but going forward I won’t be able to take on the majority of these tasks.” No need to make it her problem to solve, that’s really up to the manager to assign tasks evenly across the board.

          Reply
        2. Willis

          “I’ll keep taking the checks (or whatever task OP is willing to do), but you’ll have to figure out amongst yourselves who can purchase office furniture and organize the storage closet. I’m not able to take them on in addition to my day to day work.”

          Reply
          1. Willis

            (Assuming she’s talking with her colleagues…I can’t really tell from the letter if these duties were assigned by a manager but it sort of sounds like not.)

            Reply
    2. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss

      I wouldn’t even go that far. I think she just needs to push back and say no. They’ve gotten into the habit of asking her, and she needs to get them to break that habit and do the tasks themselves.

      It’s similar to the one everyone goes to for help. If they give them the answer every time, they’re going to keep coming back instead of figuring it out for themselves.

      Reply
  10. CatCat

    I’m a little unclear if these things are assigned versus volunteering (“I’ve tended to just dig in and make sure the necessary things happen”). To the extent you have been volunteering, stop. You don’t have the be strategically bad at doing these things, you need to just not do them.

    My personal approach is if it’s not part of my performance appraisal then I am not volunteering to do it unless it is something I genuinely, personally would enjoy doing and it won’t cause me stress or interfere with my work.

    Reply
    1. CatCat

      And even if it’ something I would enjoy doing NOW, I also consider whether it will become a thing I am expected to do in the future. I’m super careful about getting involved in any kind of office housekeeping.

      Reply
    2. Yvette

      The problem is, after volunteering a few times it becomes yours. Especially if you volunteer a few times in a row. “Jane ordered food for the last few meetings, ask her to do it.”

      Reply
  11. sunny-dee

    I think some similar advice was “never be good at something you don’t want to do.” I don’t think the idea is to be incompetent or unaccommodating, but rather to focus on the things you want to do and de-prioritize or pass on the things you don’t.

    Reply
  12. The Man, Becky Lynch

    It would be incredibly strange and cause bad blow back by being “bad” at menial tasks, nobody is bad at taking a deposit to the bank. However it’s important to remind them you have a job to do and that task takes away from your ability to do what you’re supposed to be devoting your time to.

    It also depends on how your helpfulness and willingness to do these tasks gets you. Does it just get you more meaningless tasks? Ew, no thanks. Does it get you in front of the owner and they worship you for it, meaning that they praise you and give you more money, more freedom and such? Then I’m all in. I pick up these nonsensical tasks because I have the time and it’s given me status as not a “mom” or “wife” of the company but the go-to, second in command and you can see it come out in reviews and consistent raises.

    So yes, it’s sadly not as easy as just having a blanket rule to never do those tasks. You have to know your audience, you have to know when to shut it down or when it’s benefiting you and your career. Granted as a woman in a male dominated industry, I’ll take my skills to another place if I ever do realize that I’m being taken advantage of and it’s reeking of sexism. Sadly if it’s sexism, you can fight it only so much and then you seriously just need to remove yourself from that toxic nonsense, you cannot change those people.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      Yes, I think this might be intersecting with questions we’ve had before about the value of doing housekeeping-type work; I remember one person who was doing a ton of birthday-card stuff, for instance, and hating it but wasn’t being told to do it. Gender relates to expectations and assignments but it can also influence our own priorities–it’s pretty common for women to be socialized into believing it’s bad to say no, but saying no is important. It might bug the OP more to say no or distress her more that some housekeeping tasks are handled less well than the OP might do them, but that’s her personal battle to fight.

      So I’m another saying “Don’t be bad at the work; be good at advocating for yourself rather than always saying yes.”

      Reply
      1. The Man, Becky Lynch

        Yes, it’s really all about breaking the mold and remembering that just because you were “taught” and “told” constantly over the years that you don’t do something [in this case say no], you are able to reevaluate if that was good advice or nonsense.

        It’s drilled into our heads since pre-school to be obedient and not question authority or worse yet, say no! Generally when boys push back, they’re seen as “leaders” and so on. Then when it’s a girl, we’re sassy and surly and will be spinsters before we know it, nobody wants a girl who says no after all!

        It’s normal to feel conflicted to against what you’re raised to believe but thank God, that’s why we’ve been able to slowly evolve over the years as well. The more we realize that it’s okay to disagree with elders/parents/teachers/authority the better we become. But it’s a hard path and feels unnatural to many people I’ve noticed but it’s okay, it’s okay to be uncomfortable for a moment so that you can be free and happy for the rest of your life/career etc.

        Reply
    2. Susana

      But they won’t worship her for it. If that was the case, others (like the men) wold be doing it to become indispensable. It will make management worship her as the errand girl. And she does not want to be the errand girl.

      Reply
  13. Secretary

    I really like the way Alison gave advice on this… like, “Yeah, you could do it that way, OR you could do it this other more mature way.”

    Reply
  14. Washi

    This is a little different, but I’ve gotten a reputation for being tech savvy and have wondered some day if I would have been better off keeping that light under a bushel, so to speak. I don’t mind helping with higher level stuff, like making a fancy spreadsheet, but I haaaaate that I am the person people come to when they don’t know how to text a picture or clear a copier jam. But at least these skills are not as highly gendered, and it has gotten me visibility from some higher ups and I’ve been chosen for interesting assignments I think partly as a result.

    I’m also great at planning parties, but I’ve been wise enough to keep that skill on the DL because there is absolutely no professional benefit for me being roped into doing that.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      Though I also think that the harder underlying point here is that just because people know you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to agree to do it. The ability to politely say essentially “I could but I won’t” is an important skill that comes more into play the higher you rise.

      Reply
    2. pleaset

      I’m a guy, and I push back at people asking me to do things or show them more than once. But one time where I show them (don’t do it myself), yeah, I’m OK with it. Or (and I did this yesterday) I Googled how to do something and told the person a good term to put into Google so they would get clear guidance.

      Reply
    3. Polymer Phil

      Not true! Conference planning absolutely is a highly marketable professional skill. You shouldn’t keep that secret unless your company never ever participates in trade shows, and your skills would be limited to ordering cakes for retirement parties.

      Reply
  15. DWD

    I’ve heard stories of people being “strategically bad” at household tasks (laundry, cooking, activity scheduling, gift-giving, etc) so that their partners won’t bother asking them to do those tasks anymore. For example, knowingly mixing whites and colors in a hot-water load of laundry so that it ruins all the whites, and your partner decides it’s better to handle the laundry themselves. Obviously the dynamic is different at work, but this “solution” has the same underlying problems. By not addressing the actual issue, you’re never going to change the system and will have to keep pretending you can’t do things. People won’t realize you’re deliberately flubbing, or they’ll take a while to figure it out, so their estimation of you (specifically, being able to handle new things and ask for help when needed) will go down. If/when they realize you’re being deliberate, you lose all the trust they had in you to act like a mature functioning adult. Bad idea all around.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      I don’t know that my husband did it purposely, but he would never hang up my work shirts. They were all T-shirt-style, and he didn’t see them as needing special handling, so he just shoved them in the clothes basket with other clothes on top of them and they were wrinkled. I tried everything, and finally I just had to do my clothes myself.

      My attempt to get him to treat them differently (even just lay them flat on the top!) came during a time when I was phenomenally stressed at work, and his failure to do this seriously nearly trashed our marriage. I’m still recovering.

      And I don’t know how deliberate it was, or how unconscious. He willingly did the laundry, but…

      Reply
      1. Maria Lopez

        Classic passive-aggressive, where you think the person couldn’t purposely be doing something so damaging so it must be something else, or your fault. And since the activity is so damaging potentially for you both (your job loss), he wouldn’t cut off his nose to spite his face, right?
        I worked in a male dominated industry for almost forty years, and it takes a minute to learn to not be helpful. I take excellent notes, very OCD-like, but I doubt anyone I worked with in the past thirty years knew that, because I really hate doing it. Making coffee, on the other hand, I actually like doing, and I like it done a certain way, but I would randomly not make it, like once or twice every two weeks, because I didn’t want people to expect it.
        And NEVER clean up after anyone but yourself.

        Reply
      2. Anxa

        I doubt my partner would every be purposely bad to get out of chores. He probably does more housework than i do and pretty much always steps up if I’m feeling off or am stressed.

        That said, he just is so bad at folding laundry I cannot take it anymore. I’ve tried and tried to get him to do better, but it’s not much better at all. It creates a lot of stress because sometimes I just want to try to focus on something for school or work and he’s willing to fold and put away, but when he does it I have to refold later anyway or struggle with overflowing drawers (a huge pet peeve). I get annoyed because I asked him to either cull his T shirts or learn to fold them so they all fit, but I often am faced with a stuffed draw and no way to empty the basket, backing up the rest of the laundry.

        I also get annoyed because we have a classic gendered situation where I have become the household manager. It made sense when we first moved in together because I was unemployed, had more experience with household chores (single parent), and more interest in domestic affairs overall (I got really into meal planning and cooking; grocery shopping was my big day out on the town where I could justify shopping while broke).

        Also, every once in a while I get so angry that he can’t just be the one to anticipate, plan, learn new skills, etc., and ask ME to do more chores.

        Reply
        1. boop the first

          Oh yeah the anticipation is what kills me.
          “Just give me a list of chores”
          “I don’t want to make up a list, that’s another job. Why can’t you just vacuum when the floor is dirty?”
          “I guess I just can’t notice when things are dirty…”

          How very convenient for you! Auuugggghhhh!

          If I lived alone, I would still have to do all the chores, but at least I wouldn’t have to do all that other compromise stuff over food choices, entertainment, sharing space, sleeping through snoring, etc.

          Reply
      3. Perpal

        It’s sometimes hard to say because there IS a point where it becomes “if you don’t like the way I do it then do it yourself” (ie, if someone’s going to micromanage how to load the dishwasher then maybe they can just do it themselves). And I am someone who did accidentally ruin several loads of my partner’s laundry in various ways, so I have a little sympathy. That being said if it was a single, very clear and repeated instruction and it didn’t even seem like they were trying, and clearly very important to you… well that’s a little weird.
        Which is one of many reasons the passive aggressive strategy in general sucks and I think it’s only useful with relationships that are already known to be dysfunctional but for whatever reason can’t be changed.

        Reply
    2. Aggretsuko

      Well, being bad at cooking has gotten me out of having to cook with the rest of my relatives, and everyone is very much fine with that. But…that’s not a work situation and my relatives can’t fire me for bungling up the food.

      Reply
      1. Hope

        At least if you’re bad at cooking, there are other ways to contribute to a meal–bringing drinks, doing dishes, setting the table, etc.

        Reply
        1. DWD

          When I was in college, my roommates and I would divvy up chores equally – one person cleans the bathroom, one the living room and hallways, and the third the kitchen. Except with food, one roommate had a bad sensitivity to the smells and textures of dirty dishes, so we traded: she would do my laundry and I would do her dishes. The end result was we’d all have roughly equal amounts of work around the apartment – I contributed more to communal chores than she did, but she handled one of my personal chores to even things out. Division of labor was key to having a functional apartment and keeping our friendships healthy, and you don’t get that by pretending ineptitude.

          Reply
    3. Tisiphone

      Also note that in your laundry example; how much do you want to bet that it’s never the laundry-ruining partner’s clothes that get ruined?

      Reply
    4. Susana

      But again – the other (mostly male, it seems) employees don’t seem worried about being viewed s incompetent at menial tasks. Who cares if they figure out she rEally does know how to plan a party? SHE DOESN’T WANT TO DO IT.

      Reply
  16. TootsNYC

    I would be looking around my home and wondering what things my partner was being strategically bad at. Laundry? (My dad wasn’t allowed to do it because he would shrink people’s T-shirts, etc.–I don’t think it was deliberate on his part, but sometimes I wonder…) Cooking?
    Cleaning?

    I think at work it might be more a matter of being strategically unwilling.
    Especially for a woman who is young.

    Reply
    1. SciDiver

      I had the same thought reading through this. Partner’s first suggestion is to be strategically bad at the tasks to avoid doing them in the future…that sentiment reminds me lot of various relationship horror stories I’ve heard (one where a man pretended to not know how to make deviled eggs for years so his wife would do it instead, men claiming to be “hopeless” at laundry, purposefully low-effort cleaning, etc.).

      Beyond that, it’s probably not a good idea to feign incompetence to get out of the admin duties, but address the problem head on as a work issue–about fairness, gender bias, and taking time away from the job she was actually hired to do.

      Reply
  17. Sleepytime Tea

    I have to agree with Alison. I wouldn’t ever want to be purposefully bad at something, because then it can show as being unreliable or unable to handle something people consider basic, and ultimately there are consequences to that. Forgetting to run cash to the bank and then people’s payrolls aren’t made? That’s a huge issue, and I’m not going to be strategically bad at doing that so that I don’t get asked to do it again in the future. But even if you’ve been doing it for awhile, there is no reason why you can’t step back and say “hey, I have been handling this task every week, and it’s impacting my ability to get other things done, how about we start a rotation?” and then don’t get suckered in to covering for other people every week.

    As someone who used to always end up with these tasks, I actually got into the habit of regularly discussing with my boss what was and wasn’t in my purview. If I was asked to do something, I would go to them and say “I have x, y, and z on my plate, and I’ve been asked to take on these other things. What would you like me to focus on? I want to make sure my time is spent wisely.” I’ve never had a boss tell me that I should drop my ACTUAL job duties in order to become the office coffee girl. When phrased that way, it usually goes over very well.

    Reply
    1. Samwise

      I had a very good manager when I was just a few years into my professional career who told me, during an annual review, that I needed to think carefully about what I volunteered for. “You don’t always need to say yes”, was his advice. LOL, at the next staff meeting he jokingly volun-told me for a project and I jokingly responded, “A wise man once told me that you don’t always need to say yes, so, I’m going to say no to that project.” Fortunately, he laughed and found someone better suited to the project.

      Reply
  18. That Californian

    I do not possess the setting to be intentionally bad at tasks (though I certainly do have the ability to be unintentionally bad at a number of things). It sets all of my teeth on edge not to be trying my best at work, for all sorts of reasons, so my only option in this situation would be to address it directly with the manager or to directly state that I am not available for X task. In my experience the latter has had only limited success, because people still tend to think of me as “available for and good at X task, just not available right now”. Sigh, I guess I don’t have anything much to add to what Alison said except commiseration, and noting that it might be a pretty intractable problem. You’ll probably have to hold the line for a while to have any effect, LW.

    Reply
  19. TootsNYC

    also–FYI: Being strategically bad at things so people won’t assign them to you is the textbook definition (like, the literal psychology textbook) of “passive aggressive.”

    I’m not always opposed to passive aggression; sometimes it’s the best tool for the job.

    Reply
    1. Jessen

      Passive aggression is often the best tool when the other parties won’t acknowledge the issue or won’t seriously address it. Which is often the case when sexism or other forms of bias are involved, or even just habits – people don’t register “this is a problem”, they register “Anne is being weird and complaining about helping other people.”

      Reply
      1. LQ

        I do think passive aggressive gets a bad name because the “just talk about it like adults” method only works when both parties are “adults”*. If you try to be direct about things like racism or sexism it often ends up in the racist/sexist calling the poc/woman a bully for saying please stop doing the racist/sexist thing.

        (*Oddly not true, but “behaving not like jackasses” reads funny. Just talk about it like adults works pretty well with kids assuming they are not jackasses and you aren’t either.)

        Reply
        1. Jessen

          I am unashamedly passive aggressive with certain family members – because “talk about it like adults” simply does not work on people who are determined to treat you like a child who needs to not talk back to the grownups. I’ve noted that racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry basically play out like a society-wide version of an abusive family. Talking it out like adults doesn’t work when the reaction is “shush, the important people are talking!”

          Reply
        2. Susana

          Absolutely. And the “we” talk here isn’t making it better (though it is better when saying things like, e don’t want to run afoul of the law). The “we” should be distributing tasks more just its the emotional labor on the woman. Again. This is a ME conversation – as in, *I* cannot keep doing these menial tasks all th time; I have work to do that is my job. Others will have to share the load.

          Reply
  20. Less Bread More Taxes

    I have never been the default person for adminy stuff because I do genuinely suck at it. I don’t drink coffee, so I don’t know how to operate a coffeemaker. I don’t know how to take notes beyond stating what the end result of whatever the meeting was for and I can’t for the life of me do more than one thing at once. Some people *are* bad at depositing checks at banks and whatnot.

    My go-to to avoid tasks like this is to ask someone to thoroughly show me how. I’m young; I’ve literally never had to deposit a check for ten years. So grab a coworker to show you. Don’t know how to take meeting notes? Ask to shadow someone else while they do it.

    Reply
    1. The Man, Becky Lynch

      You literally go to the bank, stand in line and then hand the teller the checks, they then give you a receipt. Or in my case, I go through the drive thru teller. This is assuming that they’re handing the deposit over with the deposit slip already completed [if not, then that’s another story and I’m judging the person who decided that’s a good choice, you should never be too busy to deposit money but my whole job revolves around The Money]

      Thank God we’ve moved past this being necessary in most situations. For years now I can scan the checks myself with online banking.

      Reply
  21. Azyaria

    I used to manage interns/junior staff. I tried to balance real-world/relevant job training with intern/admin work, but it was inevitable that they would be given a task that was “beneath” them. If they did a bad job at something, I’d always default to thinking that they were pulling this exact crap so that they wouldn’t be assigned to do something again.

    I nipped that behavior right away: for example, if someone did a bad job at filing, I’d pull them to the side and say “I know you know your ABCs, and that this is not what you went to college for. But, I want you to realize what this looks like. It looks like you can’t handle something so easy that a 1st grader could do it; why would I give you something more important where the stakes are high?” Usually, this worked and people changed their behavior.

    My point is that I dont think doing a bad job is the way to go. Don’t ever make yourself look incompetent in any way. If you want to be taken seriously, address the problem. Say to the person asking the request, “I have been doing this the past few times. I think it’s time for others need to step up.”

    I know that’s what the men in the office are doing, but from woman to woman, I think indirectly calling them out on their childish behavior is better than stopping to their level.

    Reply
    1. TootsNYC

      My teenage son did that “bad job at something” thing, and I flat-out asked him, “Are you doing a bad job at this so that you think I won’t ask you to do it again? That’s the definition of passive aggressive–is that what you’re doing here?”

      He was SO OFFENDED! And I said, “I don’t know what else to think, then.” and walked off.
      He did it right.

      Reply
      1. Samwise

        With teenage offspring another response is, Wow, you really had trouble getting this job done! OK, so here’s the correct way to do it. Now YOU do it.
        Repeat as necessary. The dishes may need to be washed many many times before the food is actually removed and the dishsoap is fully rinsed off.
        BTW, I recommend doing this as soon as you discover the poorly done work — too bad if the girlfriend is over to “study”! Or the teen has already gone to bed, or is sleeping in on Saturday morning/afternoon.

        Reply
        1. Alexandra Lynch

          I did this with cleaning toilets. I do not care what pose you adopt, fellas, but I do care when I walk in the bathroom and it reeks. And given that I had my sons five years apart, I could, in fact, tell which boy peed all over the toilet, and make him go clean it up. It didn’t take long before they started making sure they didn’t have to do that at random times.

          Reply
    2. The Man, Becky Lynch

      Interns/Junior staff think basic tasks like filing are beneath them…my eyes just popped out of my head reading that idea. You’re lower than an admin, you’re fresh out of school and are pretty worthless until you learn the ropes and the ropes start with the basics like filing, copying and putting together informational packages. I have a huge chip on my shoulder and an axe to grind with that “kind” of graduate. They’re the ones who end up like the letter about the guy who tried pulling rank on a coworker because his parents are rich and he has 37 degrees compared to the colleagues one degree. That just doesn’t fly and it’s awful, they think they should skip over the menial tasks because they have a degree, what a laugh.

      I’m glad you called them out on their nonsense and that it worked to shape up the majority of the ones who were pulling that move.

      Reply
      1. londonedit

        We used to have a lot of work experience people in one office I worked at (much less formal than an internship; just someone coming in for two or three weeks to get a bit of experience at a publishing company). The ones who were also studying for a Masters degree in publishing were without fail the absolute worst. They assumed they’d come in and automatically be proofreading manuscripts, talking to authors, getting to come to meetings and give their opinions. And they were very offended when they were asked to make tea, frank the post, and help the office assistant with basic admin. What they didn’t know was that if they’d actually pitched in and willingly helped with the stuff that needed doing, after a few days people would then have been more willing to give them more ‘interesting’ things to do, like checking cover copy or taking notes in a meeting. But seeing as they grumped and sulked about having to photocopy something, no one wanted to trust them with the bigger jobs.

        Reply
        1. Media Monkey

          we once had a summer intern (2 years into a 3 year undergraduate degree) who complained to her university about our company as we hadn’t let her go to client meetings and present or do actual client-facing work in the 6 weeks she was with us. she was researching, running reports and learning to analyse them, putting bookings onto our finance system (probably printing/ photocopying/ setting up meeting rooms as well, but never making tea for bosses or anything like that) – all the stuff that people who actually have graduated and got a job spend probably their first year doing before they move onto the client facing stuff. it made her look like an idiot who thought she was above learning the ropes and luckily she never asked for a reference.

          Reply
      2. Boone9

        In my experience, junior interns get personal offices, while the admins get stuck at a reception desk and need to ask for relief to pee. Additionally, many schools disallow interns from taking on clerical tasks and threaten to discount the hours/experience if they find out the work is clerical. (I handle college internships. We don’t count clerical work as industry hours.) (I used to be an admin.)

        Reply
    3. Susana

      But these were interns and junior staff – it was their JOB to do this stuff. Not the case for LW. Calling them out on their “childish” behavior might make them apologize once – then go back to the old way. Or, it might make them laugh at her (or behind her back) and stay with teh old way.They have figured out how to get someone else to do the work they don’t want to do – shame is not going to make them change.
      Same advice for marrieds whose spouses are “helpless” at laundry or cooking. Fine. Just stop, stop, STOP doing their laundry (or even cooking for them).

      Reply
      1. azyaria

        Yes…my point (which may not have come across) is that this is how immature people act. The OP’s co-workers are professionals, acting like kids. I believe a “re-training” of her co-workers are in order. And like you said, that starts with OP needing to STOP doing these things. And then, start to call co-workers out on their B.S.!

        Reply
  22. CC

    I know someone who worked at a law office in the 70s, and the women were expected to take turns making coffee and bringing the giant urn into the conference room. One day she purposely pushed the whole thing over, ruining the carpet. She never got asked again, and went on to have a successful career there.

    Reply
    1. Justme, The OG

      My mom pretended to be the world’s slowest typist (in the 70s) so she wouldn’t have to do admin tasks when she worked in corporate jobs (she was in public relations).

      Reply
  23. smoke tree

    I find it very interesting that the LW’s male partner explicitly suggested this strategy to her. In my experience, I have only ever known men to do this, and every man I’ve ever worked with as a peer has done it, but I could never tell if they were doing it deliberately or not. But it works, even in my female-dominated industry, even with feminist women as managers. Somehow all of the tedious administrative tasks just gradually trickle over to the women on the team, because they can be relied on to do them correctly. I have never had the guts to try this selective incompetence manoeuvre myself, but I do wonder if women are less likely to get away with it. It’s not overt, but I suspect most managers just have higher expectations for women to be able to do this stuff correctly.

    Reply
    1. Lucille2

      The men figure it out at home by loading the dishwasher badly or folding laundry weird. Then it trickles into the workplace. Solution: don’t redo the household tasks after your husband did it wrong. Let him figure it out or do it his own way.

      Reply
      1. smoke tree

        The thing is, this is purely juvenile behaviour. Children do this kind of thing all the time, but in a culture where men are infantilized when it comes to certain types of work, they are often able to get away with pulling this crap throughout their lives. I’m just a little surprised any of them are willing to admit to it.

        Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      sometimes it’s not selective incompetence, but selective unwillingness. It’s not so much that they do a really shitty job as it is that they kind of don’t do it at all. They dawdle, or they forget something obvious, or they’re a little careless, which shows that they don’t value the job.

      Some of them have it down to a science, how to look “bad at that job” without looking “completely incompetent.”

      Partly it’s what they choose, and partly it’s how they frame it: Their mind is occupied with their REAL, IMPORTANT tasks, and so they just don’t really focus on this one, and so they mess it up.

      Operating the copier? That’s “oh, these complicated buttons, they were different at my last job, and I’m busy thinking about the person I have to send these photocopies to.”

      And we excuse them! (There was a really great essay “The Myth of the Male Bumbler”

      There’s a reason for this plague of know-nothings: The bumbler’s perpetual amazement exonerates him. Incompetence is less damaging than malice. And men — particularly powerful men — use that loophole like corporations use off-shore accounts. The bumbler takes one of our culture’s most muscular myths — that men are clueless — and weaponizes it into an alibi.

      Allow me to make a controversial proposition: Men are every bit as sneaky and calculating and venomous as women are widely suspected to be. And the bumbler — the very figure that shelters them from this ugly truth — is the best and hardest proof.

      Plus, there’s a whole system to protect them, or to keep them from failing—Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic wrote a whole book about it that just came out in March:
      “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How To Fix It)”

      Reply
      1. Coffeelover

        This. I’m a woman that thrives in male dominated fields in part because I have no problem being selectively unwilling as you put it. If no one else is bothered by the dishes, neither am I. I’m not going to concern myself with office parties, birthday cards or any other kind of voluntary admin stuff that no one else cares enough about to do.

        I’ll do my own admin (because I don’t want to be a “bumbler”) but I won’t help you with yours. If you don’t know how to submit an expense report or fix the copier, I’ll direct you to HR/IT/the office admin/etc. I’ll act stumped and say “hm… not sure why we’re out of toner. Maybe you should contact one of the building people.” Who exactly? I dont know – check the directory. Then look like I’m busy with my actual job. In the rare times I’ve had an admin task dumped on me, I offload it to someone else with a “I don’t have time to do this”. Even if I do have time, I’m not willing to have time.

        There are certain things I want to be helpful in and known for which I will volunteer, but they’re related to my career and experience.

        I’ve seen a lot of women stuck answering stupid questions (where the person is just too lazy to figure it out themselves) and doing admin tasks not related to their jobs because they want to help out and don’t say no. Meanwhile, their male colleagues are walking right past the kitchen mess and are too “busy and important” for the other stuff.

        Reply
    3. Robin Sparkles

      When I was around 7 years old – I developed this mindset (wrongly or rightly) that I had more “important” things to do instead of housework when we were visiting relatives -such as playing. This is only when we visited relatives who firmly believed women wash the dishes so they could “gossip” while men could hang out and have a scotch. ( I never got away with this at home). I just made a point of insisting boy cousins help out otherwise forget it.

      Anyway I somehow carried this attitude to my career. I do housework where it benefits me- at home- but never at work or any other setting. I notice men behave similarly and I can only imagine it starts from a young age where you are raised to believe that housework is less important and “not your domain”.

      Reply
    4. The Man, Becky Lynch

      We fire men who pull that shenanigans around here, which goes to say if a woman did it, she’d be fired as well. You don’t just get to “Oops, I’m bad at it, I couldn’t possibly.”

      Reply
    5. silverpie

      This is nothing new. Check the first search result for “strategic incompetence” at Dilbert dot com. (… from 1996…)

      Reply
    6. Drax

      I have done it. Not selectively bad at something per say but more just never invested in learning how to do it correctly. And if it counts for anything, it kind of bit me in the ass at home so not the best strategy.

      I can’t make good coffee. Like my partner bought a Keurig so he wouldn’t have to drink the sludge type bad coffee.

      I just never figured it out, I do the same thing every time (or try to) but somehow it’s always too weak or sh*t your pants strong. I would make it work without complaint when I was in admin. I would make the coffee, but you were taking a risk drinking it and then suddenly coffee was just made before I made it.

      Reply
      1. Drax

        I also should mention, I never had to make my own coffee until I was the admin so there was a college try made but I just never got it and never really invested time in really getting it. It should be easy, but it’s just not to me

        Reply
  24. Serin

    This infuriates me. All the options infuriate me. It’s maddening that someone would need to pretend not to be able to do a third-grade-level task, and it’s maddening that someone would need to sit down with her boss and say, “Have you noticed that you’ve hired someone with X Certification/X Degree/X skill and are OK with her using her time to run errands?”

    I have nothing constructive to add. I’m just pissed and exhausted by the whole fact that we’re still dealing with this in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Freaking Nineteen.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      Though this is a little different from what you imply in that it sounds like no matter who does the errands they’ll be done by people with the same level of qualification. And that’s okay, if that’s how the budget and time work; what’s not okay is if you have 5 law clerks/newbie engineers and only the female one handles the housekeeping and admin.

      Reply
    2. Camellia

      I hear you. I’ve had to deal with [all the things] and my 34-year-old daughter must still deal with [all the things]. Will my 7-year-old granddaughter also STILL have to deal with [all the things]?????

      Reply
    3. OlympiasEpiriot

      This is also my answer; except I am willing to add I have once done the passive-aggressive thing: When I had just started at an engineering firm with a freshly minted BSc, On my first day, I was asked to type up a letter by one of the older engineers…one who, as a matter of fact, I later became decent buds with…and, to his surprise, I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t type. Happy to check calcs, or draw something for you, but, you’ll get that a whole lot faster if you ask one of the admins.” And I wiggled my index fingers in a mockery of hunt-and-peck.

      Years later, he popped into my cubicle when I was hard at work typing a report up on my computer and watched in shock as I was NOT using only two fingers. A lightbulb went off over his head and he laughed.

      Reply
    4. EPLawyer

      This also got me. Is there not an actual ADMIN to do these things. If not, one needs to be hired. This company is paying people a not admin salary to spend time doing admin jobs. If they added up the lost productivity, they could afford an admin.

      But they have a woman on the staff, so hey, Admin and Not Admin for the price of one, right?

      Reply
      1. fposte

        I think whether one needs to be hired depends on the office. If you’re a small shop with 7 hours of admin a week, it might be far more reasonable to spread that admin around the existing junior staff rather than hire somebody. The problem here is that it’s not being spread around the staff–they’ve just created a de facto admin because gender.

        Reply
        1. Anxa

          I’m always so flummoxed when I see people suggest hiring an admin would be cheaper. I have a decent amount of down time to fit admin tasks into my work, but at one of my jobs, I do often run out of time. But I make less than most of the admin staff. And it’s not just me. At my jobs a lot of administrative jobs start at 30K or more a year; many are making at least 40K. While entry-level and early career workers in more specialized roles may be in temp roles, part-time roles, starting at a similar salary, or starting at a lower one.

          Reply
        2. Jen S. 2.0

          I think people say that less because an admin makes less money, and more because it’s that person’s job, and theoretically they’re efficient ant good at it, and they have the tools and knowledge for it, and it’s what they’re being paid to do. It’s the lane they are supposed to be in, not the lane they’re being shoved in simply because they happen to be the woman in the office.

          You are correct that plenty of admins and EAs make great money. But even if you are paying me less money, if I’m not an admin, admin work is not what you are paying me to do, and I need to be off doing what you ARE paying me to do.

          If the work is that person’s job, there also is no fighting about it. We avoid this entire thread of answers and scripts and strategies and passive aggressiveness if the admin work goes to the admin people, because nobody needs to debate whether it’s acceptable to be asked to do these tasks, or whether it’s acceptable to refuse them.

          Reply
    5. ER

      I was looking for this comment. When I was in school I honestly believed that this kind of sexism wasn’t a thing anymore because we were all firmly taught that it was wrong. My teachers implied that this was something that happened in the past and wasn’t it great that we live in times when people are treated equally. When I left for university I was shocked to find that people still behave like this in the workplace today. Letters like this sadden and frustrate me.

      Reply
  25. Lucille2

    I don’t like the advice of being strategically bad at administrative tasks because those tasks will disproportionately fall to the next person willing to do it – most likely another woman. When my boss lost his administrative assistant from a RIF, the tasks had to be done by someone. If I ended up being the first person who had to figure out something the assistant used to do, then I would create a document on how to do that thing. So I created documents on how to bill a client, how to post a job posting on our new system, how to print a 2 sided document, etc. When someone asks you to do a thing, reference the how-to-doc and send them on their way. It’s a lot of work at first, but it will save you in the end.

    I’m really terrible at party planning and ordering meals for meetings. I tend to get that kind of task once and never again. But I’m authentically bad at it. It’s no strategy. I think a solution to that kind of issue is to rotate the task so no one person is routinely stuck doing it.

    Reply
    1. Sarah N

      But I don’t think it’s OP’s job to solve this problem for the entire office or even for other women in the office. Sometimes you have to prioritize your own career (especially when you are more junior and already in a field where your gender is disadvantaged). I like all of Alison’s scripts, but if those don’t work, I definitely think lowering her standards for these tasks is a good idea. Like, if you’re tasked with ordering office furniture, don’t necessarily spend thousands of dollars on the wrong order. But prioritize your other ACTUAL work, be a little forgetful about gathering orders, when people ask say “Oh yeah, sorry, I didn’t get to that, hmmmm…” and delay a little more. It’s not going to kill anyone if office chairs are delayed by a month, and in the meantime perhaps someone else will pick up the task. Or not, and then there will be no new office chairs. Which is also fine, because it is NOT OP’S JOB.

      Reply
      1. Lucille2

        But the advice isn’t to be strategically bad, it’s to de-prioritize tasks that are not within OP’s main job responsibilities. I tend to agree with you and think it’s actually better advice than intentionally do the tasks you don’t want to do poorly. In some organizations, if a position is eliminated and the work magically gets done anyway, then it reinforces the notion that the eliminated position was redundant. If things aren’t getting done that need to be because resources aren’t available, it helps the manager make a case for hiring someone to do the administrative work.

        Reply
        1. Susana

          There’s a difference between failing to take the checks to the bank and making bad coffee. Take the checks to the bank (but don’t volunteer, and say you’re too busy unless it’s your turn).
          But definitely, definitely, make bad coffee. Really bad.

          Reply
  26. cmcinnyc

    There’s a woman at my office who tries this. Thing is, she’s an obviously intelligent and competent person. But she “can’t figure out” how to do her expense report. It’s an absolutely transparent move to dump it on somebody else and it has made me lose respect for her. It’s not just the expense reports–there are various obvious tasks she supposedly cannot grasp. My tactic is to be just as falsely obtuse right back, the ole cc your boss with a dumb “is this what you meant? I’m not sure I understand…” follow up, etc. Don’t be her.

    Reply
    1. Sarah N

      Ok, but if all the male staff members have an admin assistant to do their expense reports and only the woman is expected to spend her time doing her own? That’s more the situation we are talking about here.

      Reply
      1. cmcinnyc

        Not the case here at all, but I see your point. However, faking dumb/incompetent when everyone knows you are smart/competent… has been beaten to death by now in the comments. I think you can get away with it if you have a great sense of humor about it and can honestly get everyone to laugh about the situation (like the comment below about revving up to plan a Raw Vegan Holiday Party) but I don’t think you can do this with a straight face.

        Reply
        1. New Jack Karyn

          I’m smart as hell. Forms more difficult than ordering a deli sandwich give me hives. Doing my taxes is a traumatic experience.

          Reply
      2. The Man, Becky Lynch

        That’s not even the case in the letter. The fact is that there’s one task that only one person needs to do and it’s being given to the woman.

        So if the woman who fakes not understanding expense reports was doing it because only one person does expense reports and it’s just given to her as the catch-all, then there’s an issue. Or if everyone had admins do it, then she should just request to delegate it to an admin or if she could be added to the group that an admin handles. There’s no point in lying and faking confusion.

        I’ve never ever heard of everyone having an assistant except for the lone woman in the office who is expected to do her work and the administrative things as well, that’s a bizarre leap.

        Reply
    2. twig

      I was an admin for a remote salesperson who had to turn in THE SAME report to her boss every week — just an excel sheet that she could plug numbers into — no formulas involved.

      EVERY DAMN FRIDAY as the deadline approached I’d get a call from her asking me to do it for her — she would literally dictate over the phone, rather than just updating the damn spreadsheet.

      her reasoning: “I just can’t do forms!” It made me wonder how she had gotten through life. did she ever do her taxes? how did she get a drivers license — you know you have to fill out a form for that!

      Reply
      1. Librarian of SHIELD

        I once sat in a waiting room at a doctor’s office while a woman face-timed with her daughter because she couldn’t figure out how to fill out the form. Never underestimate humankind’s ability to not understand stuff.

        Reply
  27. KWu

    I agree that being actively bad at these tasks probably won’t win you much, and might be harmful, but I do think there’s value in considering that you don’t have to aim for stellar results. If you get stuck with ordering lunch for the group, place the order, but you don’t have to search out place that’s cheaper/better than the last one you all used, and you don’t have to contort yourself to accommodate individual preferences. I do think if some assignment isn’t going to be rewarded, then the reactions demonstrate it’s not of high value, and therefore it’s strategic for your own career to do the minimal possible.

    Caveats: there are some things worth doing for yourself, this is not endorsing a “well that’s not my job” attitude to everything, there are rewards other than promotions/raises, etc.

    Still–cut back and simplify as much as you can. Contribute to resources that will allow others to access the same information they might need to complete the task (like a shared password for an account to look up past orders, or whatnot).

    Reply
    1. fposte

      As usual from you, a thoughtful insight there, KWu–that you can do the tasks with less time and energy and get perfectly acceptable results. That’s another way to rejig the ROI on doing these–if you can’t raise the return, lower the investment.

      Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      If you get stuck with ordering lunch for the group, place the order, but you don’t have to search out place that’s cheaper/better than the last one you all used, and you don’t have to contort yourself to accommodate individual preferences.

      In other words, do it like a guy* would do it. “Get ‘er done.”

      *I’m using “guy” for a certain category of male.

      Reply
  28. Massmatt

    I agree there is very often a sexist and or ageist component to this, but it can happen from being too willing to volunteer to help and unwilling to push back.

    something like this happened to me. Not admin-type duties such as ordering furniture but a tedious recurring task that took about an hour each time. It had to be done by a manager and I was the one nearest the guy coming up with this report so it just became “my” thing because he asked me first and then it became a regular thing.

    I finally had enough and brought it up at a manager meeting, we came up with a system of having a rotating “manager of the week” responsible for these sorts of things and it was divided up fairly.

    Feigning incompetence is definitely a thing people do to get out of this sort of work but it’s kind of dysfunctional, not to mention hard to claim if it’s work you’ve already been doing. Better to have the conversation.

    Reply
    1. Rainy days

      A big part of the sexist component of menial office tasks is how people get recognized for this kind of work. I have a male coworker who is always helping clean up, set up, etc. People fawn over him for it: “Wow, Bob is so so so helpful!” When my female coworkers do the same tasks, no one comments positively or negatively–it’s makes me feel like they assume women will do this kind of work and it doesn’t need thanks. We’re a female-dominated office and profession, fwiw–so I’m not make the case that men are particularly sexist about this, rather that we live in a sexist culture in which women and men have all absorbed sexist norms. I would be fine doing more office housekeeping if people appreciated me for it the way they appreciate Bob.

      Reply
    2. Kita

      I love your solution of rotating it. I’d feel weirdly aggressive to say “I already put in my fair share of admin work this week, ask someone else”. But setting up a quota/rotation that everyone agrees to makes it fair game.

      Reply
  29. mark132

    Whether or not it’s a good idea to be strategically bad at tasks, I’ve seen it work. Coworkers who suck at tasks stop getting them assigned and other coworkers get them. It can get to the point where task distribution can get really unbalanced. So it will “work”.

    I think in this situation being bad at the task can work if the reason is you are too busy to complete the less important task. And just play it up that way. “Sorry I didn’t get to ordering the supplies because I’m doing my ‘real job'”.

    Reply
    1. Massmatt

      We see many letters from people who have coworkers that do very little because they lose responsibilities due to incompetence or indifference and their managers think the solution is to have the coworkers pick up the work. So competent workers are doing extra work while incompetent Al… plays Tetris all day?

      Reply
      1. Sarah N

        But the OP does not want to use this time to play Tetris all day! She wants to use it to do her actual job, develop valuable skills that will help her advance in her career, etc. She’s not planning to be strategically bad at HER ENTIRE JOB, just these tasks that actually are not her job.

        Reply
        1. Robin Sparkles

          Exactly -if I am busy doing the work that promotes me- is what the company is PAYING me to do-then there is very little loss of my being too busy to do the things the company is NOT expecting nor paying me to do.

          Reply
    2. CheeryO

      But you’re supposed to say “I don’t have time” up-front, not after the ball has been dropped. That just makes you look disorganized (or worse, airheaded), and that is very much not the look that a young woman in a mostly-male office should be going for.

      Reply
      1. Jessen

        I think you can still do it. “I’m sorry, I’d love to help, but all these little extras are adding up and I’m starting to really feel the time crunch! How about you ask Steve or Pete?”

        Reply
      2. Susana

        Really? And do you think the men refusing to do this work are worried about being seen as airheads? Nope. They don’t think it’s their jobs, they put no effort into it, so they aren’t asked to do it.

        Reply
  30. lnelson in Tysons

    In a smaller office, the little admin thing still need to get done. If I were in the OP’s shoes the next time and the next check run came around, if asked, I would mentioned that so-so hasn’t done it for awhile and try to push it over.

    As far as “female” duties as keeping the kitchen clean, at one point I was really fed up with the guys not doing their share on pitching in and helping (and I was the only female in the office at the time), I just stopped. When one of them asked who was responsible for keeping the kitchen clean I did answer with everyone is supposed to be cleaning up after themselves. When “poked” that I should have cleaned up someone else’s mess that was in the kitchen, my response was “I am hoping on the bandwagon with all the men in the office. I’m waiting for the magic faeries to do it.” No idea who finally did the dishes in the sink.

    Reply
  31. Richard Hershberger

    Being strategically bad can be a good strategy, but you have to be, um…, strategic about it. For example, a recurring topic is corporate “mandatory fun.” You require me to sing karaoke? I’m in! You won’t enjoy it, though–not even in a “so bad it is funny” way. Think low, monotone mumbling almost, but not quite, into the microphone. If I can manage a feedback squeal, so much the better.

    The strategic part is that this incompetence has to be both plausible and irrelevant. Being terrible at karaoke is totally plausible, so with a bit of fake enthusiasm I will have fulfilled the “team player” requirement while also achieving my goal of not being asked to do this again. Life is good. But if the task in question is trivially easy, then faking incompetence just makes you look incompetent.

    As for irrelevance, this is mostly self-evident. If it really is part of your job, then suck it up, even if it isn’t your favorite part. More complicated is stuff that isn’t really anyone’s job, but needs to be done. This seems to be what the letter writer is talking about. The problem is not that she gets some of this, but that she gets too much of it. This is probably not a great area for strategic incompetence, as it at the very least borders on violating the “irrelevant” requirement. Some self assertion to spread the wealth is called for here, not screwing up a bank deposit.

    Reply
  32. MommaChem

    I can fully appreciate the idea of being strategically bad at something. In my tea pot manufacturering plant, the only women in management roles are the HR manager, the plant accountant, and myself, the Quality manager. I knew from someone who already works onsite that the Plant Director could be that subtle type of sexist that is grown in the South. Fortunately, as another Southerner, I was able to deflect “women’s work” fairly early. One of the first meetings I attended with him, he asked me, “MommaChem, why don’t you take the notes [on the big dry-erase board] for all of us?” Ask a question? Get an answer! “I can do that if we don’t want anybody to be able read them!” He took the notes and never asked me again!

    So glad I set *that* boundary early. Especially since I’m frequently the only woman in the room.

    Reply
  33. gbca

    I completely agree with Alison’s advice. I’d also add, with all the discussion of the pitfalls of being intentionally bad at something, there is a middle ground. You don’t have to be bad at these tasks, but you also don’t want to be so awesome at them that you’re seen as indispensable in that realm. It’s going to be a little task dependent; the check-cashing example is pretty black and white, but you can be “just ok” at ordering office furniture, for example. You can be not super proactive about it, you can spend minimal time making selections rather than super-optimizing, etc. Basically, focus on your core work and make these side things what they are, side things that don’t get the best of your attention. To be clear, I wouldn’t take this approach on its own, but do it in conjunction with Alison’s other advice.

    Reply
  34. Lazy River

    Once at a job I (a woman) was told that I had to organize the office holiday party because “the newest person in the office always does it.” But there were two men in the office who were newer than me. I told them I was very excited to plan the office’s first ever Raw Vegan Holiday Party and that I hoped everyone liked beets. They got one of the newer guys to co-plan with me very quickly after that.

    Reply
    1. Forrest Rhodes

      Okay, this is officially one of the week’s three funniest (and likely most effective) responses. I am now actively seeking opportunities to say, “I hope everyone likes beets!” (Or, since there are people who really do like beets, maybe I’ll use rutabagas instead.)

      Reply
    2. lnelson in Tysons

      Love it.
      That line wouldn’t have worked with me as I do HR/Payroll, I know when someone starts after me.

      Reply
  35. Amber Rose

    I ended up doing this unconsciously, out of despair at how much I hated the task and was unqualified and unwilling to do it. I could have done it properly I just mentally checked out of it.

    It worked out for me, sort of. I haven’t had to do it since. But I seriously damaged my manager’s confidence in me, and it’s taken a couple years to repair my reputation.

    Reply
  36. Dust Bunny

    Don’t pretend to be bad at stuff: You don’t want to feed the “dumb girl” stereotype, either. But do take it to your boss and also do start declining, or asking someone else to help, or delegating if you can. Stop accepting all the chores people dump in your lap.

    Reply
  37. That Girl From Quinn's House

    You don’t have to pretend to be bad at things, so much as lower their priority. “Sure, I’ll go pick up some stamps right after I finish this. (Two hours later.) Oh but I have a phone call with Client, after that. (Two hours later.) OK I’ll grab the stamps on my way back from lunch (takes an extra hour.) Ugh there was SUCH a long line at the POST OFFICE this took FOREVER.”

    You got the stamps, you got the right stamps, and you got them by deadline. But you didn’t rush to do it, and you made it inconvenient for the person who asked for the stamps hoping you’d drop everything and rush to come back with them.

    Reply
  38. Hey Karma, Over here.

    Don’t play games. It will not help you and it could hurt you. There is no benefit. I see it in the light of the guys took one step back, you started to do this thing, it became your job. I see sexist overtones in it. And for that reason, playing dumb will not only not work, but it will hurt you. It’s fine for men to say, “I don’t know how to do they will either be told, learn it or be let off the hook. Nobody is going to think they can’t do something, just that they don’t want to. The same assumption won’t be made for you. “She can’t do X?”
    Why risk it. The only thing that matters is you.
    Tell your boss you’ve been doing this job because it needs doing but you don’t want to continue. Not that you don’t have the time, don’t have the skills, you don’t want to do it. I wouldn’t even volunteer to be part of a rotation, just step back and see what happens. But don’t

    Reply
    1. Hey Karma, Over here.

      no idea how the last sentence disappeared.
      don’t play dumb. It will bite you in the ass.

      Reply
  39. Spreadsheets and Books

    There’s a Shel Silverstein poem called “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes” and it basically exactly sums up exactly this idea. It’s one of my favorites. I actually use the first line jokingly (“If you have to dry the dishes…”) when talking to my husband about work things people put on him that he doesn’t like.

    Probably not the most mature way to handle workplace issues, though. I agree with the advice to speak to a supervisor or to just lower the priority to the point that people stop asking. “I’m sorry, you needed that check deposited yesterday? I’m so swamped – maybe you could run it over since you have some time.”

    Reply
    1. Amber Rose

      There’s a comic from The Oatmeal about properly loading the dishwasher that has a similar premise. I love it.

      Reply
    2. Gumby

      That is immediately where my mind went too! (Though somehow in my head it was wash the dishes rather than dry so clearly I need to revisit my Shel Silverstein books).

      When I was growing up this type of thing backfired. Bad at a chore? You need more practice. Good at it? Excellent, you will be efficient. But… those were my parents. And my brothers had the same chores.

      Reply
    3. Not One of the Bronte Sisters

      I don’t know this poem but I never dry the dishes. I figured out when I was seven years old that they dry by themselves.

      Reply
  40. Kita

    What really stuck with me in the letter was that these tasks are taking up so much time (in contrast to a high volume of small tasks, which is still distracting but in a different way). I wonder if that’s an easy lead-in for a way to frame it in your mind. Something like “I’ve been spending 7 hours a week on things like A, B, and C. I’m going to cut that back to 2 hours a week so that I can really shine on Project X.”

    I used to be in a role where I could measure success by the number of things I got done, but now I’m in a position where I could call a project “done” at various points, so it’s harder for me to tell if I’ve done enough work on it or not. I sometimes have found myself thinking I “have time” to do admin tasks, when really I probably should be using that extra time to polish up my main projects.

    Might not be the case with the letter writer, but I wanted to share that impression.

    Reply
  41. JG

    When I was younger and given the crappy work that no one else wanted to do, I learned to do it quickly and accurately to get it over with. I also learned that that strategy virtually guaranteed I’d be saddled with it forever. I am in the strategically bad camp.

    Reply
  42. Cedrus Libani

    I think there’s a difference between doing a terrible job (which will make you look bad, especially if it’s something a child could do correctly) and simply putting the low-priority tasks at the end of your priority queue. Sure, I’ll go to the bank to cash those checks…once I’m done with the higher-value work I actually get paid for, and we both know that’s not happening soon. I’m efficient with the important stuff; everything else happens when it happens.

    Reply
  43. Fiona

    This is one of the few times I really disagree with the advice. (Or rather, Part 2 of the advice.). I would NOT recommend being strategically bad at a task you said you would do. What I would recommend is saying you’re too busy to do the task or simply not volunteer when the task comes up.

    The hard part will be allowing things to fall between the cracks and watching things not get done. For those who want to be helpful or are socialized to be caretakers, it might be excruciating to watch something not get done (and perhaps this feels like incompetence), but you really have to do it, in service of your career. You have to allow people to SEE the issue and not perpetuate the invisible labor that you are performing. Another option: “Unfortunately, I’m slammed – maybe Joe is free?”

    Reply
  44. KeepIt

    I gotta admit, I’ve done this before. A few years ago I was in a stop-gap book keeping job to pay the bills while job hunting. I was the youngest person who was not part of the family that owned the business and for some reason they got it into their head that I knew my way around technology? So if they had computers that needed setting up they would pull me away from what I was doing and ask me to do it. Some problems: 1) I don’t really know tech at all! 2) “Setting up” the computers often involved complicated procedures, etc to make sure the computer was safe from being hacked since they’d work with sensitive data and I was not confident at all with making sure everything was done correctly and didn’t want to be blamed for a leak if it wasn’t and 3) The company had an actual IT person already – The owners daughter who refused to work more than 2 hours a day. Sooooo I played up the whole “technologically inept” thing and pretended to be “confused” when they even just asked me to assemble a desktop computer. They stopped asking me to do that verrrrrrry quickly.

    Reply
    1. Manders

      Ah yes, I’ve had a few jobs where I was asked to do IT work I didn’t fully understand! I think I did cause a lot of problems because I didn’t understand security, but I was working for small businesses that would go to extreme lengths to avoid calling in the expensive IT contractor.

      I once had a job where there was a router in the office. When the internet went down I’d reboot the router and that usually fixed it after a few minutes, so I’d be thanked for fixing it. After a year of doing this, the internet went down and wouldn’t go back up. I finally got permission to call the real IT person… who told me that router had nothing to do with the office’s internet connection, and he wasn’t sure why it was there.

      Reply
    2. Susana

      Honestly, it doesn’t sound like you were playing at all. It sounds like you genuinely did not know how to handle that level of tech.

      Reply
  45. ArtsNerd

    I was at a strategic planning retreat with my employer and staff got divvied up with board members in breakout groups for an exercise. Just by luck of the draw, I (a young-looking, if emotionally ancient, cis female) happened to be assigned to the group with alllll of the male members of the board, and only male members of the board.

    Part of the exercise required one of us to be the “recorder” i.e. notetaker of the group. First words outta my mouth were “I refuse to be the notetaker.” Luckily the board members understood and didn’t ding me for it, but I probably should have navigated that a bit differently than I did. (I am legitimately terrible at taking notes, but that didn’t even come up.)

    Reply
  46. Quinalla

    I agree that the more professional approach is to not volunteer as much for those kinds of tasks (even if volunteering is more like pitching in on something you see needs done), politely refusing to be voluntold/asked, and to address it with your boss and coworkers as you can. I now I am very careful to not over-volunteer for these kinds of tasks, it is too easy to end up as “Office Mom” especially since I am the only woman in my regional office currently. The last woman who worked here did all of that stuff – caretaking/admin stuff – and I was very careful (and so was she) to not let it all just get shifted onto my plate when she left. I still pitch in, but I am selective about it and I force myself to walk past dirty dishes, etc. sometimes where my instinct is just to take care of it. I also just flat out refuse to do certain things. I never make coffee – I don’t drink it and am bad at making it and I’m just never going to do it and have told everyone I work with at one point or another before them even hint/think of asking. One task I end up doing a lot is ordering lunch for our small group lunches every Thursday. I don’t mind doing it, but I make it quick for me and if I’m not going to be able to do it or am too busy, I don’t hesitate to delegate it for someone else to pick up that day and if it doesn’t happen, I don’t sweat it.

    But yeah, it is tough and I see the same pattern of women getting disproportionately assigned these “caring” kind of tasks and it is infuriating!

    Reply
  47. Camellia

    OP, please don’t play dumb or mess up the tasks, instead talk to them as Alison suggested. However, there is a chance that that just won’t work. They may be too entrenched in how easy it is to have you do it. They may not want to admit that they have fallen into that sexist trap of having you do admin work and then deny that it IS ‘admin’ type work and say that it falls under the ‘and anything else we ask you to do’ part of the job description. They may not want to ask the men to do the work because they know it is admin work and don’t want to risk offending the men by having them do it.

    If you have the conversations and it continues for whatever reason, you may find that you simply have to change jobs to keep this from impeding you in your career. And then make darn sure that you don’t let it happen in the new job.

    Reply
  48. Not Quite Good Enough

    I WILL say, it works for me at home. I don’t cook, clean, get groceries, wash clothes.. . Because I am not good enough at them for his high standards. I don’t really *try* to be bad at them, but I don’t really try to convince him that I can do them just as well. I don’t mind not doing any of these things!

    Reply
  49. Beth

    Why not just…say no to some of these tasks?

    I don’t think faking incompetence is a good idea. It might well get you out of this specific task–but it might also bite you in the butt down the line, when this really exciting project is on the table but it happens to involve some work that’s like this work, and you now have a reputation for being bad at that so of course you’re not going to get assigned to it.

    It’s much better to just decline things that don’t fit your needs at the moment (especially since it sounds like you’re being offered enough extra odds and ends that you could decline a lot of them and still be doing your fair share).
    It’s OK to say, “I need to focus on [task that is actually in my job description] right now.” It’s OK to say, “I’ve got a lot going on right now, maybe check with Fergus and see if he’s got time?” It’s even OK to say, “Look, I’ve been the note-taker at the last three team meetings, and I don’t want to get pigeonholed into always doing it by default. Let’s rotate it to someone else this week.” And none of those come with the downside of you having a reputation for being bad at things.

    Reply
  50. Alex

    A former coworker tried this tactic with a task that the whole office was asked to pitch in with. It was a tiresome task that was not our core jobs, but just too overwhelming for the person whose real job it was. She pretended to be completely incompetent at it in hopes she wouldn’t be asked to help again.

    Notice I said FORMER coworker? Yeah she got fired.

    Reply
    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

      a task that the whole office was asked to pitch in with

      and therein lies the difference.

      Reply
        1. Susana

          The point is – your former co-worker was refusing to do what everyone else was expected to do. Not the case with LW.

          Reply
  51. alphabet soup

    I think some of the best career advice I’ve ever gotten was from my academic advisor when I was pursuing a highly-competitive, male-dominated academic field as a woman. In academia, teaching and committee-work is seen as the equivalent of these kinds of “housekeeping” duties. He cautioned me against expressing too much interest in those areas, because it would make colleagues see me as less of a researcher, and he believed my work was strong enough to develop a good reputation as a researcher.

    Anyway, I didn’t go on in academia, but I do currently work in a male-dominated field. And boy, has that advice come in handy. Almost immediately in starting my current jobs, male co-workers started stopping by my office to talk about planning birthdays or coordinating kitchen clean-up. I immediately had to put a hard stop to that. They didn’t like it, but they eventually got used to it.

    It can backfire to pretend you’re bad at things (especially in a male-dominated industry), so I find it more useful to just state my disinterest. “Sorry, I’m not really a birthday person, but if you’re passing around a card, I’m glad to sign.” “Sorry, I’m not really into decorating.” “Sorry, I don’t bake.” “Sorry, I’m too busy with X, Y, and Z to coordinate kitchen clean-up.”

    It stinks to have to do that, because I actually do like doing some of those things (like celebrating birthdays). But, unfortunately, giving in just one time often sets a precedent.

    Reply
  52. GreenDoor

    OP, if you were my employee and claimed you didn’t know how to make coffee or set up a meeting or fill in for the receptionist I’d treat it the same as I do when my kids claim they dont’ know how to do something. I’d say, “OK, let me show you.” And now I’ve shown you. You officially know how. So the job is STILL yours, particularly because I know for a fact you were trained.

    I’d have much more respect for the employee who could respectfully push back or who had the courage to politely school me on my uneven approach to assigning certain tasks.

    Reply
    1. Susana

      But it’s NOT HER JOB. They dumping admin stuff on her, and she believes it is because she’s female. She shold stop doing it (and leave if they push back).

      Reply
  53. Ladylike

    I totally disagree with intentionally doing an admin task poorly. I’m in a position where I delegate some tasks, and if someone fails miserably at a simple task, there’s no way I’m going to assign that person a more complex task. I don’t want to make myself look dumb or less competent in any area of my work, period.

    I think being less available is the key – citing deadlines, projects piling up, etc. I also think you could lightheartedly say, “I’ve cleaned the coffee machine the past 6 times it has needed it. I’m officially retired!” People may not realize just how often these tasks are dumped on you, and reminding them of the imbalance should shame them into delegating it to someone else.

    Reply
  54. Syfygeek

    This is where you make sure someone else can do these things. And when one of the guys says “but you’re so good at this, why should I learn?” you can respond with “and if I get hit by a bus, who’s going to do it then?”.

    Teaching them the task, as a “just in case”, can then evolve into asking for him to take it on a day you’re swamped, or on vacation. And then add another trained person, in case the bus takes out the both of you.

    Reply
  55. Susan K

    It always makes me cringe when I see this advice thrown around on the open thread — “Never be good at a task you don’t like doing” — as though it’s some kind of genius life hack. News flash to those who use this trick: you’re probably not fooling anyone. Your coworkers either know exactly what you’re doing and think you’re a jerk, or they just think you’re bad at your job.

    And in this case, I don’t think it really applies, anyway. It’s not that you just don’t like doing it; it’s that you’re being disproportionately burdened with administrative tasks at the expense of your core responsibilities, probably partly due to gender discrimination, and that’s what needs to be addressed. Plus, it wouldn’t really work if you’ve already established a reputation for being good at this stuff and suddenly you don’t know how to do administrative tasks.

    Reply
    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

      Or they can make their own freakin coffee instead of judging the OP for “being bad at” making it?

      Reply
    2. Susana

      Who cares if they think she’s bad at the “job” of making their coffee? And as for the “jerk” – yeah, lots of people at work count on women’s desire to be liked…

      Reply
  56. Thornus

    This reminds me of an episode from a 90s sitcom, I think Friends. In it, two people were wedding planning. The groom to be wanted to get out of it, and someone suggested he should take one task and make the worst choice possible. I remember the joke being that he chose cutlery with deer horn handles, which did not sit well with the bride.

    I try to live by a simple rule – if the advice being given to you is the kind that would be given out as a plot contrivance on a hackneyed sitcom, it is probably bad advice.

    Reply
    1. Just Another Manic Millie

      I don’t remember that episode, but I do remember an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond in which Raymond told his brother Robbie to screw up his (Robbie’s) wedding invitations, so that Robbie would never again be asked to do anything.

      Reply
  57. Gussie Fink-Nottle

    I think its important to have a clear idea in your head about your boundaries, and what you will and won’t do for team work (it makes it easier to say “no” when you know what your “yeses” are). At a conference event I heard a C-suite woman lay it out this way, “Unless I’m the highest ranked or most senior person in the room, I will not stay after to clean/straighten after a meeting.” YMMV, but it was important to her that she never acted as though that kind of work was “beneath her” but also that she didn’t do the extra admin stuff just because she was the only woman in the room.

    I was once the lone woman on a team of men, all of whom were kind and generally thoughtful guys. However, time and time again I seemed to be the only person who “noticed” emotional/admin things – getting a going-away card for an employee who is leaving, acknowledging a coworker’s impending baby, planning an overdue team happy hour, bringing happy birthday or “you got that certification!” treats. I really didn’t want to be the woman who was de facto planning a baby shower, so my solution was to inform the manager that these things were coming up, and then let him decide how to handle them. The first time I had this conversation, I prefaced it by saying that I didn’t want these tasks defaulting to me (pointing out that women often get this kind of work), but that I was raising them once as I would any other work task that he would want to be reminded of. He respected that overall, and a couple times asked me to make an emergency run to CVS because he forgets cards, but also….never assigned any of the larger tasks to anyone. So they didn’t get done. I know at one coworker was pretty upset that we didn’t do anything to acknowledge his upcoming baby, but I felt like I had done my diligence by reminding my manager once and then letting it him decide if he wanted to assign it to anyone. So if you trust your manager to not task you with everything you happen to notice and can raise this gender inequity without them getting defensive, something like that might help if you are really worried things won’t even get on people’s radar until its too late.

    (Admittedly, this doesn’t help the issue of me being the only person who “notices” these caring or admin items should get done, but I figure thats a fight for another day)

    Reply
    1. fposte

      Yes, the letting go of emotional labor is a big thing. And I think it’s okay for an office to say “We don’t do personal recognition stuff” if nobody’s up for doing it, but then they have to accept that they don’t get it–I’m also intrigued by the guy whose nose was out of joint for not having new-baby recognition, since I suspect he wasn’t rounding up birthday cards for his co-workers himself.

      Reply
      1. Gussie Fink-Nottle

        Yeah, I don’t recall him planning something for a teammate or shepherding a farewell card around for signatures. In general our team says that personal recognition and acknowledgement is important (especially as we are partially remote and teamwork takes more effort to cultivate!)…but then they don’t take action to make those gestures when its someone else’s event, and there isn’t a process or policy in place to handle these things. It would be easier if our manager had a “no gifts/cards” blanket policy instead of saying it’s important but assuming someone else will take care of it – so it’s sporadic and easy to feel slighted when you see other people being recognized.

        Part of the baby shower issue was that an adjacent team in our company had a huge surprise shower for another expecting father and it was extremely visible. I get how he felt personally neglected when it was so proximate, and I reminded our manager but nothing was arranged. Additionally, HR normally sends a card and baby gift, and he didn’t receive acknowledgement there either (though he left the company a little bit before the baby was born, so who knows if it was on its way/was going to be sent post-delivery). With those things combined he admitted to feeling like a “cog in the wheel” and pretty under appreciated

        Reply
        1. Perpal

          Yeah the cards etc… it either needs to be assigned to someone or it’s not gonna happen. There’s no reason it should unofficially fall on whoever feels like doing it.
          In the well-functioning offices I’ve been at, it’s usually the admin or general office coordinator who does those, if they are done. (usually not birthdays etc, but baby showers for a group of 12 trainees, maybe once a year or so, yes)

          Reply
    2. The Man, Becky Lynch

      We can’t help but notice what we do, so I wouldn’t call it an issue that these things come across your radar! It is up to you if you mention them, which you have a good system in place to at least ping your manager and say “Hey, Joe’s wedding is coming up, in case you wanted to get a card.” is a great compromise in my opinion.

      It’s all about knowing what your end goal is. You can be warm and notice the emotional things without damaging yourself if you’re surrounded by the right teammates.

      I did setup the last “party” so to speak, the previous one was done by one of the guys. Everyone always takes the time to thank whoever did the planning/shopping and also whomever is cooking if it’s a BBQ or something of that sort. It’s all that really matters to me is that it’s seen as a benefit and an “above and beyond” moment, instead of the offices that just feel entitled and demand treats or special parties but never want to contribute to making them happen.

      Reply
  58. Lucette Kensack

    I am not a coffee drinker, and I very intentionally did not learn how to make coffee until, like, last year. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve said, breezily, “Oh, I’m not a coffee person. No idea how to use the machine. Try [someone else].” (I CAN tell you that it is at least a million times more than my male colleagues have been asked to make coffee.)

    I also want to offer the slightest amendment to Alison’s comments. I don’t think it’s a case of women volunteering to take on admin/lower-level/housekeeping tasks, but rather that we are subtly forced to take them on because men simply don’t do them. It’s a lot like the challenge many heterosexual couples have with housework: it’s not that the male partners refuse to clean the kitchen, but they simply… don’t, and so if the kitchen is going to be cleaned the woman is going to do it or there’s going to have to be a direct conversation about what’s going on.

    Reply
  59. iglwif

    I’m heading over to read Alison’s response in a minute, but I got similar advice a while back from a friend (we’re both cis women)–that as a young or young-looking woman in a non-admin job, you should be strategically bad at things like fixing the copier. I didn’t like the suggestion then–it reminded me of how my little brother used to try and get out of drying the dishes by dropping things on purpose so I would get annoyed and tell him to go away and do it myself–and I don’t like it any more now. It seems dishonest, it seems passive-aggressive, and it seems extremely likely to come back and bite you in the ass.

    Reply
  60. Ella Vader

    In the early 1980s, I remember the advice “Don’t ever let them know you can type”, directed at young women who would be working in engineering careers. I didn’t actually follow that advice, but I understood the intent behind it.

    I like Alison’s alternative suggestions of not to volunteer for the dead-end work, not to take on a larger share of it than male peers, and to identify the potential problems with taking it on in conversation with a supervisor. Obviously typing mostly isn’t that thing any more, but there are still those things.

    Reply
  61. Beth

    That issue of being apparently the only one who notices/cares is a real one! Sometimes these things get shunted to women because someone’s got an impression (conscious or unconscious) that women should do them and keeps asking the women around the office. Obviously that’s not cool, but it’s both avoidable (you can say no) and correctable (you can set up a formal rotation with everyone, you can point out that you’re not a baking person, etc.).

    But sometimes I think it happens because men as a broad category just…aren’t taught why these things matter. And they do matter! People aren’t robots; we’re social creatures, and we tend to be happier and more settled when the groups we’re part of acknowledge us as people. Little things like remembering birthdays, acknowledging major life events, and setting up bonding time go a long way towards making a bunch of random people into a team.

    But since this stuff is reinforced by an accumulation of little things instead of one grand gesture, it’s easy to overlook how much the sum of those little things matters. And when you’ve never been taught that they’re important in the first place? It’s really easy to dismiss it as “Well, I don’t care if I get a card on my birthday! This is silly, we don’t need to be doing it.” It’s not until you’ve dropped the ball on too many of the little things (and had no one else pick it up) that you start realizing the impact.

    Reply
  62. Nancie

    It never occurred to me before, but that’s probably why I’ve never been stuck taking meeting notes. I’m awful at taking notes, and I’m very upfront about it whenever someone asks me to.

    Reply
  63. Linzava

    Mind literally blown! It all makes sense now. I even asked my boyfriend if he does this and he was like, “Yeah, so?”

    Reply
  64. FatCat

    At OldJob, I was asked to make coffee in my first week by a sexist dinosaur of a guy who didn’t come into the office often and saw a random woman in the kitchen. When I came by his desk to tell him the coffee was ready and sat down in my office, he realized I was the new boss. His face was PRICELESS. The amount of crap Dino Dude took from our senior leaders for that was fantastic.

    Reply
  65. Quickbeam

    1972…I had a teacher in high school tell me not to learn to type well since “it will derail your career, plunging you into the typing pool!”. Years later, I was in a high demand consultant role (think teapot design) and the boss wanted to make me time clock matron. My union told me “do it badly”.

    It’s a notion that has been around for a long time.

    Reply
    1. lnelson in Tysons

      Slightly off topic.
      I did take a typing class in high school as computers and computer labs were just starting to get funded in my city. I did okay, I still often need to look at the keys while typing, but I am not a hunt and peck kind of typer.
      But what later drove me nuts in my job hunting was that at recruiting agencies they still want so many to take a typing test, but over many many years only once was I ever asked if I had actual HR knowledge. And truth is most employees don’t care if I type 30 words a minute or 70. More important, do I know how to confirm that they are enrolled in benefits.
      There have been times when asked to do something more administrative than my actual job, I have asked if someone else could do it as I was busy.

      Reply
  66. AliOop

    As a 30-somehting woman in a non-admin role, I have always taken on those little “admin” tasks without complianing. Though it can be annoying at times, I believe my willingness to do those tasks in addition to my other work duties, has helped contribute to my company’s appreciation of me and helped lead to me being hired on as a full time employee. I’m not saying that was the resaon, but I think there is something to being willing to do different types of things.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      It’s a really tricky balance. You have to know your workplace culture, and also have to be able to dispassionately assess the value of your contributions within it and also the downside of your doing this work. There is a real risk of limiting your career if you become the office emotional labor, but there’s also a risk of limiting your career if you’re perceived as never pitching in to help.

      Reply
    2. Beth

      It’s a really hard balance. If you don’t do any of these things, you’re not a team player because you never pitch in. If you do too much of them, you get shoehorned into being “Sansa who always does the meeting notes” instead of “Aria who always has really insightful comments and thoughtful questions”.

      If you’re doing various admin tasks about as often as the other people on your team are doing them, you’re probably getting the balance right. If you’re finding you do them a lot more often than others (or, worse, your team has an overall gender disparity where the women always seem to be the ones picking up these tasks), that’s a problem.

      Reply
  67. I Wrote This in the Bathroom

    Only kind of relatable experience I have had was volunteer work, back in my teens/20s, and back in my home country. High school: I get “elected” to the student council and put in charge of making posters, and occasionally supervising other people making posters. I become really good at drawing and creating the posters. Tried to get out of it in my last year of school, but everyone was like “nope, posters”. College: I let it be known that I am good at making posters, and spend the first 2-3 years of college making posters for the dorm.

    First job out of college: two young women come to my desk at work. “Hi, you’re new, we are from blah-blah council, can you draw and make posters?” and with a straight face I said “Nope, sorry!” I just could not deal with the damn posters anymore. They took me at my word, left, and I’m guessing found somebody else – good for them!

    I hadn’t realized that this is an actual tactics, in different countries worldwide, that people actually do. But whatever it takes, I guess! After all, every hour I would’ve spent making posters would’ve been an hour spent missing the opportunities to become better at my actual work.

    Reply
  68. Not the Boss

    When we hired the receptionist (female) and I started training her, the first thing I told her was “We do not clean the kitchens or bathrooms, and if anyone asks you to do so, come see me.” Yes, you clean up after yourself if you make a mess, but there was a specific man, in the shop, who was hired to clean the facilities. Sure enough, after she’d been there for a few weeks, the shop man told the receptionist that it was her turn to clean the kitchens and bathrooms. I nipped that in the bud ASAP.

    Reply
    1. The Man, Becky Lynch

      OMFG he was actually hired to do the job and still tried to push it off on her, what a weasel! I’m glad that you had flagged that possible nonsense for her.

      We’ve always had guys designated to do the cleaning and I’d fire anyone who pulled a “It’s your turn” on any one, let alone a new person. Thankfully none of them would ever have done it, they have all taken pride in their duties and been awesome, they’ll even swoop in and say “hey I’ll get that” if they catch me on a day I’m emptying my own trash because I’m having a heavy-trash day or something!

      Reply
  69. Batgirl

    I think saying ‘this is unfairly falling on me as a woman’ is likely to get a response, because so much sexism is unconscious.
    However, if it is conscious – and subsequently ignored – then OP’s decision to suddenly start sucking at admin minutes after this announcement is going to appear insubordinate and will fall back on her.
    I’d build in a safety blanket of ‘..and while the admin work is simple work when done occasionally, I cannot keep on doing two jobs without messing something up’ … because who could?
    Other forewarnings of ‘don’t count on me’ could include “I’m distracted while at the bank/filing because I’m thinking about my actual projects.
    “I can potentially do my part with one admin job (weekly/monthly) once others are helping; but at this rate I need a complete break of x weeks/months to catch up on my own workload and development before I mess up while pulling other people’s weight.”
    Then, even if unsupported, you can start to slowly give less attention to it and more to your career. By job hunting!
    If you make mistakes you can at least point back to this conversation.

    Reply
  70. Haley

    I recommend listening to the Battle Tactics for your Sexist Workplace podcast. Don’t be alarmed by the title, it sounds more aggressive than what they talk about. But they have one episode on office ‘housekeeping’ tasks and how these commonly are appointed to women and ways that women can help delegate those tasks.

    Reply
  71. Suz

    This totally reminded me of advice I got early in my career. Back in the days when everyone still used typewriters I was working in a very male dominated field. I was told not to learn how to type if I didn’t want to pushed into an admin assistant of role.

    Reply
  72. Mr. Bob Dobalina

    OP, you got bad advice from your partner. Just say no. Stop volunteering to be the gopher, house mother, or whatever you want to call it.

    Reply
  73. Jenny Grace

    I’ve spent my entire career being intentionally terrible at jobs that are traditionally delegated to the only female in the room (I will not be the coffee girl or the designated note taker or the person who “gets” the printer or the phone expert or whatever) because I work in a male dominated industry and I refuse to be a good admin when I am a paid professional.
    ANYWAY, the strategy has paid dividends, I’m an executive, and I sometimes tell women who report to me that they shouldn’t be to good at knowing how the coffee maker works. SHRUG EMOJI.

    Reply
  74. Essess

    Bad advice… you need to stand up and advocate equality of work in the office and make it more visible to everyone. If someone comes to you with a big task repeatedly that could be done by other people, you can speak up and say that you are currently in the middle of something else but Person B and Person C are also able to do this for them. Or you can say that you did that task last time so it is Person B’s turn to do it “so that this doesn’t end up falling on one person all the time”. I would also get my colleagues together and point out to them that these shared time-intensive tasks keep falling on you but that these are items that should be shared among the group so you would like their input on the best way to fairly allocate them, possibly either by assigning them out permanently so that each person has about the same amount of time allocated to these tasks or working in a rotation…. ie- Jane cashes checks on Monday, Jim on Tuesday….

    Reply
  75. Mari

    In my workplace, we have rotations for a lot of tasks such as taking notes at meetings, cleaning, opening and closing the facilities, etc. The advantages are that everyone learns the processes, and no one is burdened with having to do it every time. It might be worthwhile to flag the recurring tasks and see what could be put on a rotation, so everyone knows, “It’s April, so Bob is in charge of banking and keeping toilet paper stocked.” (This also works for social events; we have an annual rotation of 5 people responsible for the 2 annual parties.)

    Reply
  76. It's Me

    NGL, I saw the partner’s advice and immediately thought of the dude who lied about being able to make deviled eggs. Red flags abound.

    Reply
  77. TexasThunder

    One thing I think is worth considering is that simevof the reason men don’t do these tasks is they would rather it didn’t get done than have to do it themselves.
    On the other hand my wife will do a subordinate’s task because “it easier to do it myself than fight with them over it”, something I found incredible.

    Reply
  78. Auntie_Anarchy

    Yep, it’s both sexist and ageist, and it continues to occur even at the highest levels and well beyond early-career stages. But we can call it out and act on it in the moment as Alison suggests, even and also while undertaking the task.
    Example 1: “The Scourge of Socialisation”. Board of Directors meeting; roughly gender balanced; the catering arrived and all the women including female directors got up to take delivery, remove lids, arrange napkins etc – it’s almost a reflex. I’m quite good now at insisting that the meeting takes a break, that the blokes pitch in to help, and that the most Dinosaurish Dan of them all gets the worst task. And I’m working on not getting up to help at all!
    Example 2: “Milk and One Sugar Please”. As the Company Secretary for several boards, my job does in fact involve a bunch of logistical/admin matters in the lead-up to meetings. However. Over time I’ve trained all my Directors to understand that board-level secretariat support doesn’t include taking the coffee orders, wrangling teleconference tech, printing their meeting packs, etc. My boards all know my hourly rate, so I remind them it’s not a great use of company resources. And if anyone forgets and asks me about coffee, I simply say “thanks, could you get me a large coffee milk and half a sugar”.
    Example 3: “Strategically Bad At That”. I’m super competent at a whole bunch of stuff, so people have learned I can solve most problems and answer most questions on the fly while also facilitating a board meeting. (All that early circus training paid off!) But… There are some things I’ve deliberately never learned, or which I’m really not good at, or which aren’t a great use of my time given everything else I’m juggling in the moment. I don’t for example, know anything about: any Apple product other than the simplest old-school iPod, setting up a video conference, mowing lawns and cleaning house (not often called for in the board room, but you get my drift). My approach is to say “I’m not the right person to help – you’ll need to call on XX” or if it’s the right audience I can get away with something like “No sorry, I’ve deliberately never learned” delivered with a beaming smile. Caveat: this one works for me because I’ve proven my competence in other ways.
    None of the above solves the emotional labour of having to address these expectations in the first place, but it does get better over time, and calling it out is really powerful.
    I really like a comment above about a senior woman saying she won’t do that work unless she’s the most senior person in the room to demonstrate these aren’t menial or low-value activities. I’ll be adding that one to my toolkit!

    Reply
  79. RAM

    Don’t play dumb, and don’t give people excuses of “oh, I’d love to, but I’m just too busy.” Both of those still imply that it’s technically your “job”. What you really want to convey is that there is no reason you’d be the default person for the task.

    My reaction to people asking me to do something admin related is acting surprised with a “Wait.. why? Why don’t you do that?” — then, if they give an excuse I just say “Oh! Well, you should probably ask around. Maybe send out an email to the group to see who’d be available for that?”

    Reply
  80. Eukomos

    I don’t intentionally do this, but I suspect it’s a subliminal habit. Every time my boss asks me to handle scheduling a meeting I fuck some aspect of it up, even though I routinely do much more difficult tasks well. Could this be related to the fact that I hate scheduling meetings and it’s pretty explicitly our admin’s job and not mine? Maybe, maybe.

    Reply
  81. gsa

    No, you should never pretend to be bad at something you can actually do. That will bite you in the…

    For those of you that do not know how to make proper coffee…

    My mother taught me this along time ago. 1/4 cup of ground coffee beans per quart of scalding hot water.

    Reply
    1. Asenath

      I don’t need to know how to make coffee – I don’t drink it, and preparing it for others isn’t and never has been part of my job.

      I do have a feeling that those instructions don’t apply to all coffee everywhere, though. The only time in decades I might have had to make coffee was at a social event, not a work one, and the group was large enough that it was held in a hall, which provided these enormous coffee urns that had to be filled with water, reassembled, and plugged in at a certain time before serving. Someone else knew how to do all that. I helped put out the food.

      Reply
      1. gsa

        I also know how to make a proper pot of tea.

        I can go on and on all of the things I know how to do and this none of this has to do with the original writer and her coffee-ability… :D

        My opinion, is if you suck it something that might be how you remembered. I’m definitely on board with the “I don’t have time for that right now”.

        Reply
  82. Media Monkey

    i wonder what people think about more senior women, who might have the capital to use on something like this, pushing back on male bosses over it and delegating the tasks to male colleagues at a similar level? if we all keep an eye on who is doing this work then things could start to change (i know, more emotional labour being done by women thast shouldn’t be necessary but clearly it is!)

    Reply
    1. Jenny Grace

      I do this! I have a very friendly relationship with my boss (the CFO) and the other (male) directors I work with, and it’s a bit of a joke at this point that I’ve never learned how to run the office coffee maker or change a toner cartridge, but I have raged against the patriarchy often enough that these tasks get equally distributed between men and women.

      Reply
  83. Little Pig

    I try to find a balance between being a team player and doormat. I pick one housekeeping-type chore that I’m willing to be responsible for (for a while, it was organizing our monthly check-in meetings), and turn down everything else. If someone asks me to be the bank-goer, I say, “You know, I already run the monthly meetings. Could you find someone else to go to the bank?” This way, I sort of get the best of both worlds – I’m seen as helpful and a contributor, but completely on my terms.

    Reply
  84. derdoodle

    this works in marriage (“i swear I don’t know how to do laundry”) but not so much in the workplace…

    Reply
  85. Helena

    That might be a cultural thing… it’s something the British do as a warm and friendly gesture. Somebody comes over to visit, you offer them tea. Sitting around the house with your family, somebody offers to make everyone tea. Bad news? Tea. Hangover? Tea and toast. Cold day? Tea. Partner had a bad day at work? Sit down and have some tea.

    If you were sitting around together in the evening and you never offered to make tea, the assumption would be that you were sitting there waiting for one of them to offer. Or even, shock horror, going off and selfishly making your own drink without offering anyone else one. It implies that you do not really view yourself as one of the family. Same at work, you do not get up and make yourself a drink without offering one to anyone else, it looks standoffish. Probably most people will say no, but you should offer.

    Us British people are weird about tea. We even had a bereavement tea set in a couple of hospital wards I worked at, so if you were breaking bad news you could offer families a cup of tea in a decent cup and not add insult to injury by using the institutional paper cups.

    Reply
    1. Helena

      That comment was supposed to be nested under the one about the au pair being expected to offer to make tea for the family.

      Reply
  86. lnelson in Tysons

    I did make the coffee when I got into the office at a previous job. Mainly because I drank it.
    But there were days that I didn’t. And the guys in the office managed to either do it themselves or went to a coffee place. No one ever asked me to make more.

    Reply
  87. Boone9

    Used to be an admin. I’m not an admin anymore. It took a long time to get out of the pink collar role, and I’m sensitive to ever being pigeonholed into that work again. But I’m young, female, and work with mostly men. This happens sometimes:

    Coworker: “Hey, can you figure out how to clean the Keurig?”
    Me: “No, I’m writing a grant and need to focus.” *returns attention to screen*
    Coworker: “…”
    Me: *slow glance, eyes only toward coworker* “What’s up?”
    Coworker: “The Keurig is dirty.”
    Me: “Yeah, Keurigs kinda suck. That’s too bad. Hey, could you do me a favor and close my door? I need to call So and So about X part of this grant. It’s a big one! Thanks!” *picks up handset* *maybe calls, maybe tidies up old voicemail messages instead*

    By all means, don’t get up, don’t offer to help, don’t follow them to “help” fix it. Don’t be available. If it keeps up, I’d be having an honest conversation with my manager about my job description and expectations.

    (Honestly, though, every time someone slowly shuffles by my office, as if they’re scoping out if I’m busy or not, I bristle. It’s stressful. I keep my door closed a lot, because, otherwise, coworkers will barge in and start asking for stuff that’s Not My Job. Having my door closed is one more barrier for them. I go out of my way to avoid doing anything admin-related, so I rarely use the copier [thank God for PDF and tablets], I don’t tidy the disaster of a supply closet, I don’t make coffee at work [I bring my own], I don’t use the microwave [I pack cold stuff], etc. I’ve learned how to kindly but firmly say, “Oh, yeah, I don’t know about that.” I mean, if my equal-to-me coworker doesn’t know, why should I? I would love to be hired as Teapot Director and then fired for Being a Woman Who Wouldn’t Make Coffee: let’s roll with that unemployment hearing.)

    Reply
  88. Elysian Fields

    My husband worked with one of the first female attorneys in our area. She told him that one of her mentors told her in law school not to learn short hand. If she was good at that, she would be pigeonholed into secretarial work regardless of her legal skills. Or, as my dad says, ‘if you break enough dishes when asked to wash them, you won’t be asked to wash them anymore’ but he’s a lazy sod.

    Reply
  89. NottheAdmin

    Early in my career I was given this advice and have since employed it after several runs in offices turned into me doing my job and several “miscellaneous” tasks that I hated. The key is to do it in a very subtle way that presents as I am just as busy as you, not that I am incapable of doing those things.
    I am a woman who works in a male-dominated field and one of two women on a management team of 10. I don’t pretend to be bad at these things, I just don’t volunteer. When I am asked about “coordinating” certain tasks I have the office admin do it. When they ask for follow up I am sure to mention that I have had said admin complete the task. Unfortunately, the other female on the team sees these extra tasks, taking meeting notes/ordering lunch/running errands, as a means to prove herself and it has completely backfired. She’s overwhelmed and not seen as senior, which she would like.
    I do agree that a direct conversation is probably necessary at this point, just focusing on the fact that you have just as much work to do as others and the additional tasks are taking away from your ability to focus fully on those things. Otherwise, these tasks have a way of being perceived as your job and then when you suddenly aren’t good at them it could be reflected in reviews, etc.

    Reply

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