my coworker tells others I’m going to be overwhelmed

A reader writes:

First, some background: I (f) am an engineer in shared services in new product development. This means that I do not report through R&D, but I do support their teams on a dedicated basis. I am considered a team member for the duration of a project, which can last several years, and the R&D engineers and project leads provide significant input to my manager regarding my performance and effort to meet project goals. I have been with my current team for four years and am at the higher end of experience level on the team, with 20+ years in the industry.

I have had a few instances where I feel that the lead engineer (Marty) has undermined my professionalism and dedication to the project. When things get very busy, he will tell the project lead (Helen) that I am going to be overwhelmed, and that they need to request more resources to support me. This happens in regularly scheduled meetings that I don’t attend, and then is usually brought up again in a large team meeting that includes me, the other shared engineers, and our manager.

I think this makes it look like I do not have the foresight to know if I am going to be overwhelmed, or that I don’t care if I end up being a bottleneck. These things are just not true though. I am a high performer and I can be counted on to meet deadlines. I work quietly in the background with my other shared services teammates to spread out workload if needed, but usually, I will just get it done – a few evening or weekend hours every couple of months is completely within our team norms.

The last time Marty did this, I specifically asked him if he thought I was holding up the project or causing unnecessary delays, and he said no, but he was worried that it would get to that point, and he just wants to make sure I am supported. (He is kind of a worrier in general.) Am I wrong for feeling that this is detrimental to my reputation, and that there is possibly a bit of sexism there too? How do I address this without coming across as overly defensive or harsh?

I wrote back and asked, “Have you ever noticed him doing this with anyone else, or is it only to you? (Or would you not necessarily know?)”

Funny that you ask … just yesterday afternoon, he did this to another woman (Wendy) from my team. He reassigned a couple of tasks to other team members, and then worked out a plan to free up some of Wendy’s time to focus on the remaining high priority tasks, without ever talking to her! When he emailed her with the proposal, Wendy pushed back and said that she would get the work done in a timely manner, without needing to rearrange her other commitments. There is also a man on the team (Frank) with some outstanding tasks, and Marty asked him by email if he would like to have the work reassigned or if he could get to it.

Try this: “Hey Marty, I’m sure you don’t mean to do this, but when you express concern that I’ll be overwhelmed or need assistance with a project, it undermines me and makes me look like I can’t manage my own workload. I know you don’t want to hurt my reputation, so going forward can you assume I’m looking at the impact of my projects on my workload and I will speak up if I have concerns or need assistance?”

That’s not defensive or harsh; it’s matter-of-fact, direct, and reasonable.

There’s a good chance Marty genuinely thinks he’s being helpful, and so you need to tell him clearly that he’s not and that you want him to stop.

I don’t know if he actually has harmed your reputation by doing this (it sounds possible that he’s like this with everyone and people know that — I’d be a lot more worried if he were just doing it with you), but you’re right to worry about it and it’s very, very reasonable to tell him that his “help” is in fact harmful and you need him to stop.

I also don’t know if it’s rooted in sexism. It sounds like he’s doing it to at least one man too, but that’s not conclusive since for all I know he’s doing it far more with women or that the one man you mentioned really was struggling. It could be that Marty is just a worrier/over-stepper or it could be that he’s a sexist worrier/over-stepper. But you’d use the same approach either way.

One caveat: All of this assumes that Marty isn’t your boss and doesn’t have authority over these projects or you. If that’s not the case, then what he’s doing is still annoying and problematic, but he’d have a lot more standing to be doing it! In that case, you could still ask him to stop but you should soften the language to something more like, “You often express concern that I’ll be overwhelmed or need assistance with a project. I appreciate that you want to support me and are thinking about my workload, but I’m concerned that it’s undermining me to others by making it look like I won’t manage my projects well without your intervention. Unless you have concerns about my performance, can we agree that I’ll speak up if I’m worried about my ability to complete a project on time or need help, and you’ll assume I’ve got it covered if I don’t? Or if you’re worried, would you talk with me one-on-one instead of sharing those worries in meetings with others?”

{ 116 comments… read them below }

  1. Tech editor by day*

    Sure looks like sexism, since he’s reassigning work from women without asking but consulting the man in a similar role.

    1. SuperBB*

      Yeah, I noticed the same thing. It’s possible he’s done the same thing with the man and gotten pushback, so he changed his approach, but it does send up a red flag.

    2. Me*

      Exactly this. It may be unconscious, stuff like this often is, but he is 100% treating a man different than two separate women.

      1. sacados*

        Yup, the ask vs assumption — it very likely is unconscious, but that’s all the more reason to say something (diplomatically) and hopefully get him to pull back on that kind of thing.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      Yeah, he *asked* the man if he could handle it but reassigned the woman’s task without consulting her first?

      Red flag, y’all.

      1. Journalist Wife*

        This jumped out at me, too. The man is not lumped in with the women the way Alison’s response indicates. I think that’s exactly why the letter writer included an example of another woman PLUS an example of a man when Alison asked her the followup question. Definitely seems like inadvertent sexism, which is usually the WORST kind of sexism in the workplace for professional development, because you can’t really confront it head-on the way you could with misogynistic remarks or aggressive touching or other forms. I was kinda surprised with Alison’s answer to the OP after reading that clarification…

    4. A Simple Narwhal*

      Excellent point – he may be a worrier in general, but he asked the man about his workload; he just took assignments away from the two women without getting their input.

      I will say that it’s a limited pool of examples, but from what info is available it’s not making Marty look too good in my opinion.

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        I will say that it’s a limited pool of examples, but from what info is available it’s not making Marty look too good in my opinion.

        That was my impression; small sample size trending aggressively towards sexism.

        1. Analytical Tree Hugger*

          That was my impression; small sample size trending aggressively towards sexism.

          I like and agree with your framing.

          Also, impact matters more than intention. So, even if Marty isn’t consciously sexist, his actions are sexist.

    5. Student Affairs Sally*

      Came here to say this. He may be an “equal opportunity worrier“, but for the men he’s asking if they need help and for the women he’s assuming they do.

      If someone came to me and said “it seems like you have a lot on your plate, is there a way I can support you or help redistribute the load?”, I would appreciate that. If someone came to me and said “you have a lot on your plate and you clearly needed me to redistribute some of the load to get everything done effectively, so here’s your new workload/workflow” when I’m actually doing fine and don’t need or want work taken off my plate, I would very much not appreciate that – especially if those messages are being shared publicly without my knowledge or ability to say “actually no, I’m fine, thanks”

      1. Again With Feeling*

        Yes. My manager asks my regularly if I’m ok with my workload and if there’s anything she can help with, and I appreciate it! Our work is fast-paced and high-volume so it’s possible to get overwhelmed suddenly. But she trusts me when I say I’m okay. If she were to randomly take projects off my plate or say “here, I got you more resources” when I hadn’t asked for that, I’d feel really, really undermined. And if she arranged “help” without running it by me first, odds are it wouldn’t actually be helpful and would create more stress for me.

    6. No Name Today*

      Yeah, there’s hella difference between “hey Frank, if the project has too many pieces coming in on one day, should I suggest the be reassigned?”
      Versus walking into a meeting that doesn’t include OP and saying, “OH NO. You need to change that time line and reassign that to someone else because OP can’t handle it.”

    7. Observer*

      since he’s reassigning work from women without asking but consulting the man in a similar role

      Yes, that jump out at me as well.

    8. A Feast of Fools*

      Marty: “Hello, fellow male person. Like me, a male person, I trust that you are able to monitor and manage your workload effectively, and will let me know if you need anything reassigned.”

      Also Marty: “Hello, female engineer. I, a male person, do not think you have the intellectual capacity to manage your own workload so I, a male person, have reassigned a lot of your work to other people without consulting you because your knowledge of your own workload is unreliable.”

      1. Srsly*

        Yeah, really surprised Alison missed this. It totally stood out to me upon reading. Definitely a big tell.

    9. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Exactly this. He took work away from our OP and another woman without discussing it with them. But when a man was in the same situation, he asked if the guy needed help.

    10. Belladonna*

      Also, he’s assuming the women can’t handle the workload and reassigning tasks without discussing it with them. Frank actually has “some outstanding tasks” and demonstrably can’t handle the workload. Yet Marty still consults with him prior to reassigning tasks.

    11. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

      yeah, I kinda felt like Alison missed that part. He asked the man who genuinely was struggling if he needed the help, whereas with the women, he just assumed they needed help without consulting them and also announced it publicly (though I am not aware of whether he was any less public when he asked the guy … nevertheless, he did ask the guy). I think there is a pretty good hint of sexism here, but I do still think Alison’s wording is good as a starting point.

      1. commonsensesometimesmakessense*

        I see that Alison agrees now that she has read the above comment!

      2. Sparrow*

        Yeah, I didn’t initially catch that, but he’s asking a man with currently outstanding items while assuming the women will have outstanding items in the future. Very different. And he apparently approached the guy by email…

    12. I'm the Phoebe in Any Group*

      That jumped our go me, too. It is so out of line to reassign a colleague’s work without talking to the person, but adding on the different approach for female and make colleagues makes the sexism jump out. This is harmful to OP in many ways. Her other colleagues may assume she asked Marty to reassign some of her her when, and that makes her look bad and could interfere with potential promotions. If she can’t get Marty to stop undermining her, she should talk to her own manager to get it shut down.

    13. SnappinTerrapin*

      I noticed that, too.

      Even if the difference in treatment was unconscious, it’s more appropriate for him to consult than to assume.

      I understand the concept of being the person responsible for worrying about the big picture on the projects, but he has two separate tracks for managing his concerns. He should use the more collaborative model first with any employee presumed to be experienced and competent. The other model may be appropriate for a new contributor or for someone who has let something slip in the past, but I really think he’ll get better results from the more collaborative approach.

      I’m really irked by the decision to announce the changes in a meeting LW wasn’t in. That introduced unneeded friction into the project’s process, and is counterproductive.

      1. SnappinTerrapin*

        After reading LW’s comments below, I want to amend my comment.

        If the “lead engineer” is a peer of LW, he appears to be overstepping. The project lead is the one who shoulders the worry for the overall project.

        Peers owe each other the courtesy of direct, private discussion BEFORE approaching management about re-allocating workloads or other resources. It doesn’t matter whether the concerns are well-founded or a figment of his imagination, Marty overstepped in this situation.

      2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Yes, any discussion of changes to workload should involve the person whose workload is being discussed, and preferably they should be asked about it before any general discussion.
        At the agency I worked at, a PM had a fit when I sent out a message to say I’d be busy over the next month (one 3-week project + 1 week of holiday). She had been planning to send me a project. So they had a meeting and decided I should no longer accept the 3-week projects because that meant I’d be tied up for that time.
        Had I been able to attend, I could have explained that mostly, I needed some peace and quiet at the beginning of the project, then if it was progressing nicely, I often got to a sweet spot where I could then take on smaller projects to fit in here and there. This meant I could really boost my productivity and be available for bits that couldn’t always be out-sourced (when billing would take twice as long as the job, meaning free-lancers weren’t keen).
        But nobody as much as mentioned this meeting to me, and there I was, frustrated at no longer having the big projects, and twiddling my thumbs more often as a result. I only found out when the boss suddenly accused me of not being productive enough, and I explained that I was at my best when I did big projects which nobody ever sent me any more.
        (It also transpired that a lot of my work wasn’t getting logged into the system properly, a little scam that meant the PM appeared to be achieving high profit margins, and I was actually the most productive person in my role at the company)

  2. Autumnheart*

    That’s what struck me as well. So Marty asks the man privately if he’d like to reassign any of his projects, but he publicly discusses the womens’ ability to complete their projects, and reassigned their work without even discussing it with the women? That’s very undermining.

    1. LC*

      Agreed. It’s bad enough that he just goes ahead and reassigns stuff to the women but asks the man if he needs help or if he’s fine. The “assume vs. offer” thing sucks and is plenty to be a big, not-okay deal on its own.

      But then you throw in the public vs. private thing and it just amps the whole thing up.

      OP when you asked if he had actual concerns and he said no, was that a one on one question or was it in a larger meeting? If you haven’t already, I’d suggest pushing back in those meetings where it’s brought up what they already decided.

      “I’m sorry, it seems like I missed an important discussion in that last meeting, why have my tasks a, b, and c been reassigned to person X and person Y? I have no problem with my current workload right, and since I haven’t asked for help or dropped the ball on anything, I do not appreciate having my work unilaterally reassigned. If anyone has any concerns about my work or my workload, please speak with me directly.”

      PS I initially had something like “speak with me before doing anything” but I think that implies that this person can reassign your work, he just has to talk to you first. From what I understand though, he shouldn’t be doing anything about your work at all. On the off chance he has a legitimate concern at some point, he should speak to you directly or the project lead (or possibly your boss?) and then still just not reassign your work.

      1. NotRealAnonForThis*

        The public vs private aspect had me seeing at least a “hazard” flag, if not a red one. Dealing with that right now – only woman in a department, and the charming character (read: he sucks and really needs to be shitcanned because outward bigotry and sexism is a bad look, and there’s years of documented history of it. Alas, in my industry, its not a career killer….yet.) in charge of software database updates has taken it upon himself to publicly tell me, by name, in correspondence to the whole department, where the updates are located so that I can update my local machine. We all have to keep our local systems up to date with the database, because #2020 and that way we can work offsite if needs be. Because as the only “Mom” in the department, I need to reminded to keep my stuff updated (eyeroll).

        But the two men working from home due to medical reasons, and the Dad in my department who occasionally has to cover a school quarantine (just like me), are not reminded in a public manner to remember to do the updates.

        Thankfully overall sentiment towards this charming character is “he’s the office AH and isn’t going to change. Pay his ranting and raving no heed.”

  3. Myrin*

    I’m a big fan of this script! I especially like the “I know you don’t want to hurt my reputation” part because either it’s true and will make him agree with you (“Of course I don’t! Have I been doing that? Oh no!”. Ideally.) or it’s not true but he can’t just come out and say that now, can he? I like scripts that presume positive intent, even if just on its face (meaning, I love them even when it’s clear that the other person is in fact acting maliciously, but if it’s unclear, all the better to use wording like that!).

    1. No Name Today*

      Oh, no it isn’t about your reputation!
      “When you tell people I can’t handle my job, that’s what happens.”
      I never said you couldn’t do your job, I just said that I thought you might be overwhelmed.
      (Do not debate this. Move on.)
      “Well, then I’ll make it clear now. Don’t speak on my behalf. If you aren’t sure, ask me. And let others do the same.”
      I was just trying to help/I just worry.
      “OK. Glad we got this straightened out.”

      1. Mimi*

        I have definitely needed to lay things out very clearly for male colleagues sometimes: “As a woman in [male-dominated field], I have needed to prove my competence in ways that my male peers have not, so I am very sensitive to things that can undermine my perceived competence with the team/clients/the rest of the company.”

    2. Threeve*

      I wonder if this is a time to ditch the “I” statements and speak generally–“Marty, please share/don’t act on assumptions about your coworkers’ workloads if you aren’t asked to.”

  4. PT*

    It sounds like sexism but you mentioned “20+ years in the industry.” I’m guessing there’s also ageism at play too. “She’s too old and slow to be able to handle speedy work any more.”

    I say this as someone who was told, flat out, to fire one of my most reliable employees because “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” He was 55 and had a coverage-based position that was impossible to hire for. I would not have been able to replace him. I managed to save him, but they got him after I left on some trumped-up broken procedural rule.

      1. Well*

        That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no ageism. Women can be sexist, POC can be racist, etc…

  5. Wow*

    Wow, this is such a great script and solid way to approach a manager/senior coworker who does that. I don’t think I could’ve ever come up with this by myself.

    I love this site!

  6. Anonymous Today*

    While I was not an engineer, I am glad that I am retired.

    Dealing with this kind of thing is exhausting after awhile.

    I can only imagine how much more difficult it can be for women who are also members of an observable minority group. (If you are a member of a religious minority, you can choose not to share that information. If you are a member of a racial or ethnic minority, you may not have a choice, i.e., people will see that you are a member of a minority.)

    1. ThatOnePlease*

      As a woman and a member of a religious minority, I have to push back on this a bit. I personally can “pass” in ways that racial minorities can’t, but it would be virtually impossible to never share my religious affiliation with my employer, since it requires accommodations. (The most obvious is time off for non-Christian holidays, but there are plenty more.) Also, some people’s religious affiliation will be tied to their name, mode of dress, and other observable traits.

    2. Actual Vampire*

      I don’t understand what your point about religious minorities has to do with the letter, but since you brought it up, I’m going to argue with you. A member of a religious minority can only “choose not to share that information” by assimilating into the majority culture. If they want the full freedom to practice their religion, as is their right, they will probably not be able to keep it a secret. If someone’s ability to not be discriminated against depends on them not wearing a kippa or hijab to work, then they’re already being discriminated against.

      (And actually, you can make the same argument about racial and ethnic discrimination as well. I’m sure you would not argue that a white-passing person of color opens themselves up to discrimination by talking about their race/ethnicity.)

    3. Tali*

      This is why I use the term “visible minority”, or “observable minority” as you chose: some racial/ethnic minorities “pass” as members of the majority, while some religious minorities with specific dress or hair choices don’t. A linguistic minority may “pass” until they speak to another in their language, LGBTQ+ groups may or may not “pass”, etc.

      1. Actual Vampire*

        Interesting. I don’t hear this term used very often – googling shows me it’s a Canadian legal term? I’m still not sure how often it would be applicable if a work context, where relationships are based on more than looks. It seems to me that it reflects a somewhat outdated idea of discrimination- that someone can only discriminate with intent, ie, if they know the other person’s minority status. (Not arguing that there isn’t a difference in experience between people whose minority status is “visible” and people for whom it isn’t. But something feels icky to me about categorizing people as either visible or not visible minorities. It seems like it would be much more complex than a binary, and that only the minority individual themselves would really be able to assess how “visible” they are.)

        1. Actual Vampire*

          I guess the point I’m trying to make is – it’s hard for me to think of an example where the visible/invisible designation would be helpful to people who are in the minority. It mostly seems like an excuse to say that Sally can’t possibly have been discriminated against because Sally doesn’t even look like a [insert slur here].

          If I’m missing something crucial about this designation that is helpful, please enlighten me!

          1. Kit*

            The distinction is that invisible minorities (who may not be equally invisible in all contexts) have the choice to attempt to pass for the privileged/majority, where visible minorities do not. That means that they get exposed to sexist/racist/etc. ‘jokes’ and other comments made because privileged bigots assume that the people passing, as fellow members of the ‘majority’, are obviously just as bigoted as the speaker.

            That leads to circumstances where the invisible minority has to choose whether to push back against bigotry, and in so doing, out themselves; visible minorities, by contrast, are always out but don’t get exposed to this sort of assumption and catch-22. They just get the obvious discrimination, which is also awful to deal with.

            Both sides are terrible to deal with, it’s a difference in kind (and in what kind of response can be necessary) rather than degree.

          2. Tali*

            Exactly as Kit said. Invisible minorities have their own set of issues, but one key difference is that visible minorities are easy targets for bigots to hone in on, while invisible minorities can “pass” as members of the majority and escape bigoted treatment sometimes.

            It’s not usually applicable in situations where you form relationships with others, but it can often really impact how people treat strangers until they are “outed” as a minority.

  7. middle name danger*

    Alison, I have to disagree with your statement “It sounds like he’s doing it to at least one man too.” He’s privately asking the man for his opinion about his workload, and going behind the backs of women on his team to make the decision for them, then bringing it up in front of others.

    1. Mockingjay*

      “going behind the backs of women on his team to make the decision for them”

      This is the key point. OP needs to bring in her supervisor and put a hard stop to this. If I were OP’s boss, I’d be all over Marty to explain his action (should be entertaining to watch him squirm because there is NO justification), and to remind him that there is a chain of command and questions about OP’s workload should be resolved with OP herself first, then consult OP Boss if there are still questions.

      This is exactly why women leave tech fields.

  8. KnittyGritty*

    I love the script Alison gives because it is the most professional way to handle the problem. Also, if I were the OP, I would start keeping your ears open for any fallout that has or may happen due to this. Not to be paranoid in any shape or form, but just so you can quickly counteract any of the negative publicity, as it were.

    (Warning! Rant incoming!) While I know that Alison’s script is the best way to begin to deal with the OP’s scenario, I’m so tired of having to be nice and sound like we are excusing such blatantly sexist behavior. As a woman with almost 20 years in tech, this sort of behavior happens all the time. It’s exhausting to have things like this happen, or to see it happen to other women, and know that we can’t just tell the guy to knock it off.

    1. Guacamole Bob*

      Seriously. A female colleague recently came to me (also female, despite the username) for advice about one of our senior colleagues who had treated her differently than a male colleague in a meeting – the amount of time that she spent thinking about it, crafting a message, debating whether it was worth sending, trying to decide whether to tell our manager, etc. is totally exhausting. And that was just one incident!

    2. Mental Lentil*

      I’m so tired of having to be nice and sound like we are excusing such blatantly sexist behavior

      Male here, and I completely agree. Why is it that the people on the correct side of things have to go out of their way to not offend someone who is offensive? Now you’re offended twice: once for the initial behavior, and again for having to be concerned about the other person’s feelings and not wanting to embarrass them. They should be embarrassed for such asinine behavior. If Marty is a decent sort of person, he will be embarrassed when he gets called out on his sexism.

      You’re not ranting, KnittyGritty. This is a legitimate complaint.

      1. No Name Today*

        “How do I tell a coworker to stop doing something (rude) without being rude?
        Well, there’s rude and there’s blunt.
        If your coworker consistently grabs pages off the printer and sets them on your desk while you’re working there, (rude) you don’t have to throw them on the floor or tell him to kick rocks.
        You do have to say, “please don’t use my desk for sorting your papers.”
        And if it continues, you get to skip the please.
        Not rude. Blunt.

        1. Mental Lentil*

          Agreed. It’s fine to be blunt. But a lot of people worry (unnecessarily) that someone who gets a blunt response will view it as a rude response.

          I am blunt. A lot.

          1. Jay*

            Not unnecessary worry for women. Not at all. I have run into a great deal of trouble over the years for being direct while men in my org were flat-out rude and got a pass. I have to be very careful when I’m advocating for myself to make sure I soften my language and my tone and make it clear that I don’t really think I’m all that, no, I don’t, I just need a little bit of help…

            it’s EXHAUSTING and infuriating.

    3. Velawciraptor*

      YES!!! Dealing with the tone policing you get when pointing out sexism/racism/homophobia/antisemitism, etc. is danged exhausting.

      Alison’s advice is an excellent first step. But (and here’s the part that tends to get one very specific demographic of colleagues complaining about me) I personally would have a hard time not stepping it up publicly if the behavior continued publicly.

      If you’re not comfortable with that, I might consider joining forces with Wendy and any other women he does this to and going to Marty’s manager to say “we’ve tried handling this privately, but that’s not working. Marty has a pattern of behavior that seems to assume incompetence in his female colleagues and publicly undermines them because of that assumption. Here is a list of examples (which you have each been maintaining with dates and details, starting today if you haven’t already). We don’t want to have to escalate this to HR, but if the behavior continues, we’re not going to have a choice but to discuss the hostile work environment this is creating with them.”

    4. OP Here*

      It is freaking exhausting! As a young person considering a career in engineering, I knew there would be challenges in moving up the ladder, and that there would be times that I would be considered “less” because I needed to focus on family matters, but I didn’t understand the pervasive and relentless sexism that I would encounter throughout my career.

  9. Pants*

    “Hey Boss, I’m worried that Marty doesn’t have enough to do as he is continually meddling in the jobs of other people.”

  10. Manana*

    I believe this is rooted in sexism. He is clearly capable of privately reaching out to male coworkers to ask about workloads and seems to call out female workers in public meetings (that they aren’t invited to!) and rearrange their workload without asking.

  11. Beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk-ox*

    He’s not treating the women and the man the same way, though. He’s acting on the women’s behalf without their knowledge but consulting with the man to find out what his needs are.

    Giving him the benefit of the doubt, it’s POSSIBLE that maybe he’s had female employees who balked at admitting when their workload was too much and he’s trying to prevent that? But that’s being pretty generous. Either way, it definitely does need to stop.

    1. Manana*

      To your point about experiences with female employees in the past: that is sexism. Regardless of his personal experiences with other women coworkers, to treat all women the same way and to treat men in a different way because of their gender is sexism. Sexism doesn’t have to have malice behind it to still be considered gender-based prejudice.

      1. Beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk-ox*

        I didn’t say it wasn’t; I just often try to figure out reasoning behind people’s bizarre behavior and this was the most generous scenario I could come up with. I know that I have a history of being hesitant to voice when I’m overloaded, so I figured that, if he’d had several experiences with women like myself, maybe that’s what he is using to excuse his own behavior. But I know it’s not okay. That’s why my last sentence said that it needs to stop regardless.

    2. Observer*

      it’s POSSIBLE that maybe he’s had female employees who balked at admitting when their workload was too much and he’s trying to prevent that?

      I thought of that, and I’m sure it’s happened. But I’d also be willing to bet that he’s encountered guys who couldn’t recognize when they had too much going on. Yet, somehow he manages to ASK the guy while just DOING for the women.

  12. Bookartist*

    Is there a project manager or someone who is explicitly tasked with managing workloads? If not, what he’s doing is such incredible overstepping. Plus, of course the sexism. If this kind of micromanaging we’re going on on my team, and the person doing it was not a project manager, I would be pretty POd.

  13. Charlief*

    This seems like it would be incredibly disruptive to workflow for you- I know I like to think about tasks I know are in the pipeline so that when I get to them I’ve gotten the thinking bit done; to have them reassigned would be really annoying.

    1. OP Here*

      Yes, absolutely! And then to take the time to catch the next person up on what I was thinking and what the team has already discussed takes more time than just doing it myself!

  14. Boof*

    Yeah even actual supervisors ought to talk with you before rearranging things; Marty certainly shouldn’t be asking for help on other people’s behalf, especially without talking with them directly (and privately) first.

    1. Threeve*

      And if a supervisor makes a unilateral decision, they don’t publicly single someone out to rationalize it.

      A good manager will say “I’m assigning X to Bob and Y to Janet,” not “Janet is only going to work on Y because I’m worried she’s going to be overwhelmed.”

  15. Wisteria*

    I am also a (f) engineer in a matrixed environment, and I completely disagree with Alison’s advice and wording.

    This is a pattern that you should raise to your boss bc your boss hears inputs from the program team, and you want to make sure that she is hearing from you what your perspective is. I do not know your boss, so I will let you judge whether to bring up the gendered pattern. I would not, it’s too big a minefield. I would say, matter-of-factly, that he redistributes Wendy’s work without asking her and asks Frank whether he wants his work redistributed. Then let your boss draw the gendered pattern or not.

    You should also be talking to Helen about Marty’s tendencies. Both Helen and your boss need to hear from you that you are capable of staying on top of your work. Helen also needs to hear that you will speak up if you need something. If she is lead over both of you, she has the ability to shut down work distribution. Ask her to check in with you before you agree to let Marty reassign anything away from you.

    When you talk to Marty, I strongly advise against bringing up a discussion of how it undermines you. Stick to emphasizing your track record of staying on top of your workload and your ability to manage your own workload. As with Helen, assure him that you will speak up if you need anything. Make sure you say directly to him, “Please do not reassign my tasks without asking me.” Be nice, but be direct. Don’t just tell him you will ask for help and let him conclude that he should stop reassigning tasks, tell him directly not to reassign tasks. You will have to have this conversation over and over again.

    Good luck!

    1. Batgirl*

      I was wondering if it was a good idea for both Wendy and OP to go to the boss, or Helen, possibly requesting that checking in with them both first, just like the courtesy shown to Frank, should be reiterated to Marty as standard practice.

      1. Wisteria*

        If Wendy is bothered by it, she should also speak to her boss and to Helen, yes. OP can encourage Wendy to do so, but ultimately, OP can only advocate for herself.

    2. OP Here*

      This is great advice. I have spoken to my manager, but we are in a time of change, so who I report to keeps changing. Rather than one manager hearing me say the same thing 4x, I have talked to 4 managers 1 time each. I am working on getting more visibility with Helen. I have always been more of a “let my work speak for itself” kind of person, but I am realizing that this MO isn’t working for me all that well, so I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone and advocate for myself more.

      1. Wisteria*

        I have always been more of a “let my work speak for itself” kind of person

        Yeah, you need to get more comfortable advocating for yourself to your boss and to Helen.

        Workplaces should be more inclusive to people who let their work speak for itself, but since they aren’t, all you can do is learn to play the game.

        I hear your pain on the boss thing. I have had 3 bosses in two years in my current position. You might consider having more frequent conversations with your boss. In a matrixed environment, it’s easy to end up talking only at review time, but you really need to be telling your own story to them. Believe me, the people you work with are calling her up and talking about you, so you need to do the same thing.

      2. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

        I have always had exactly the same problem! I never toot my own horn and I have always had issues with colleagues who go around patting themselves on the back. I think that’s just how I was raised, but it’s been very hard to change. Why can’t my work just speak for itself?

    3. Lana Kane*

      I think this is excellent advise not just for women in STEM, but in the workplace.

  16. OP Here*

    Thanks everyone for the support! I really thought maybe I was being too sensitive, but it seems that even the most generous interpretations still have Marty overstepping his bounds. We have another crunch time coming up, so I’ll be sure to have a discussion with him before he tries going around me to get more resources again.

    Some clarifying points – he is not my manager, and he is not the project manager. We’re peers, though he has more experience than I do both at this company and in the industry. Thinking about it like that though, it would just never occur to me to do this in reverse and ask his management for additional resource for the team!

    1. Le Sigh*

      Good luck! I’ve had this sort of sexism (and that does appear to be what’s going on here) happen in my life, and it’s maddening and makes you doubt your instincts. It’s insidious — you feel it happening, but it’s not overt or blatant, which makes it hard to articulate or define and even harder to call out. All too often, it’s done by people who think they mean well and don’t think they’re being sexist — and sometimes, when you try to push back, they get defensive about it. Hopefully Marty won’t do that, but he might! Just know you’re right to push back.

    2. Jane*

      I hope your discussion goes well! I’d love to hear an update on this after your next crunch time.

  17. Koalafied*

    I hope this doesn’t sound dismissive of OP’s very real problem, because the specifics of how this is playing out are indeed a problem and her reaction to it is well justified.

    That said, I’m really glad this letter was published because as a person in a workplace where literally everyone routinely has too much work piled on them and everyone is at critical burnout levels as a result, it never would have occurred to me that protecting someone else from too much work could ever be anything but saintly behavior. This is so far removed from what I know that I didn’t have sufficient imagination to consider that it might be unwanted, and now having read this I can be sure I won’t barrel through workplaces for the rest of my working days trying to heroically save people from their workloads without stopping to wonder if they need saving.

    1. Wisteria*

      Please don’t save people from their work load without making sure it’s what they want. Some people thrive on working 60 hour weeks. Some people burn out at 40. “Saving” someone who loves their workload (and gets it all done) will just created the kind of unsupportive environment that causes people to burn out working 40 hrs/week.

      1. Amaranth*

        Not to mention, you could end up reassigning projects that they really enjoy and make up for some of the other annoyances.

        1. Lana Kane*

          Definitely. Someone may be well meaning but not know that they “helped” me by reassigning something I like, and left me with the crappy stuff.

          1. Autumnheart*

            One of the traps that my very efficient, highly-performing department falls into, into a big way, is assigning projects to people who have experience doing that kind of work, because it’s faster to give it to the experienced person instead of cross-training it to people who haven’t done it before.

            Well, you go down that road for a while and pretty soon you have employees whose skills are stagnating, who never get a chance to work on different projects, and a lack of redundancy for the SME who does know how to do the thing. It’s very detrimental because it pigeonholes employees because everyone assumes that Jane is the go-to person for Subject 1, and Melinda never gets assigned work for Subject 2 because she just doesn’t know how to do it.

            It’s fine in the short-term when deadlines are tight, but it should never be a long-term plan, and project managers in particular can fall easily into this trap. They get a mental map of “who does what”, when in fact everyone should be working together to make sure to spread the assignments out so that cross-training and sharing of expertise happen.

            1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              yes this is just like the milking maids problem back in days of yore: the maids each preferred certain cows, and the cows also had their preferences. The farmer would mix them all up regardless of preference, and the milkmaids would point out that the cows were more productive when milked by a maid they liked.
              But the farmer was thinking ahead to the fact that there would be all sorts of changes, with a milkmaid getting married, or sick, a cow getting pregnant, or sick and so on: he wanted all cows milked by all maids, otherwise disruptions caused far more havoc with productivity than just swapping maids would.

            2. Andy*

              If you want cross training, you assign cross training tasks when assigning them. You don’t take tasks away from people who are already looking forward to do them. And you don’t do it at freaking crunch time.

              Yet also, allowing people to become good at something is actually good. Because another trap is when everyone messes in every area, but most of us dont actually understand any of those areas. And I know it happens, because I was in such teams.

    2. Krabby*

      Haha, I had the same moment of realization with this one!

      My team routinely flags things in our group chat like, “Sally was still answering emails at 8pm last night. I see she has a ton of X on her plate today again. Does anyone have capacity to take on some X today for her?” To be fair, X would be piece work that anyone could do and never anything large or project related, but it’s just so second nature because of the way our work gets divided that I didn’t even think about how it could be undermining.

      Something to recalibrate moving forward.

  18. Properlike*

    This “paternalism” happened to me with a colleague recently! He assumed that the women in the group took on too much and it was up to him to step in and free up some tasks because he’s nice that way, but don’t expect it to continue. Really annoying and condescending even though I’m sure he thinks he’s being nice, especially when I told him I was very capable of controlling my own workflow and meeting deadlines. The response was the equivalent of LOL.

    It only makes me reluctant to delegate anything to him in the future.

  19. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    If the organization is one that values collaboration, use that to lean on him to have a discussion with you before making comments regarding your workload. “You know, Marty, I’m not sure you have the best handle on what I’m capable of. If you and Helen are going to discuss my workload, that’s a conversation I should be part of. I trust Helen to listen when I have issues to report, and she trusts me to report them when they exist.”

  20. Moxie*

    I have a different viewpoint on this and feel kind of strongly about it. He’s the lead engineer, which makes me think he may indeed have a tasking lead role on the project. It is the group leader’s job to anticipate staffing issues and make sure the members of the team are appropriately supported. I have a similar role (project lead / PM) in my company, working with scientists and engineers. This is a thing you genuinely need to do. I will look at a tasking and flat out tell people “you’re going to need a junior person to support you” etc., because otherwise people often will not ask for support. It has nothing to do with a lack of confidence in their abilities, and has everything to do with being too guarentee that the work gets done. Honestly, I think anticipating staffing issues is a sign of a good lead. (I am a woman, if it matters. I definitely say these things to people regardless of gender.)

    1. Moxie*

      Oops, my bad. I just noticed OPs clarification that they are peers. Yes, that is strange, but it’s even stranger if their management is listening to that.

      1. Amaranth*

        Yes, that makes it a bit strange that anyone is listening to OP’s peer rather than saying ‘OP can come talk to me herself.’

    2. Wisteria*

      But how do you know that they need a junior person to support them? Do you involve them in the discussion at all? Because if you are just declaring that someone has too much work and needs someone else to take some of it on without asking whether they can support the schedule, you are, in fact, showing a lack of confidence in them.

      1. A Cat named Brian*

        Once you’ve been a project manager for awhile you get to know your team/peers, understand the work & tasks, etc. Typically you have to estimate/judge/plan resources, workflow, hours and costs… If you can’t anticipate bottlenecks and constraints then you won’t be a good PM. And sometimes people think they are handling their work well but PM has to see the big picture.

        1. Kevin Sours*

          I can’t imagine reassigning somebody’s tasks without first sitting down and going over what they are working on and what makes sense to move. And if you have to have the “you say you’ve got this but you really don’t” conversation, that takes place *in* *private*.

  21. Heidi*

    I’m wondering how much work we’re dealing with. Is Marty doing this because he would have found the same amount of work overwhelming himself? If he’s routinely doing the same amount of work and implying that OP can’t keep up with him, that’s a jerk move. OP can just say that the workload is well within her capabilities and bandwidth and tell him to butt out. If he’s struggling with a similar workload, that might be somewhat less crappy, but it’s still fine to tell him to butt out.

  22. Kevin Sours*

    One thing that stands out. Why is Marty assigning work on *your* team? And can you address that with your management. Because I would tell him “We’ve got this. Tell us what needs to be done and when it needs to be done and we’ll figure out how to get it done. If you have concerns about deadlines not getting met we can address that, but this our job and we know how to do it”.

    I don’t know if spreading the work around and allocating resource is your job or your managers, but it doesn’t really seem like it’s Marty’s.

  23. D&D*

    Marty and all the men in the workplace just like him need to be rounded up and removed from any position of power whatsoever. Gross.

  24. Jennifer Juniper*

    I’m guessing Marty’s feeling overwhelmed and projecting it onto other people, men and women alike.

  25. no phone calls, please*

    AAM and comments are outstanding, and I’ll add that “I work quietly in the background…” jumped off the page to me. While it may not be the key factor, I’m wondering if OP is misunderstood and/or overlooked as a result of being a quiet worker in the background? I’ve seen many good, quiet background employees suffer from bosses believing they are proactively “helping”.

    1. no phone calls, please*

      Ohhhh, it’s a *peer* – that’s worse… I thought it was an interfering/micromanaging boss trying to ah-hem help. Either way though it’s important to understand the quiet ones and their *actual* needs, rather than “helping” without communicating!

  26. Karak*

    The word “overwhelmed” is suspicious for me.

    At work, you are over-worked, over-burdened, over-scheduled, etc. “overwhelmed” is an emotional state of panic and not being able to handle your job. If that’s the term he’s using I don’t like that.

    I’m a “ducks in a row” person, so I always want to have a backup plan in case an important person gets sick, has a death in the family, loses power, etc. You might be able to cut this person off by presenting him with a plan of “in the event I am ill or need more time, plan A is weekends and evenings. Plan B is offload these tasks to these people, I have cleared it with them. In the event of extreme issues, such as surgery or the deadline moved up 6 months, I have contingencies C.”

    If you feel this undermines you, don’t do it. But it might help if he’s “a worrier” and if he’s being a sexist dick it cuts him off at the knees.

    1. Journalist Wife*

      I really love your point about the connotations of the word “overwhelmed” and its contrast to other words descriptive of work conditions.

      That said, I disagree with presenting Marty (not OP’s boss, just a colleague) with voluntary details of multiple contingency plans. This has a very large chance of playing further into Marty’s trouble with seeing the difference between what he’s doing to the women vs. the men, because I bet no man there who operates at the same functional level as Marty feels the need to explain the intricacies of their contingency systems in place for each project. OP doing that would reinforce the idea that Marty needs extra transparency and detail from the womenfolk in case they’re overwhelmed, because the men aren’t going to the trouble of that level of justification. We want it to become easier for OP, over time, to steer Marty away from his (possibly subconscious) sexist tendencies in the workplace–not to add a whole demeaning layer to the process for each project phase in which he expects females to present him with backup plans for their own productivity, subject to his scrutiny or approval. Marty’s not the boss. He’s probably just clueless, and like most people have said, thinks he is actually doing OP/other women a kindness by pretending to be their task manager in this crappy paternal sort of way. Leading him to think that OP needs to defend her normal workload in detail is going to accomplish the opposite over the not-even-so-long run.

      The only reason I’m pointing this out is because I, myself, am a middle-aged female in tech…and I am frustratingly aware of just how much I have enabled this over time in my own career. It is not easy to pull back on after starting to do this and setting up the expectations of it.

      However, you’re absolutely right that OP can tell him that she does, in fact, have multiple levels of contingency plans–based on how the workload actually flows in practice. That’s a good idea. But risking Marty developing the idea that he has the right/privilege to know all the details of it, if that’s not standard practice for each team member, can be detrimental to OP’s future prospects in the company and with Marty’s team in general.

  27. Foxgloves*

    One of the things that induces the most rage within me is people assuming they know my workload better than I do. A colleague at my boss’s level said to me the other day “We could really do with two of you!!”, and I had to ask whether there was concerns around my responsiveness or deliverables, to which he admitted that of course there weren’t, he just didn’t want me to feel overwhelmed. SO MUCH SIGHING!

    1. Retired(but not really)*

      I’ve been told more than once that “wish I had two of you (or you and other conscientious person). It usually is a situation where there wouldn’t be a need for an extra person doing what my specific task is at the time, but there is a need for more more people doing other things that I could do if I weren’t already doing whatever I’m doing.

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