How do I decline taking on tasks outside of my immediate roles and responsibilities without coming off as insubordinate or not a team player?
I work in a field where it’s pretty standard to take on some administrative work in addition to our core responsibilities. However, in my experience, these tasks seem to be disproportionately allocated to women. I’m eight years into my career path, upper-middle management, with an advanced degree in a technical specialty. I started a new role last year that was a significant step up in both seniority and pay. I felt like I had finally accomplished something. Then, a few months after I started, our department admin unexpectedly resigned. My (female) manager’s manager proceeded to divvy up her responsibilities among me and the other managers on my tier. Being new and a people pleaser, I of course stepped up to the plate and took on the extra work with a smile. This went on for a few months until we were finally able to find a replacement. In hindsight, I realize that I was assigned the most demanding, time-consuming, and asinine tasks. And of course now that I’m an expert at those tasks, any time our admin is out — you guessed it — I have to fill in for her.
Having reflected on my previous work experiences, I realize that this is a pattern for me. I do such a great job at these menial tasks that I become the point person for admin work. In my previous roles, I didn’t feel like I could say anything because I wasn’t senior enough, but now that I am, I don’t know how to put my foot down and say “respectfully, no.” I’m about to start looking for a new position and I want to make sure that I don’t fall into the same pattern and that I set the right tone for the whole experience. At the end of the day, I’m being hired for my technical background and expertise … not to be a glorified administrative assistant. How do I respectfully decline requests for admin support when they’re coming from my superiors (as opposed to my peers)? One work-around that I’ve found so far is delegating the work to someone more junior under the guise of professional development. I still have to be involved and invest my time, but at least I’m not stuck with the majority of the work. In this most recent job, though, this wasn’t an option.
I don’t mind doing my fair share, but I also want to focus my time and effort on my actual job. I know that this issue will continue to come up as long as I stay in this industry.
This is such a thing for many women, still.
Most of it is sexism — women are still disproportionately the default choice for taking notes at meetings, ordering lunch, organizing team events, and, yes, providing coverage for admin staff. It’s super-common for people to turn to women when those tasks need to be done, regardless of their actual jobs, and even when there are men available in the same or similar roles.
Some of it, though, comes from women stepping up when we shouldn’t — because we’re conscientious, because we’ve been socialized to be helpful, and because it’s just plain awkward to say, “No, I’m not going to do that.” (To be clear, this isn’t the case for every woman; plenty who are assigned this kind of work aren’t stepping up to volunteer for it.)
And as you point out, once you start doing it, it can be hard to stop because you become the person with the track record of doing it well, and who has all the background info from last time, and whom people are now used to turning to.
That means that resolving to deal with this now as you’re changing jobs is good timing. If you’re careful not to fall into the same pattern at the new job, it’s likely to get easier over time to stay out of it, since you won’t be burdened with having been the go-to person for the admin work previously.
So how do you do that? First and foremost, don’t volunteer for those admin tasks, ever. Don’t volunteer to take notes, don’t volunteer to get coffee for the meeting, don’t volunteer to cover for the admins when they’re out. Even if you wouldn’t mind doing some of those things, and even if the need feels urgent, don’t volunteer for them. If the need is that urgent, someone else can step up. And keep in mind that while it’s easy to feel that volunteering for support tasks will demonstrate you’re cooperative and a team player (or that not volunteering for them will make you look insufficiently conscientious), if you look around, you’ll see that lots of people are valued without ever doing those tasks.
If someone tries to assign them to you anyway, in many cases you can push back. If it’s coming from a peer or someone else without authority over you, respond by citing higher priorities — “I’m on deadline this week” or “I’ve got my hands full with X right now” — and feel free to redirect them toward someone who might make more sense given the context (“I’ve got my hands full with X, but you could see if Joe is available”). If the request is coming from your manager, that’s trickier and you’ll need to judge how much room for pushback there is … but often it’s fine to say to your boss, “I’m swamped with X right now, so unless you object, I’ll see if Joe can do this” or “I’m swamped with X right now and it would be hard to fit that in. Okay for me to just keep focusing on X?”
And if you start to see a pattern developing where work is being distributed in an inequitable way, especially along gender lines, name what you’re seeing and ask to change it. For example: “I’ve noticed that tasks like XYZ are disproportionately falling to the women on our team. Can we change that?”
I do want to acknowledge that you noted that some amount of administrative work is expected by everyone in your field, so it might not be as simple as saying a blanket no every single time. But what you can do is carefully calibrate the amount of admin work you accept to match the amount you see male colleagues taking on and ensure you’re not doing more. Also, as often as you can, pick the tasks that are most likely to advance your career; for example, covering the phones probably won’t do that, but acting in a support role for your boss at a board meeting might bring you more benefits.