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 almost all men 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 up 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!
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you’re getting stuck with this work while your male colleagues aren’t.
That’s a really, really common pattern in many offices, and it tends to hit women in their 20s especially hard (although I’m sorry to say it often continues long after that as well). It’s not necessarily that people are thinking, “This is a task for a lady! I’ll give it to Jane.” It can happen that way, but often it’s more subtle than that.
Many women volunteer for office “housekeeping” tasks — things like taking notes at meetings, straightening up the kitchen, planning team lunches, and so forth. They volunteer because they want to pitch in and be helpful — we’re supposed to be team players, after all, right? — and because they assume that others will also pitch in and do their fair share of work that benefits everyone. The problem, though, is that women tend to volunteer for this type of care-taking work at much higher rates than men do — which is no surprise, given the way we’re all socialized.
But then it ends up becoming self-fulfilling: Jane has been taking meeting notes the last few times, so we’ll have her continue to do it. Lucy planned the last party so well, so let’s ask her to do it again. Petra so reliably cleans up after team lunches that it doesn’t occur to anyone else to do it. After a while (often a very short while), Jane, Lucy, and Petra are just expected to spend their time on this type of office housekeeping, and people start turning to them for other tasks in that realm too.
It’s obviously hugely problematic for women to get stuck with this kind of work at unequal rates compared to men. And there’s a real opportunity cost when it happens because people don’t get high-profile assignments, don’t get promoted, and don’t build their reputations by being great at running errands or taking notes. Whatever energy you spend in those areas is energy you’re not spending on things that are more highly valued and which come with more professional benefit. You want to be known as a great writer/lawyer/designer/whatever your job is, not as the person who’s great at organizing your office’s monthly cake breaks or who always cleans up the kitchen.
So yes, given that larger context, your partner is right that there can be value in being strategically bad at some things — particularly for women. If your meeting notes are sparse to the point of uselessness or your coffee tastes like sludge, you’re probably not going to be the default note-taker or coffee-maker for long.
Ideally, though, you’d cut these housekeeping assignments off at an even earlier stage by not volunteering for work that won’t help you advance professionally and being unavailable if people try to assign it to you. That last part can be tricky to pull off and you might not always be able to do it — but the next time someone asks you do an admin task that isn’t your job, try saying, “I’m on deadline with X right now” or “It would be tough for me to fit that in this week” or “I can’t do that today — check with Bob instead” and see what happens.
And because your office is already in the habit of turning to you with admin work, it also might help to explicitly name the issue for your boss. How helpful this will be depends on what your boss is like, but it might be worth sitting down with your manager and saying something like, “I’ve been happy to help out with tasks like X and Y because I know they need to be done, but I’ve noticed they’re starting to fall to me disproportionately, almost by default. I’m particularly concerned about this as a woman in a male-dominated field; it’s important to me not to take on more admin work than my male peers do, since that’s a pattern that tends to hurt women professionally. I wanted to flag for you that this is happening and ask for your support in redirecting these tasks toward others, so the load is more evenly shared.” If your boss is generally the one sending this work your way, you could add, “Would you be willing to assign some of these tasks to others instead of defaulting to me?” Or if the assignments mainly come from others: “I plan to be less available for this sort of work when people ask me to handle it, and I wanted to let you know why, since it’s a change from what I’ve been doing.”
That’s a more constructive approach than simply being bad at the work you don’t want to get stuck with … but if it doesn’t get the results you want, then fumbling the next few not-your-job tasks that come your way might be what finally spurs your colleagues to realize you’re not the only potential helper around.
Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.