Stop Being So "Helpful" at Work

What to do when male colleagues automatically assume you’ll take the notes, make the coffee, and plan the office party
Stop Being So "Helpful" at Work

As the committee chairman prepared to call the meeting to order, he glanced around the room and caught my eye. Inwardly, I stiffened, knowing exactly what was going to happen next. After all, I’d been in this position countless times before: the only woman in a gathering of company executives.

“Diane, would you mind taking notes for the meeting today?”

I smiled, with what I hope was warmth, and answered honestly, “Actually, I’m not a great choice of scribe today. I have to confess I have terrible handwriting, and when I do take notes, I’m too distracted by it to contribute to the substance of the meeting. Is there anyone else who could handle it? I’d be happy to have the notes transcribed to send out afterwards.”

The thing is, someone in the room does have to take notes. I’m not above it, any more than the man who eventually volunteered to take notes that day. We are all created equal in Gods eyes and should approach our jobs with humility no matter what our job title is (Galatians 3:28). I don’t mind being asked or expected to help out. But decades of experience in the corporate world have turned what might seem like an innocent request into a tiresome reminder that in Corporate America, women do (and are expected to do) the bulk of the office “housework.” And as it turns out, all that bulk is weighing down our careers.

The Party-Planning and Presentation-Assistance Committee

Office housework falls into two main categories. First, there are administrative tasks, like coffee-making, party-planning, note-taking, or calendaring events. The other kind of housework involves work of substance that tends to go unseen or underappreciated; things like mentoring less experienced workers, consulting on a peer’s presentation, writing internal research papers, or taking on extra work to keep a big client happy.

Calling it “housework” doesn’t mean that it isn’t necessary and important. Just like at home, these little items keep the wheels turning. As Sheryl Sandberg and Professor Adam Grant have pointed out, building a team of people who help both behind the scenes and in public is essential to organizational success. Sandberg and Grant point to studies showing that “helping behaviors” like office housework tend to lead to increased profits, sales, quality, effectiveness, revenue, and customer satisfaction.

We Need a Perspective Shift

The problem is that women tend to take on far more housekeeping duties at work than men do, and their efforts are often less appreciated than their male coworkers. Studies show that men who “help out” get more credit and earn more goodwill for taking on extra work than women do. And when men deflect, it doesn’t tend to impact what people think of them, while women get labeled as “prima donnas” or “not a team player.” This is true whether the evaluator is male or female. In other words, it doesn’t really matter whether your boss is male or female; these gender stereotypes pervade our entire corporate culture.

Company culture starts at the very top levels, and change can start there too. I was in a board meeting just a few weeks ago when one of the other board members carefully broached the topic head-on. She was concerned by some of the language commonly used by company employees and the attitudes it conveyed.

Specifically, she noted that the company couldn’t build a culture of value or respect if it allowed people (she mentioned men and women) to commonly refer to the marketing department as “the marketing girls.” Her comments tipped off a productive discussion about how certain terminology could be impacting the company culture and worker morale. The company’s senior leaders were receptive, and I hope they took the conversation to heart. Throughout corporate America, we need to have more conversations like that one.

Sandberg and Grant suggest that managers mindfully assign communal tasks (rather than asking for volunteers), taking care to rotate the tasks evenly. They recommend that corporations start tracking “acts of helping” in the same way that they regularly track individual achievement, making it a more tangible value that can be folded into the company culture.

Even if you’re not a manager or a company executive, you can take steps to impact the culture. Start paying attention to who is doing the housework in your office, and voice your appreciation for their efforts. Simply noticing and acknowledging the quiet ways that people are serving those around them can make a big difference in your perspective and in theirs.

Serve in a Way that Honors Your Gifts

Many women are drawn toward helping others, and that’s not a bad thing. As Christians in the work force, part of our calling is to serve and minister to those around us, and time spent showing Christ’s love to others is valuable, whether it benefits your career or not.

But it’s not just your career that’s at stake. Serving beyond your capacity can take a mental and emotional toll, leading to exhaustion, bitterness, and ultimately burn out. And you have to think about what you are modeling for younger employees as well. Be a servant at work, but do so in a way that honors your God-given gifts and passions.

My gifts and passions lead me toward mentoring, so I have happily taken on more mentoring opportunities than many of my corporate peers. I’m good with numbers and organization, so at 4word I’ve taken on oversight of all of the budgeting, inventory, financial reporting, and donation allocations. I love good coffee and I’m happy to make the occasional office pot. But I don’t volunteer to take notes in meetings because my handwriting stinks and note-taking interferes with my ability to think critically during discussions. I don’t plan office parties because I hate planning parties and it’s not a good use of my time. There are a multitude of things I don’t do in order to be available for the things God has called me to do.

Deflect Gently and Respectfully

If you’re asked to do something that is not a good use of your time or talents, it’s okay to say no, but take care to do so with humility. The office housework is real work that someone does have to do, so be respectful of whoever the job ultimately falls to.

Even if you’re the only woman in the room and you’re being asked to fetch drinks or order lunch for lower-ranking employees (yes, this has happened to me) don’t let the situation—or your temper—get the best of you. One author suggests a “do it once, then set up a rotation” approach, where you might graciously take the task on one time, and then work behind the scenes to see to it that a fair rotation is set up among junior employees, or that the work is handed off to an appropriate administrative assistant.

Try to acknowledge the value of the work in some way, even if you aren’t going to do it. If I decline to take meeting notes, I like to offer to have the notes transcribed afterwards in order to acknowledge that I’m part of the team and willing to contribute. I can feel good about saying no because although the task is important, I know that the team—and ultimately the company—is not best-served by having me take it on.

We cannot change corporate culture overnight, but we should all do what we can to help shift perspectives and encourage change. That means taking a look at your own task list, honoring the service of those around you, and speaking up when you have the opportunity to influence your company’s leaders. Office housework has real and lasting value, and we all benefit when people at work contribute evenly and are rewarded equally.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Diane Paddison

Diane Paddison is a business professional and founder of 4wordwomen.org, local groups of professional working women committed to faith, family, work, and each other.

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