There you are cleaning up your coworker’s spilled coffee on the way to make copies of the employee manual for the new intern, when you bump into your boss. He’s wondering if there’s a fresh pot brewing? Oh, and you wouldn’t mind sending around John’s birthday card for the rest of the office to sign, would you? And handing it off to John before he leaves for the day?
This absolutely is not in your job description, but you do it because your boss asked, because you’ve always done it in the past, and, well, because you know no one else on your team will. You’re the Office Mum, after all.
If you’re a working woman, you may have found yourself in the above situation. Similar to the second shift – the tendency of women who work to do more of the housework/childcare than their male partners – being the Office Mum happens when women take on additional, uncompensated menial labour to keep the office functioning or relationships intact: things like taking notes in meetings, picking up a cake for a colleague’s birthday, helping new hires acclimate to the office or refilling the ice cube trays someone else left empty.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with helping out in the office. (In fact, this can help provide a positive work environment for others.) On the other hand, your time is just as valuable as your colleagues and you should be spending it working, not acting as office caretaker, unless that’s explicitly in your job description.
As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote in The New York Times, “the person taking diligent notes in the meeting almost never makes the killer point” (a point well taken, even if it’s ironic coming from a Facebook exec). That will be harmful to your career in the long run.
Here are some tips if you find you’re the go-to person for office asks.
- Say No: If you’re asked to take on an extra task like arranging a meeting or picking up a birthday cake, politely decline. You don’t want to burn any bridges here – as today’s Smarter Living newsletter from The New York Times notes, you want to remember, you are saying no to the request, not to the person making it – so say it nicely, but firmly. Say, “No, I don’t have time for that today.” Practice it at home if you’re nervous.
- Set Up a Schedule: For a repetitive task, like taking notes in the weekly meeting, set up a rotating schedule with other colleagues and email it to everyone. Hopefully, your coworkers will get the hint.
- Tell Your Boss: Arrange a meeting with your boss and “come prepared with specific examples of how your job is being impacted.” Offer up suggestions of how to make it more equitable, like the schedule.
- Provide an Alternative: “When women are asked to do work that’s undervalued, they should try something like this: ‘I’d love to serve on the paperclips committee. But that’s the perfect stretch assignment for David, our new junior hire, down the hall,'” writes Joan C. Williams, author What Works for Women at Work, in The Washington Post. This works because you’re politely saying no while solving your manager’s problem.
This won’t work in every situation. For example, if your boss asks you to help pass out information during a meeting, it’s not a great look to say “no.” There’s a time and a place for everything. That said, it’s important to recognise when it happens and with what frequency, and to bring it up with your boss – citing specific examples – if it’s an ongoing problem.
And it shouldn’t, and can’t, be all on women to change office dynamics on their own. If you’re a manager, pay attention to whom you’re asking to do what, and who volunteers to do what, at the office. And if you’re a dude who cares, offer to take the notes during the next meeting or talk to your boss yourself if you notice there’s a problem.