I recently worked with a mid-career attorney, who, after ten years at the same firm, wanted to make a switch over to the corporate sector. During our conversation, she casually mentioned that, on a weekly basis, she bakes cookies for the office. As you can imagine, I was horrified. I asked her why on earth she, an educated, white-collar professional, would bake snacks for her colleagues. She explained that she really enjoyed baking and decorating the cookies and that she found it to be a relaxing and cathartic experience.
It is 2017, and women in the US still consistently earn about 25% less than their male peers. Women are passed over for promotions in favor of male colleagues. And, despite economists’ admonitions that more integrated occupations would make the economy more efficient, the social stigma around “women’s work” and so-called “pink collar” jobs persist. Furthermore, this study found that women are expected to display altruistic behavior in the workplace and that withholding it hurts them.
What does this mean? Well, simply put, it means that old habits die hard. Gender stereotyping and marginalization of women’s roles in the workforce are still an enormous workplace issue, no matter how diverse or integrated the organization is. Women remain unequal.
With that in mind, I advised her to stop doing this immediately. She is an attorney and an associate at her firm. She handles millions of dollars in business each year. She is a strong advocate for her clients, as well as a formidable adversary for her opponents. She wants her brand to be all about how she is an effective, knowledgeable attorney. She doesn’t want her brand to be about baking and decorating cookies. And I told her that I could guarantee that she is known in the office as the Cookie Lady.
By taking on undervalued projects, such as ordering food, planning parties, cleaning up, taking notes, and, yes, baking cookies, women miss out on innumerable career opportunities. Performing such tasks undercuts women’s authority and keeps them off more interesting, high-visibility projects. In effect, it shoehorns them into a traditional and stereotypical role of caregiver and nurturer.
This is not to say that women should “act more like men” or be gratuitously impolite. There’s a fine line between being firm and being disagreeable. Unless your job specifically requires you to perform tasks that are perceived as “women’s work,” you should politely, but firmly decline to perform them. Don’t offer to perform them, either. For example, it is perfectly fine to get a cup of coffee for a colleague as an act of courtesy. The problem arises when it comes to being an expected and implied part of the employment contract.
The bottom line.
The system remains stacked against women in the workplace. Don’t volunteer to give it any more power over you. Know when to say no!