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women’s work – casual sexism in the workplace

Following my recent graduation from university, I have entered that difficult arena of adult life – the corporate world. I was lucky enough to land a fairly good communications position right out of university, and for that I’m pretty grateful, especially considering the current climate for admin related jobs where I live (there’s virtual tumbleweed rolling around most job websites).

Now, I’ve worked in a few other office environments in my time, including a department in the public service, and also as a medical receptionist. I much prefer office work to retail (my old occupation) which is hardly surprising, but one thing I have noticed across all of my various office jobs is the gender demarcation of general tasks around the office – tasks which aren’t necessarily allocated to anyone’s specific role.

Sometimes it’s the people who are in the least senior positions in the office who get stuck with the menial tasks like stationary orders and stacking the dishwasher, regardless of gender (though it should be acknowledged that most people in junior admin positions are women, in many office environments), but a valuation happens here regarding what is and isn’t important in terms of the roles assigned within workplaces.

For example, Executive Assistants are not considered to have senior positions by any assessment, but in the offices I have experienced, and from my knowledge of the tasks associated with the role of an EA, they are often the driving force behind a company, and are the lifeblood of the organisation. It takes a remarkable amount of skill to be able to juggle the numerous tasks an EA deals with on a day-today basis, and yet they are also often loaded with general office tasks that are unlikely to fall into their direct job description.

At one of my admin jobs in the past, the EAs were the ones who not only ran their bosses’ diaries and took care of their day-to-day arrangements, but also ran that office’s social club, organised the cleaning roster, and basically just did all the ‘women’s work’ around the office, which was basically volunteer work around their actual paid tasks.

I think that it is significant that tasks such as these often fall to female employees. I’m not suggesting that women are forced to take on the roles of cleaners, party planners and general domestic staff in the office, but that the gender norms which dictate so much else in our lives are still present in the supposedly equal professional environment.
This is not a calculated form of subjugation on the part of the employer by any means – rather, it is a prime example of the subtle ways in which gender differences continue to differentiate between men’s and women’s roles, and create an imbalance when it comes to the actual work that occurs in an office.

Here’s another example: at my current job, our break room has a complicated coffee machine which is ONLY used by the male engineers from another company that use our floor. And yet, every evening, a roster of different female employees from the neighbouring offices take turns cleaning out the machine that none of us ever use. The cleaning is done on a volunteer basis – no man has ever volunteered, but all of the women seem to feel obliged. Why is that so? Are we conditioned to feel responsible for housekeeping, even when it isn’t in our homes? Or is it a social thing – I know I always feel guilty if I don’t put my hand up for distasteful tasks.

Somehow, I think it’s more insidious than that, though – I have found that in most workplace situations, if there is no woman in a junior position and a menial task needs to be done, often male colleagues will look to their female peers of the same rank to take care of it.

My old boss, a woman, was often found cleaning workstations, organizing break rooms, and doing tedious things like booking restaurants and co-ordinating Christmas decorations purely because she seemed like the most natural choice for the ‘household chores’ of the workplace. The woman was equally as qualified as my two other, male bosses, but she remained subordinated by the presumed nature of her gender.

After having this discussion with some friends, interesting opinions arose. One friend suggested that, if indeed these are volunteer tasks, women should speak up if they ‘don’t want to do it’, rather than taking the tasks on and then crying sexism.
Maybe that would be a valid viewpoint, if it didn’t ignore the fact that most cases of casual sexism like this occur precisely because people don’t realise or acknowledge that it is in fact sexist behaviour.

I don’t mind stacking a dishwasher, or cleaning a coffee machine – but that doesn’t mean that I should clean up after my colleagues much like a housewife would diligently clean up after her husband and children. The fact that people (men and women alike) don’t notice how gender roles are replicated in the workplace, to me, says a lot about the state of equality within the workplace more generally.

For as long as women are still regarded as the natural people to take on tasks that are deemed menial, trivial or unimportant (which, I would argue, the above listed tasks are still defined as), our promotion into executive ranks will be hindered by the mental disassociation between women and leadership roles.

Another friend, after having the same discussion, was at work when her boss asked her to book a team lunch at a restaurant (a task which he could have assigned to any of the other members of her otherwise exclusively male team). When she suggested that his choice of her for the job was perhaps slightly sexist, he started ‘joking’ about how he would need to censor himself around her lest she cry ‘discrimination’ every time he asked her to do something.

This, of course, is the crux of the problem. Even this article, I’m sure, will be dismissed as yet another whiny feminist diatribe about being treated unfairly, without a real body of evidence to support it – and mostly, I agree. My view here is entirely based on my own personal experience, and I’m sure many other women have had purely fulfilling experiences of their workplaces. That’s great, and I’m certainly not suggesting that this issue of casual sexism detracts from the many other wonderful things about each of my workplaces either.

However, I do think it deserves acknowledgment, and that it presents a much larger issue in terms of the surviving assumptions assigned to genders based on the stereotypes by which men and women are so often defined.

I’d be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this – is my experience unique, or have you experienced some level of casual sexism in your workplace?
My article here focuses on sexism against women, but is it experienced by men as well, in regards to traditionally male tasks (heavy lifting/technological assistance come to mind)?
Lip would love to hear your thoughts!

(This article is based on a post I worte for my blog, The Coconut Chronicles)

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4 thoughts on “women’s work – casual sexism in the workplace

  1. You have something here — it’s that insidious, not malicious (argh, I’m having a brain fart, what is the word I’m looking for? Not casual … arrrgh) form of sexism that is still entirely prevalent.

    At my old job (I worked as a carny) there were more male than females in the positions and we often worked with children. If the children needed comforting, it fell to the female employees. If the rules of rides needed reinforcing, it was the male employees who did it.

    My mother’s job has an even mix of female to male and yet, every Friday, she brings home the work tea towels to wash. When I questioned her why, she said if she didn’t, the men would just leave them there to get “grubby.” But they expect of her now.

  2. I used to have the admin job in my department. It was however only when he left that men in other departments tried to make me do the coffees and wash up etc. It got to the point of bullying but I stood firm and when the main guy tried to show off in front of a mate who was visiting I really put my foot down (but in a snarky way that embarrassed him rather than getting stroppy). It never happened again.

    There was also a strange thing that happened. I took it that as an admin assistant all the ‘menial womens jobs’ were part of my job. I struggled to be allowed into that closed circle of people. For example, my birthday was two weeks after I started and I wanted to make a good impression (and get on the cake distribution list). I had to ask 6 diffrent women before one would tell me how the birthday cakes worked. Even then, the cake was taken from me and distrobuted by the senior (as in had worked there the longes women.

    I hate to sound like its womens fault and I don’t mean to. But it is harder for a man to actually help out than you would think, and its not because men would pick on them (the catch all excuse of ‘anything to get away from my desk for 5 minutes’ tends to work). I found that any attempt at cleaning was often met with a patronising responce, similar with getting food (although that was people deliberatly with holding information from me).

    Of course I was banned from ordering stationary but that was because I ordered what our department needed and refused to get cheep crap.

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  4. I definitely think you have something here. It’s been my experience and my observation that anything administrative (no matter how much it’s the life’s blood of a company) is viewed as if it’s less important and tends to be predominately female. Most men that I’ve observed in those jobs tend to move out of them fairly quickly while women tend to stay in them like a pink collar purgatory. And they usually get paid less for being better at it.

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