How I Said No (disgracefully) and Why It Worked

About 15 years ago, I was in a meeting with my male boss and two other senior men. The other men were from a supplier company who performance I had responsibility to manage. We were about to have a performance review conversation. My boss turned to me and said “Michelle, take the minutes will you?” I responded; “Why? Because I have a vagina?”

Stunned, awkward silence ensued. My boss had the good grace to apologise and then someone else, I don’t recall who, took the minutes. I don’t remember much about the meeting, not because it was so long ago, but because I spent the whole meeting mentally planning my farewell speech. I was convinced that I had just made a very career limiting move!

As it turned out, it was a pivotal moment for both my boss and I. My boss issued abject apologies and told me that he had never even considered how demeaning it was to automatically assign a menial task to an executive, just because she was a woman. He also said that it would be the last time he would ever do it. I believed him.

I learned that tolerating being given the sh*t jobs that had nothing to do with my job,  or the tasks that would not provide any opportunity to demonstrate my business and leadership skills, was no longer an acceptable state of affairs if I wanted to advance my career.

I also learned that saying no gracefully was probably an opportunity for development!

This Is Not a “What Women Should Not Do” Article

Why do women get stuck with, or volunteer for, the routine and time-consuming tasks that no-one else wants to do? There are a myriad of reasons, but I am not writing this piece to give women (yet more) advice about what not to do. I am writing this to give leaders (of all genders) another chapter in the playbook about how to advance women.

Leaders consider these questions:

  • Can you take the minutes?
  • Would you organise the team offsite?
  • Can you check everyone’s calendars and book the meeting?
  • Would you order lunch?
  • Can you organise the collection/going away present/birthday cake/christmas party?

We have all asked for some of this ‘office housekeeping’ to be done. But answer me honestly. How many times have you asked a woman in your team to carry out these tasks? How many times have you asked a man in your team to carry them out?

Whether she has just started her career or is the CEO of the company, she’s a a woman, so people expect her to do the everyday, repetitive, time-consuming tasks that no one else wants to do.

Glamour Work versus Office Housework

In every workplace, there are the glamour jobs and then there is the office housework. Glamour jobs are the high-profile, set you up for success assignments. The ones that will potentially out you on the radar of the people who can help your career soar. Then there is the office housework.  Some of it is actual housework, getting coffee, tidying up the meeting room after the team has finished, and some of the tasks are the necessary, but grinding unglamorous administrative tasks that keep the company ticking along.

As an inclusive leader, you can make small, incremental changes that will visibly signal that your workplace has a culture of equality and fairness.  Here are 4 steps you can take:

  1. Be aware: what are the glamour assignments versus the office housework that happens in your workplace? Who has typically taken on both? Audit your workplace and then take steps to address any inequity;
  2. Understand: that women and particularly women of colour, will be asked more often to do the thankless tasks that keep the workplace humming. Understand that women may find it difficult to say no to requests to take on office housework. Understand that your role is to assign task fairly.
  3. Do not ask for volunteers:  white men experience far less backlash than women if they say no to office housework. Women are socially conditioned to take on these tasks and are expected to be ‘team players’ and are punished more harshly if they do not. Establish a system to ensure fairness:
    • Minute taking: assign the task of taking and distributing minutes on a rolling roster basis;
    • Team off sites/functions: Everyone takes turns. Or create a gender balanced committee. Accept the style of function, irrespective of who is organising it.
    • Social gatherings/celebrations: Don’t accept pushback from colleagues who resist like  “oh there’s no point me doing it,  she’s just so good at organising!” This kind of thinking can lead to a toxic environment where women are expected to take on and excel at unrewarding tasks, while men’s time is protected for more remunerative work.
  4. Everyone is accountable: hold your team members accountable to deliver. They need to deliver excellence in whatever task they are assigned, whether its glamour work or office housework. Accepting poor results for office housework will only perpetuate the myth that women are just better at this stuff.

Your Leadership Shadow

Your leadership shadow is long! There will be a powerful effect on the culture, behaviours and diversity in the workplace when leaders take accountability to assign work fairy and equitably.  Your teams will be happier, more engaged and as a result, more likely to produce high performance outcomes. I encourage you to give this a go. you just might avoid a situation like my boss found himself in.

I am the owner of Advancing Women, an enterprise providing advisory services on workplace equality, inclusion and gender diversity. I am moving gender diversity from conversation to action. Contact me if you’d like to discuss strategies to make your workplace a great place to work. 

More Reading

Why Women Volunteer for Tasks That Don’t Lead to Promotions

For Women and Minorities to Get Ahead, Managers Must Assign Work Fairly

Office Housework’ Gets in Women’s Way

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