Have you ever been in a meeting room when the buffet lunch has arrived? It’s a universal kind of thing.
There will be a knock at the door, and in will come mixed trays of sandwiches, all covered in several layers of cling film. Someone will inevitably have ordered tuna, the remains of which will, during the course of the afternoon, warm and fill then room with a questionable odour. There will most likely be a plastic bowl full of crisps, also adorned with cling film. Maybe some cake, or, for those organisations hoping to support their wellbeing agenda, a plate of fruit. A jug of water, or maybe orange juice. That too, might be covered with the ubiquitous cling film. A stack of plates, each with an individual napkin in between.
I know you’ve been there.
Eventually, someone will find themselves unable to face any more PowerPoint without sustenance, and will call for a break, much to the delight of everyone else who just didn’t want to the one to say how hungry they were. The trays and the bowls and the plates will be shuffled to the meeting table and the working lunch ritual begins.
And there is my point. Who gets up? To move the trays of sandwiches to the meeting table? To hand out the plates and peel off the cling film and ask who wants juice or who wants water and pass the glasses?
The women in the room.
All too often, in my experience at least.
This article from HBR caught my eye today.
It resonated because earlier this week I’d been asked to attend a meeting to talk about wellbeing. I was the stranger in the room. Someone barked at me (without any introduction or acknowledgement) ‘are you here to take the minutes?’. I wasn’t. The person who was, soon arrived. It was, unsurprisingly, another woman.
The idea discussed in HRB was something I noticed early in my career, and I have seen a variant of it in every workplace since. White men get the glamour work. Women and people of colour get the office housework.
The female in the room attending to the domestics. The female in the office washing up the coffee cups. The female in the office remembering that you are nearly out of sugar and stopping to grab some on her commute. Filling up the printer with paper. Doing the stationery order. Sorting the birthday collection. Booking the office Christmas party.
Maybe we are so used to this domestic, emotional labour outside of work that we unthinkingly accept it at work too. Or even when we do notice it, we just don’t say anything.
I have for many years, personally and quietly stood against the assumption I will do this type of work. If someone asks at the beginning of a meeting, who is taking the minutes, I never respond. When the lunch comes through the door, I won’t be the one to get up and do the cling film duty or pass the plates. I won’t be the first one to fetch the coffee.
I do my bit and I take my turn. I just refuse to be first. I refuse to make it easy for people to assume that I can and I will.
This stuff isn’t too hard to change.
If you must have minutes, rotate who does them. Do the same for who is chairing or pulling together the agenda. If there is coffee to be made, rotate that too. Notice who is doing the routine stuff. If it isn’t you, get out of your chair. As the HBR article notes, don’t ask for volunteers for these tasks, because we already know who will and who won’t. Allocate them instead. The next time you are figuring out who to ask to do a particular piece of work, and a name pops into your head, stop and ask yourself why them. If you see this stuff happening in your workplace, be the one to call it and do something different.
And for goodness sake, next time you are in a meeting and a buffet lunch arrives, eat the bloody tuna.