Managing Men: The Politics Of ‘Women’s Work’ In The Office

Most business offices across the country have some form of kitchen. Employees normally need a fridge to store their lunches and hopefully an oven and microwave for reheating purposes. If you’re lucky, there’s a dishwasher as well. But even with a dishwasher, someone how to load and unload the dishes. They have to wipe out the sinks and clean up the messes. Someone has to do the jobs that are normally labeled “housework,” except they happen in an office.

In workplaces everywhere, kitchen maintenance is one of the most contentious topics of office life.

In every job I’ve ever had, women were expected to clean up the kitchen. It’s never mattered who held the highest position of power or who was the boss of whom. Women have always done the dishes. I’ve gone through lunch meetings where the female owner of my company cleared plates and wiped down tables for a room full of her own employees and not a single man offered to help. It is a small piece of gender stereotyping that doesn’t seem to have changed at all, no matter how much men are actually helping out at home. In the office, cleaning is ‘women’s work.’

I’ve witnessed multiple arguments between women co-workers who were trying to figure out whose responsibility it was to keep the office kitchen clean. Each lady made some form of the comment, “I’m not anyone’s mother here. This isn’t my job.” And yet, time and again, dishes piled up in the sink and someone had to take care of them. The coffee maker broke, spilled all over the counter and someone had to clean it up. Every time, a woman stepped forward and begrudgingly took control of the messy kitchen.

The oddest part about these arguments is that the women involved at them seemed constantly angry with other females in the office for not stepping up and cleaning the kitchen. Yet no one questioned that it was a female who should be handling the task. Never once did we ask why no men were helping clean up after lunch meetings or empty the dishwasher.

So where does the managing men part come in?

At some point in time, women are going to have to step up and demand that men be responsible for any office task or chore, no matter how ingrained it is in “women’s work.” My company’s owner should have never been clearing plates for her entry-level sales crew, and yet there she was. And no matter what we say, relegating those tasks only to women reinforces stereotypes, even if we do it subconsciously.

I want to challenge female bosses to let go of the “women’s work” idea in the office. Ladies, look at a male assistant and ask him to unload the dishwasher. Put a guy in charge of serving and cleaning up after lunch for a client meeting. Don’t assume that spills and messes should be handled by a female, especially not you. You’re a manager, so manage your employees equally.

(Photo: A Quill & Inkwell)

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    • Avodah

      This happened to me, and it was frustrating. As an office assistant it was my role to help keep the office (and kitchen) tidy. However, it was NOT my job to scrape dried oatmeal off of cereal bowls.

      I would suggest firmly asking a company higher-up to please make an announcement regarding this at the next company meeting. Alternatively, ask if you can make the announcement.

      “Acme employees. We all enjoy having a kitchen and being able to eat breakfast or lunch in the office. I enjoy my role as office manager, but it is not my job to clean up your dirty dishes. Help me keep this office professional and neat by cleaning up your messes in the kitchen.”

    • Doris Sullivan

      When attending my professional committee meetings, I was usually the only woman and I ALWAYS refused to take the notes for the meeting simply because it was seen as “women’s work”. When asked to take notes (and I would ALWAYS be asked!), I would say “I’m sorry but I’m not good at that but I’ll be happy to do any other committee work you may have.”

      • Avodah

        It is hard though, isn’t it? We want to be up for (almost) anything and do whatever it takes, but there are certain tasks and roles that hurt more than they help.

        For example- I would take notes to show I am willing to help, but I would not because I would be afraid of being pigeonholed.

        Any thoughts?