by Christine Perkett
There’s a lot of industry research, information, guesstimates and opinions about whether or not women and men act and are treated differently in the workplace. My inclination is to say that of course, it depends on so many factors – what industry you’re in, who you work with and for, what their experience and personal opinions are, what your personality type is, etc. But at the end of the day, at work as in life, you will be treated the way you demand – and your role is what you will allow. Knowing what you will allow for yourself is crucial, especially for women working in male-dominated industries such as tech.
As part of an expanded services offering of my day job in tech marketing, I’ve been spending a good amount of time in-house with various clients, performing as their Chief Marketing Officer – helping to kickstart or reboot their overall marketing initiatives and create a quality, focused marketing department and strategy. My role focuses on the overall organization of the marketing department, including interdepartmental relationships, recruitment of employees, website development, sales and lead gen, tech vendor recruitment and management, PR, social, digital and much more. And I like to do more when asked, because I learn more, and am usually up to whatever task is asked of me. However, most of the time those tasks are on par with my years of experience and expertise. Until recently when one client asked me to decorate and furnish the office and order supplies, because “As the only woman on board, who else will do it?”
Yes, really, this was the reason I was given from the CEO.
It wasn’t so much the task at hand that was bothersome, but rather the reason that I was given for having been asked to do it. So what do you do when you’re asked at work to do things “because you’re a woman”?
It’s a fine line that needs to be watched – of course, you want to be a team player, and you want to pitch in – especially if you’re working for a startup with limited resources (often times no HR manager or admin to be seen). But be sure that you’re not sacrificing your daily responsibilities to fill in gaps that will either take you away from the high value, career-advancing responsibilities that you signed up for, or minimize your value in the eyes of others (i.e., suddenly everyone comes to you to decorate their office or order their supplies). Once you are viewed as “the errand girl,” you can easily lose any strategic game you had, no matter how experienced you are.
As women, we have a natural predisposition to take care of others (nurture) and to be polite and gracious. Men, on the other hand, are taught from an early age to be aggressive and not necessarily to worry about everyone else’s feelings first. I’m not saying men don’t care about others, but I am saying that history and research have proven that even at work, men approach relationships differently, take things less personally than women do, and are not as emotionally invested in the interpersonal aspects of work relationships.
As a woman in the workplace, you almost have to be more diligent about balancing that “team player” (read: polite while sometimes boat-rocking) attitude with self-preservation. Here are some tips for doing so:
1) Share and Speak Up – it’s okay to take on a task or two outside of your normal work responsibilities, but share the wealth. Next time your startup needs a supply order, and you are asked to place it again, suggest that another member of the team take it on, and that everyone takes a turn until such time that you have an administrative executive to manage the process.
2) Set Boundaries – don’t be such a “yes” woman. Saying yes to everything not only puts you in a less strategic light, but overburdens you, which could result in poor performance (and because you said yes to everything, your colleagues only see you failing at what you said you could do). Saying no doesn’t have to equate to being a lesser player – rather, it can be a powerful tool in your professional arsenal.
3) Always Do Good Work – no matter what you are asked to do and take on, make sure you are good at it. Don’t take on something that you really have no idea how to do just because you didn’t want to turn someone down. And if you take on a task that you deem less than important, still treat it as crucial and be thorough – after all, if it seems you can’t handle the most simple of tasks well, it could affect how others view your more strategic capabilities.
4) Ask for Help – this is another attribute that many women too often relate to weakness. But the truth is that asking for help takes insight and gusto – or is sometimes just an obvious need. For example, trying to run payroll when the only thing you know about ADP is that it’s where your checks come from, could put you, the company and your colleagues at serious risk for turmoil.
5) Keep your Mind Open – sometimes you’ll be surprised at the things you can learn about – and, from – others when you take on a task that you’ve never tried before. And better understanding colleagues in the workplace can only help you to be a stronger team player in the end – one with champions in every corner because you’re always the one happy to help at least once, but also not afraid to say no when it doesn’t make sense. And that’s a crucial leadership quality combination.
Have you ever been asked to do something at work simply because of your gender? How did you handle it?