Saturday, December 8, 2012

How Cupcakes Are Keeping Women From the Top. From the HuffPo Blogs.

by Rachel Dempsey

Last week, one of my professors asked us to sign up to take notes to share with the class. As my friend put her name on the list, she counted the men who had volunteered. There were two of them. For twenty-six classes. In an 80-person class that's equal parts men and women.

This seems like an insignificant issue, but it's not an isolated phenomenon. As I sat in that classroom, I remembered reading dozens of interviews while writing the upcoming book The New Girls' Network, in which incredibly high-powered women described struggling with the expectation that they perform undervalued service work. The women my co-author (and awesome mom) Joan Williams spoke with included Fortune 500 executives, senior partners at international law firms and bestselling authors. More than a few of them are still being asked to make coffee, take notes at meetings and organize birthday celebrations when no one would ever dream of suggesting such menial tasks to their male co-workers.

Carol Bartz, former CEO of Yahoo!, told us about a small dinner party she attended at Steve Jobs' house for then-President Clinton. One of the guests there was an entertainment executive who wasn't familiar with the Silicon Valley-heavy crowd. Early in the evening, the executive came up to Bartz and asked her to get him a cup of tea.

"I just said, 'Gee, does it look like I'm the one who gets the tea?'" she remembered.



  1. This is a real problem, in my experience, but I think it goes two ways, which complicates the solution(s): (1)work traditionally done by women, including many sorts of housekeeping, caretaking, and administrative/organizing/planning tasks (in the actual household and more metaphorically, in workplaces and community organizations) is devalued, and (2) women tend to get stuck doing time-consuming lesser-valued tasks. The thing is, many devalued tasks really are quite important in the long (and short) run, and sometimes even involve exercising a certain amount of behind-the-scenes power (the secretary/administrative assistant knows all, and knows how to make things happen). What they don't usually involve is personal attention/glory (or, sadly, money, except in rare cases of people who make themselves indispensable to other, very wealthy, people -- a somewhat insecure position, vulnerable to death/firing/divorce).

    While I agree that women need to avoid doing such a large proportion of such work, I don't want to see it continue to be devalued. So women avoiding/refusing such tasks (or half-assing them, as men -- to generalize horribly, but somewhat accurately; okay, many but not all men -- often do when "stuck" with them (and unable to palm the job off on a subordinate, frequently a female one) isn't a full solution. The real solution is to have both men and women do the tasks,and treat them with the seriousness they deserve (but no more than that seriousness; the other side of the coin, of course, is when an OCD-ish perfectionist control freak of either gender gets hold of such a task, and makes Mt. Everest out of a mole hill). Once men start doing such tasks, they tend to become more easily recognized as the difficult but important work they are (see: recent trends in parenting).

  2. The example in the article is one of bad class management (and is an example of the undervalued work mentioned by Cassandra above).

    Why should someone else's work be made available to other students on a volunteer basis? I have used a similar approach in classes to generate note-taking, but I made it part (a small part) of their final grade. Most days several people take notes, but I grade each individually. I then make an amalgamated (corrected and often expanded) version available online.

  3. The first sentence was the one that struck me the most. Is this really a thing, having students take notes that they share with everyone else in the class?

    If students want to arrange note-taking cooperatives with one another, that's great, but there's no way I'm going to make my students sign up to distribute their notes to other class members.

    I was a damn good note-taker as an undergraduate, but it required considerable concentration, and often left me with a sore wrist at the end of a one-hour lecture. I would have been pretty annoyed at being asked to distribute the product of my own hard work to people who couldn't be bothered doing it properly for themselves.

    As for the main point of the article, about gendered assumptions, none of that is (unfortunately) very surprising. There are still plenty of people who tend to assume that undervalued work will be done by women, and that women are the ones most suited for such work. I agree with Cassandra that fixing this requires a reasonable assessment of the importance of various tasks, and an equitable assignment of men and women to those tasks. Women should not "half-ass" the work they take on, just to make a point, but they also should not be pressured into taking on more than their share.

  4. You want to break that sort of behavior in class? Randomize the people who have to do the dreckwork, either through the hoary "name out of a hat" method, the classic "short straw", or whatever. There is no cure for it in real life short of revolution.

  5. What a coincidence! In the same week the following was posted on my other favorite blog:

    Rights of Man

    Two individual rights that are protected by the US Constitution an the French Declaration of the Rights of Man are that when men work hard, they get paid more, but if they don’t work hard, they get the same amount of money as the women.