When you’re ambitious and trying to climb up the ranks, one of the most annoying things you can experience is being treated like the secretary at work.
Sometimes I wonder what guys think when they ask you to take notes or to bring them a new pen.
When you’re being treated like the secretary at work, it can take several forms. You can get asked to do tasks way below your level, or people can assume you’re not a part of the business team at all.
Some men may even treat you like you’re there for visual entertainment only, and comment on the way you look in the middle of a meeting.
What makes men think they can treat female colleagues like that, and what can you do about it?
Be a good dog and go fetch
Was I a bit surprised when the fund manager who sat down next to me asked me if I could get him a pen? Yes. I was so baffled I even got out of the room to get him one.
Five minutes later, I introduced the management team speaking at the meeting, which I was leading.
The same guy also interrupted me because he wasn’t able to connect his cell phone to the wifi. That was even after he should have realized that my role in the meeting was not to fix his technical issues.
Being asked to go and get things, or file something, is one of the most common ways to belittle women in the workplace.
A fellow female banker was routinely asked to go and get her MD glasses of water while he was working. None of the guys were ever asked to do the same. She ended up moving departments after only a year.
When you’re actually introduced as “the assistant”
Being treated like the secretary at work is hard enough in itself. Sometimes the men will even refer to you as the assistant.
A few years back, I was on a roadshow for almost an entire week. And I was traveling with the CEO of the company as well as a broker who had arranged all the meetings.
For the first two meetings, the broker introduced me to the fund managers as “she’s so and so’s assistant”.
To not make a scene in front of the client, I emailed the broker in the car and asked him why he would ever think I was someone’s assistant. Why would I even take the company on a roadshow if I was?
He seemed to think I was making a big deal about a small detail. Luckily, he got the picture and stopped calling me that for the rest of the trip.
Running personal errands
Asking more junior women to run personal errands, also seem to be popular. Especially amongst men who are out to show the world how important they are.
In my first year as an analyst, I was routinely told to book taxis for one of my VPs. He also asked me to carry stuff for him, like his umbrella or documents “because you have a bag.”
I asked the guy who worked for him the year before if he all of those assistant tasks had bothered him. His answer?
“I’ve never been asked to do any of those things a single time.”
The answer bothered me, but I never had the guts to confront my superior. Instead, I started leaving my bag in the locker room. Or I told him I was busy finishing something for someone else when he needed booking help.
I wasn’t the only one in the department who had to do those things though. A woman who started the same year as I did, was frequently asked by her boss to go and buy him new socks.
Is your assistant busy, or what?
When their actual secretaries or assistants are busy, some men like to refer their tasks to the youngest women in the department.
One time I was busy creating a market analysis for the traders, I got a phone call from a journalist.
He was asking if I worked with a guy in my department. I said yes, wondering why the journalist thought he could get a comment from me on the subject.
However, what he asked me was if I had any pictures of my colleague. “No”, I said, thinking it was a fairly odd request.
The journalist’s answer surprised me. “But he told me that I should call you so you could send me some for the article I’m writing about him”. I said I still didn’t have any, but could ask the guy to call him back himself.
I figured he must have been traveling and not have access to a computer since he someone to call me to find pictures of him.
But when I passed his office just a few minutes later, he was sitting there with an open web browser. And he did not look particularly busy.
I asked him about the request from the journalist. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed that he had asked him to call me.
Afterward, I just mentioned I didn’t know where he kept his press photos . And that OUR ASSISTANT probably had them in a file somewhere.
Entertaining the wives
Company events with plus ones are in a category of their own. And I’m more often than not one of the only women from the firm that are present.
Whenever I speak with someone, they immediately ask me which of the bankers I’m married to. Or they start talking to the man I’m standing next to about deals. They expect me to discuss decorating with their wives.
Some of the wives also take it upon themselves to give me life advice on these events.
I’ve been told that I should hurry up and start having children before it’s too late. That was by someone I had barely exchanged a few sentences with during a dinner.
The same woman also gave me tips on which of my male bosses I should try to marry. I couldn’t possibly have the job for any other reason than wanting to marry a rich, older banker.
Why don’t you just say “no”?
Some of the shitty tasks in banking are given to everyone, and that we have to live with. But a lot of these tasks are routinely pushed onto the women.
“So why don’t you just say no?”
That’s something I’ve been asked by several guys when I’ve complained.
First of all, I have tried saying no sometimes, and then there’s always negative backlash. Both for women and for men. But women are expected to be nicer and more helpful, hence the reaction is often more severe when a woman says no.
Second of all, you’re not always in a position when you can say no. You don’t want to alienate a boss who decides your bonus. Or a client who pays your department’s fees.
How do you know when it’s too much?
It can be hard to know when to brush someone off. Sometimes you should just swallow your pride and do a shitty job to help a senior out.
That’s sometimes a part of working in banking. If someone is super busy, the rest of the team can try to help by doing his or her other chores. At least I try helping out people if I know someone’s drowning in work.
If you’re trying to figure out how much you should handle, there are several ways to do it.
You can try to ask other people at your level what they’ve been told to do. That can help you get a sense of how much shit you should just endure, and what is imposed on you just because you’re female.
You can also compare what two or more superiors are asking you to do. If one of them routinely ask you to grab him a coffee while the others don’t, he is probably overstepping.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there’s almost nothing more frustrating than being treated like an assistant in the office when you have a degree and is there to use it.
Tips and tricks
I wish I had any magical tricks that always work, but I don’t. Being treated like the secretary at work is usually a part of a bigger problem. And solving that is a whole other issue.
But to try to ease things, this is a list of things I’ve had the most luck with over the years:
1. Direct them to the person responsible
When I’ve been asked to do things that aren’t my job, I’ve usually tried pointing people to the ones responsible. However, that doesn’t always work.
Yes, I would love to help find your photos, but I think it’s our assistant who knows where they are.
2. Copy in secretaries in an email, and send it back
I do the same when I get e-mails with tasks that I clearly shouldn’t do. One of my superiors would often email me to ask put things in his calendar. I would always reply back and copy in his assistant.
I did this both the show him I was helpful by alerting his assistant. But also so he would be reminded that it wasn’t my job to book his meetings.
3. Show them other things you’re working with
Just saying that you’re really busy with something else that has a deadline is also a helpful way of giving someone a no without pissing them off.
If you’re working on an important pitch or finishing a model, let them know.
Always tell them which senior or client you’re working for at the moment. That way, they understand that they’re stealing time from someone they don’t have the power to boss around.
4. Ask if that’s a better task for someone else to do
Sometimes, what you’re asked to do isn’t necessarily something a secretary would do, but it’s still way below your level.
When that happens, I try to suggest that I would be happy to help, but that it could be a better fit for one of the more junior people.
Then I usually tell them that I think it’s good if he or she learns to do that now. I also mention other tasks I have that I need to prioritize.
5. Confronting them directly
Confronting people directly can be tricky.
You can ask if you’re the person who’s supposed to do that could also work. But remember that some may take it personally when you tell them it isn’t your job to fix that for them.
If you choose to do that, I would also check with someone else if they have been asked to do the same. In that case, you can easily compare if you’re asked to do those things because you’re a woman.
6. Ask someone else to confront them
Instead of confronting someone directly, you could ask another superior to do it for you. You could also ask HR, but that probably won’t help.
If you’re bombarded with work and can’t deliver what you should to one of the seniors, they are usually the best people to ask.
Tell them that you’re struggling to deliver because you’re frequently asked to do unrelated tasks. More often than not, they will talk to someone about it. They would hate to see the work delivered to them suffer.
I recommend reading this article about why women end up doing “the office housework.” And this about the double standard women face in the workplace. It explains how they have to both perform and “be nice” to advance.