Friday, May 18, 2018

Office housework subverted

A few months ago, we were talking about gender at work. More specifically, we were talking, as a department, about gender norms in our culture and around the world - how do these play into global poverty and our work? It was a rich discussion that took place in small groups - each with a volunteer note-taker. At the end of the session, all the note-takers were asked to send their notes to someone to compile them for posterity.

Then one of my colleagues said, "Can all the note-takers raise their hands?" I assumed that she was doing this as an accountability measure so that we would know who to follow up with if notes didn't come in. But she had something else in mind.

"I just wanted to see how many note-takers were women. I recently attended a conference where the man in our group took notes, 'because women are always the ones to do it'."

Minds exploded and the room burst into chatter.

"Women are also the ones who usually bring treats for celebrations, organize potlucks, and contribute the majority of the potluck food," I heard her continue to one of my (male) coworkers who had never noticed this before.

This isn't isolated to my work place alone. But it's possible the way the men have responded is unique.

Last week we had the first ever day of men only bringing treats to work. We arrived on Friday and there was a small spread of pastries, homemade chocolate cake, and orange juice with a sign that said, "Happy Mothers Day!"

This week, my birthday celebration was arranged by male coworkers. There were lunch plans for Friday, treats the day of, treats on Friday again, and a card.

I feel touched in a way that is sort of surprising to me. I was always touched when my female colleagues ran the celebrations in years past, but this felt different somehow. As I sat with it, I started to piece together the puzzle. By now, nearly everyone has seen the famous "mental load" comic. Previous birthday celebrations, though very appreciated and very welcomed, had this sort of very subtle undercurrent. I am almost uncomfortable naming it, because it is so subtle that I didn't notice it until I experienced something different. By naming it, it makes it feel bigger than it is/was. But if I don't name it, you won't know what I am talking about so here we go:

Say one of my female coworkers plans my (or anyone's) work birthday celebration. There is usually some combination of a card, an invite to a restaurant co-selected by all the month's birthday celebrants, possible treats, and this weird quirky thing we do where we put the celebrants' faces in a random photo that is somehow related to the time of year, chosen restaurant, person's favorite animal, or none of the above. Example from this year - me as an empanada:

This is all a lot of work that needs to be done but is also worth it because you get to also eat the treats and go to the restaurant. But when I show up on my birthday and find gluten free treats, and later go out to a restaurant and get a card, even though I love it, I also know the work it took to do it and that it usually fell on females. So it was almost like... "Thank you and also I'm sorry and I feel your pain." Pain is too strong of a word, but you know what I mean. I know that you had to think about this when you were not at work. I know that you had to exert some extra planning during your home time. I know you had to fit in making a funny image with my face on it during your real work. And I know you did it because you value me and because you know if you don't do it, it's possible that no one else will either. And overall, it's a small thing. But it's happening over and over, for all the birthdays, and all the holiday potlucks. Here is a poem of sorts that speaks to this.

To have the whole thing be planned and carried out by men felt subversive and different and refreshing. And more men are volunteering to take notes in our meetings too. So thank you men. Thank you for hearing and acknowledging and showing up and saying "I've got this one." Because showing up and practicing in the little things sets us up for success at the big things.