Your mother doesn't work here....
January 26, 2010 8:58 AM   Subscribe

People at work, including my boss, are always raving about how organized I am. Normally, this would be a compliment, but lately I wonder if I'm not being underestimated. How can I get my boss to take me more seriously?

I have an entry-level IT job working at a help desk. Most of the time I take calls and help people over the phone, but for slow times our boss gives us extra tasks to do. I can't help but notice that while my coworker (who has, IMO, an equal amount of training and experience) is given more technical tasks (like helping to write a script to install an application to all workstations remotely, for instance), I always seem to get assigned stuff like helping to plan the office Christmas party, organizing cables, etc.

Here's the coworker is male, and I am female. Now, I'm not trying to cry sexism, especially as our boss is also female, but lately I'm starting to wonder if there isn't some kind of stereotyping going on. It doesn't help that my coworker is quite a bit younger than me and single, and I'm in my 30's with kids. So I really feel sometimes that I'm getting put into a "mom" kind of role, which is understandable, but.....I worked hard developing the technical skills I have, and I'd really like to use them. I know I am just as capable as my coworker, I just don't fit the "computer geek" stereotype, nor do I have any desire to.

Some (possibly) mitigating factors:

--It is in my nature to enjoy organizing things and putting them into a system and I am good at it.

--I do work a busier shift than my coworker, as I work early in the morning and he gets in in the afternoon and works through the evening, when there are less end users to deal with. I've wondered if that's a possible reason he gets more challenging assignments. It's possible that my boss when divvying up the work is thinking, "anonymous is already so much busier, I'll give her a break by giving her something easy to do." I can see myself doing the same in that situation. However most of the calls I get are really easy stuff, like resetting passwords, helping people set up Outlook,etc. Not really the kind of things that look good on a resume....

So....I have a meeting coming up soon, to discuss with my boss my progress over the past year, and I'd like to bring up this issue, but I don't want to sound like I'm just being overly sensitive (which I realize may be the case) or make a mountain out of a molehill. I just want to make sure I'm challenged enough in my job so that I can learn and advance. I'm also really afraid of being swept aside into some kind of den mother role. What's the best way to approach this?

(I hope this question makes sense...I'm having a really hard time articulating this for some reason. If you have any questions, my throwaway email is
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In this meeting you have coming up, I would say, "Boss, I would love to be given more challenging and technical work such as x, y, and z."

See what your boss's reaction is to that. If he won't give you more challenging work as why. In any case definitely avoid accusations or speculations about sexism until you are absolutely sure they are warranted, and even don't say such things until you know what legal protections and processes are available to you to address the problem.
posted by orange swan at 9:07 AM on January 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

I would avoid any comparisons to your younger coworker in your meeting. Just tell your boss that you're doing a great job staying on top of your current workload and would like to contribute in a bigger way, such as writing scripts, and anything else you would feel like you can contribute.

Frame it in terms of you taking on more responsibility and doing more to help out, and be prepared to back it up with specific examples of things you can help out with. It's hard to see how that could go wrong if you frame it that way, whereas all kinds of things will go wrong if you start complaining about the work your coworker gets.
posted by icebourg at 9:17 AM on January 26, 2010 [5 favorites]

Sounds like you have a pretty good handle on things; you're right, your boss may have reasons for assigning your coworker these projects and only by asking her can you find out.

Part of a boss's job is to recognize employees' talents and adjust workload and work-flow accordingly. While it may not seem as important to you, someone needs to organize those cables for work to get done in an efficient manner. And someone needs to take all the simple help calls. It's good that you recognize that your talents are being put to work in some ways, even if you don't necessarily agree with what specific jobs you are handed. Also, I know that you say you are positive that you are just as capable as your coworker, but your boss may have some insight that you do not.

When your meeting comes up, absolutely ask if you can take on some other responsibilities; just don't take it too harshly if she refuses. And hey, maybe your coworker is jealous that you get to spend company time planning parties, amirite?

On Preview: Think carefully about any sexism accusations, though you should realize that just because your boss in female does not mean she is not favoring your coworker over you, or seeing you as less capable.
posted by InsanePenguin at 9:20 AM on January 26, 2010

Orange Swan has it in one answer. The point is that you're not challenged enough with the work he's giving you, and this is the only unsatisfying thing about your job.

Stick to that point, even when your "organizational skills" are being complimented ("Well, you know, I have a lot of extra time because the regular work isn't very challenging for me...") and you should manage to get your point across without being petty.

Do NOT mention the other worker who seems to get better treatment. Just don't.
posted by rokusan at 9:23 AM on January 26, 2010

Agree with icebourg. Don't bring your co-worker up at all. Just ask for more technical stuff.
posted by gaspode at 9:24 AM on January 26, 2010

The boss is a woman, folks.
posted by gaspode at 9:24 AM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just in case we're not getting across here: Don't say anything about your coworker in the meeting. At all.
posted by InsanePenguin at 9:26 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

The boss is a woman, folks.

Sometimes a typo is just a tyop.
posted by rokusan at 9:37 AM on January 26, 2010

Supervisors tend to forget where their subordinates come from, which is why you plan parties and your coworker writes code - it's how she has categorized the two of you.

You need to go into your meeting with a three-slide PowerPoint presentation.

If you can get a space that's set up for presentations (eg, laptop, projector, screen), great. If not, print out your three slides.

The slides should contain your key messages - your skills, your accomplishments, and what you want to do.

Outline your training in the first slide. Outline your successes as an event planner and cable stringer in your second slide. Outline what you would like to do in your third slide.

Make sure each slide has no more than three bullet points, and make sure each bullet point is just one line long.

In your final slide, where you explain what you want to do, use "by" statements:

"I want to write code by making use of my Comp Sci training"
"I want to take on more complex tasks by making use of my organization and dependability"

Use the bullet points as talking points - don't just read off the slides, but explain what each means. Don't talk too much either.

At the end of the presentation, ask her if she has any questions. Then say you will follow-up this conversation in a month.

Good luck!
posted by KokuRyu at 9:40 AM on January 26, 2010

especially as our boss is also female

Female bosses can be sexist, too--in ways that favor male employees over female. One need not be a man in order to have internalized sexist ideas such as that a male IT employee is more capable than a female IT employee.

My point isn't that you should go to HR with a complaint. I'm just saying your boss might benefit from a reminder that "I have A, B, and C skills that I'm not really putting to use yet."
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:41 AM on January 26, 2010 [6 favorites]

There's no way to bring up the coworker without sounding petty. If your boss IS being a bit sexist (and the fact that she's a woman by no means eliminates this) it will reinforce these sort of traditional feminine negative stereotypes. (You're emotional, you're insecure, etc.)

Tell her that your technical side is feeling neglected and you'd like some more challenging work in that area, and that this is a big part of your job satisfaction.
posted by desuetude at 9:42 AM on January 26, 2010

Another idea would be to identify a (technical) problem needing fixing, develop a technical solution (e.g. a script), and then show it to your boss and ask if it can be implemented in the organization. Don't spend so much time on this that you don't get your main job done, but if you demonstrate that you can do the more technical work and are so interested in doing so that you'll take the initiative to solve a problem that's been bothering the organization, you'll probably get more work like this sent your way.
posted by elmay at 9:42 AM on January 26, 2010

If you are organized and technical and want more challenging work, offer to create/update/clean up the inventory and technical documentation. You will, in doing that, learn about every single piece of hardware and software in your environment. This will help make you into the most indispensable member of your team. If you do the technical documentation you will be am IT rockstar, because we are TERRIBLE about documenting what we do.

Once you do that, you will have an idea of what's going on/needed/behind schedule without someone in your department having to take the time to get you up to speed. This will make you an obvious shoo-in for future technical projects, and per all of the advice above, do not wait for them to come to you offering those type of projects. Mention it, seek out training, ask about mentoring. Ask them what areas they need help/backup/overlap skillsets in and run with it.

And follow up. Most of us nerds are bad and project management, bad at documentation, bad at keeping tabs on something that doesn't come back to bite us. (God I wish you worked here.)
Good luck!
posted by 8dot3 at 10:17 AM on January 26, 2010

I agree that you should just simply ask for more technical assignments without bringing up your coworker. Your boss should appreciate your initiative and be more than eager to help. I know I have always appreciated employees who took in active roll in their own career development, and have thus rewarded them with whatever extra assignments/projects they wanted.
posted by JeffK at 10:25 AM on January 26, 2010

I just want to point out that when asking for more technical assignments, you should have something SPECIFIC in mind to ask for (implementation scripts, diagnostic tools, etc) . Don't use the words "more technical assignments". It sounds really weak and it puts you back into the party-planner female stereotype.
posted by CathyG at 10:47 AM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't wait to be asked. Get out there and find cool new technology, and bring it to meetings. Good: Boss, I found this tool, I'd like to try it on this problem. Better: I found this new technology, tried it, and solved this problem. Get expert in HTML, building web pages. There's a lot of fabulous free technology out there; pick an area, and be the expert. Make sure your boss knows about every technical "win."

I'm female. I work in IT. It's still quite sexist. I did tell my boss that there's still too much sexism in or department, but I also make sure my technical skill is evident.
posted by theora55 at 11:10 AM on January 26, 2010

Is it possible she's grooming you for management? In a lot of engineering firms (mechanical/civil, not programming) there seems to be two types of engineers, business development/project managment types and backoffice nerds. If you're organized, efficient and technically competent you may be put into this position, because sometimes the hardcore technical people can't deal with clients and keep projects on track.
posted by electroboy at 11:16 AM on January 26, 2010

I'm one of those women you hear about, who start on the high tech career track and then burn out after about 10-15 years. Not least because I too ended up in the "den mother" role, being somewhat older than my coworkers, and inevitably being the only female in the Unix/Linux department.

First I want to say, it is not all in your head. This is exactly the kind of crypto-sexism we face in the IT world. But tread lightly, because I can guarantee your boss is not aware that she is treating you in a stereotypically sexist fashion. And she will be very upset and angry no matter how gently you bring it to her attention.

In your review, tell her you like the technical stuff, and you would love more opportunities to do X, Y, and Z, just as others here have suggested.

In day-to-day life, be aware that you will have to push yourself to speak up, chase down opportunities, and basically forge your own path. If you want to do more technical stuff, then come up with a specific project you can do, and ask your boss if you can do it.

e.g. instead of saying "I want to do more technical stuff and less of this babysitting bullshit," say "I've noticed that we have to manually log into the mysql client and run reports, and I'd like to write a PHP webpage that can do it for us at the click of a button." (Substitute your own project, obviously.)

It is not easy to be a woman in IT. This is why. I'm sorry, and I wish I had better advice to offer you. But I'm one of those traitors who got exhausted after 10 years of the bullshit and dropped out and switched to a different career track instead.

By the way, Geek Feminism Blog is really awesome, and if it had been around back when I was going through all this, I might not have dropped out.
posted by ErikaB at 12:20 PM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think that you wrote the perfect line to use. "I worked hard developing the technical skills I have, and I'd really like to use them." If you tell your boss just that, it's a very powerful way to phrase how you're feeling. If she doesn't quite get what you're going for, list out some of the tasks that you'd have liked a chance to do (without explicitly mentioning that it was the other guy that did them). That should, in theory, spur her to split up those things more evenly.
posted by Citrus at 12:44 PM on January 26, 2010

I agree with the others in you should ask for more technical assignments.

Also, as a general rule of thumb, when someone compliments you on your process make an effort to bring some focus to your accomplishments.

Them: "You are so organized!"

"Thanks! My organization makes it easier to handle my large call volume."
"Well, I think good organization makes my work better. That code I wrote last week has not had any defects."
"I think good organization helps me work faster. It helped me have a quick turnaround on that script last week."

This just subtly changes their perception of you from the person who "is" to a person who "does".
posted by I am the Walrus at 1:55 PM on January 26, 2010

There's nothing wrong with figuring out something (technical) that needs to be done and then directly asking to do it. Most managers I know would love people to ask for challenging assignments, especially things that fix problems.
posted by kenliu at 5:29 PM on January 26, 2010

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