If she were a man and not a woman, this wouldn't be cool at all
December 15, 2010 12:20 PM   Subscribe

It's kind of uncomfortable at times, being a female professional in a male-dominated work environment where most of the female employees are on the other side of the business-coin as support staff (less education and pay). Was yesterday's incident somewhat sexist or am I being an educational elitist?

Our small engineering office is of course mostly guys, maybe out of 100 people only 15 are women, and only 4 are engineers. The rest are HR, document control, project support, procurement and the receptionist. There are no men in these roles, except a few in procurement.

Yesterday S from HR (early 30's) took all of them out to holiday lunch, minus the 4 engineering ones (we have ours with our departments apparently). Usually one of the doc control/project support/junior HR people fills in for the receptionist on a daily basis whenever she's away for various reasons, as part of their job description. Since there was no one else left to fill in for the receptionist yesterday because they were all going out for lunch, S asked one of the newly hired engineering ladies (B) to take her work over to the reception desk and fill in for two hours.

So we all heard that B was filling in at reception. Everyone is astonished to see her sitting there, doing some of her calculations while manning the desk. A general "female engineer at reception, really?" Several of the guys joked "oh, you got demoted!" "ah, so that's in your job description now too?" "feels more natural in that desk than yours?" etc. B started to think about it, and didn't quite know whether she should feel offended or not to have been asked to fill in, instead of one of the other male engineer new-hires.

From my perspective, it's not great that she was asked to do it instead of a guy. Says to me that it falls to her as lowest female on the totem pole available to fill in at reception. Sure, there are other reasons why S might have approached B, no malicious intent. Perhaps it's the perspective that all women in the office are equally important, so it shouldn't be beneath us female engineers to do a secretarial job temporarily when there's need. But we are educated* women working in a male-dominated profession, and already have to work against being perceived as inferior though we do the same jobs. It's counter-progressive to give them the idea they're also allowed to consider us secretaries.

B decided to grin and bear it, and let it go, keep things light and joke with the guys. Fair enough, but I still don't like it, and am wondering if other people can provide me perspective as to whether I'm out of line in feeling this way. I want to know what other women in this kind of work environment have to say.

*Nothing against the non-engineering women, but aside from HR we're the only ones with degrees. The others mostly just have highschool or perhaps a business college diploma, and largely do formatting/filing work. Socially this is a non-issue, most of us hang out on weekends (except S). S, B, and the latest receptionist are relatively new hires, this involves business-relationships, not friends asking favors.
posted by lizbunny to Work & Money (69 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately, there's really no way of knowing what S's motivations were in asking a female. She may not have thought anything of it, or she may have considered gender in her decision. If she chose a woman on purpose, then yes, it would be sexist, but again, there's no way to know that his was her motivation, or even on her radar, in asking B.
posted by elpea at 12:24 PM on December 15, 2010

*title should say "if S were a man and a woman, this wouldn't be cool at all"
posted by lizbunny at 12:24 PM on December 15, 2010

Was B the juniorest new hire? If not, or if they're all relatively the same, then you need to talk to S (behind closed doors) ASAP about it. Don't involve B at all, and emphasize to S that B didn't put you up to it. S needs to understand that at least one person in the office is a little uncomfortable with what happened, and the next time, it had better be one of the new *guys* who gets picked at random or whatever S's excuse for picking B is.
posted by Etrigan at 12:25 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

The engineers get hired in batches, I don't think it was her being picked as "last hire". We seem to have new ones starting each month, she's been here a few months now.
posted by lizbunny at 12:27 PM on December 15, 2010

If I read you correctly, it was the Human Resources person who asked B to be the receptionist. S., it seems, was in a position as an H&R person to know what should and should not be done, and for you to correct her is , well, telling her that you a non-HR person knows her work better than she does. That may well be the case. In passing, why is it necessary to let us know that S. is in her 30s? How does that affect things? My view: if B resents this, let B make an objection.
posted by Postroad at 12:31 PM on December 15, 2010

Actually, one question that you would need to find out is: Did S ask the newly hired male engineers to do this, too? Because if S did, then there is no evidence of anything, other than B complied and went along with this.

On the other hand, if other newly hired males were not asked to do so (and the only way you can find out is to ask), then this is not consistent and it would bother me and I would find it even more worrisome that it came from HR.

However, you also mention that S is new, per your last few sentences. Is S also new to HR in general? Have you ever looked into what it takes to be an HR person (no offense to HR people, I'm just saying I could see this inadvertently happening). I would guess from your description and S's actions that S has no idea and that S has higher up supervisor's in HR. I would bring it up to them, but point out that it is not meant to get the person in trouble, but to think about how you are treating one group versus another based on stereotypes and you just want to make sure it doesn't become part of the greater workplace. I think this sort of behavior can eat away at morale. Also, I would tread very, very carefully if you do bring this to HR: Can it be kept confidential? Or do you have another colleague (including male(s)) who would say the same thing?

Don't mean anything bad by this, but it does make me laugh that this would come from somone in HR? You have a Dilbert comic waiting to be made from this....
posted by Wolfster at 12:34 PM on December 15, 2010

I don't think you are out of line. It's a poor use of B's time, and I would feel weirded out by this too.

For an office of 100 people, this seems like poor planning on HR's part. If they wanted coverage at reception for the time all the support staff was gone, they should have arranged for a temp.

There is a way to approach this that doesn't rest on the gender angle: people who generate income (i.e., engineers, regardless of gender or seniority) shouldn't be tasked with overhead-type tasks, as it simply isn't a good use of their time. B, or any other engineer, makes an extremely expensive receptionist.
posted by ambrosia at 12:34 PM on December 15, 2010 [13 favorites]

I think it's worthwhile to say something to S in HR about how, "next time the stand-in receptionist will be a new guy, right?". She may've unintentionally included gender-bias, she might've just thought that B had the best phone manner, no one knows. But it's worthwhile to point out the fact that there are far more guys that could've taken on the role.
posted by ldthomps at 12:34 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Who is B's boss? In my head, that's the person who should have been consulted and decided who should cover that desk.

In your position I would talk to S, and tell her that you were uncomfortable with it being a woman singled out for the task.

Totally aside from all of that, I understand what you are saying about being female in a male dominated environment, but your aside comment does read like you consider yourself way above the admin staff, and it makes it hard to read this question objectively. Otherwise, this is really a "maybe there should be a "in case of all admin staff out who covers the front desk" policy question to raise with HR.
posted by Zophi at 12:35 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Usually one of the doc control/project support/junior HR people fills in for the receptionist on a daily basis whenever she's away for various reasons, as part of their job description.

Are any of these people male?
posted by librarianamy at 12:36 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Just to clarify:

Stephanie, who is female, took all of the HR, document control, project support, procurement people, who are mostly but not all female, plus the receptionist to lunch. S then asked Brenda, a newly hired female engineer, to man the receptionist's desk for two hours, yes?
posted by nomadicink at 12:36 PM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think it's horribly sexist. Something similar happened at my last company... if there wasn't an admin available to cover the reception desk while I took my break, they would grab one of the lower-seniority female CSRs to fill in. The male CSRs were never asked to do it, even though at least one of the guys was lower in seniority than all the women in the department.

They were all about equal as far as professional & educational status. Appearance wasn't a factor either, as all the guys were perfectly presentable and none of the women were particularly dressed up. Seems like it was purely a matter of reception being seen as "women's work."
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 12:37 PM on December 15, 2010

Was anyone at your office bothered by comments like "feels more natural in that desk than yours"? because to me, that's not good at all.
posted by pointystick at 12:37 PM on December 15, 2010 [16 favorites]

Just saying that S hasn't been doing this job for years and years, which might have given her a) experience to know better or b) a bias to adhere to gender stereotypes. Nearly all of us are >35.
posted by lizbunny at 12:38 PM on December 15, 2010

Was anyone at your office bothered by comments like "feels more natural in that desk than yours"? because to me, that's not good at all.

Agreed, that sounds horribly out of place, sexist and just plain idiotic to say.
posted by nomadicink at 12:38 PM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

Without knowing S's motivations/selection process, there's no good way to discover if that action was sexist.

Here's what I don't like:
Several of the guys joked "oh, you got demoted!" "ah, so that's in your job description now too?" "feels more natural in that desk than yours?"
Maybe that would've happened no matter what the gender of the sub, but geez that strikes me as infantile at best and demeaning at worst. I hope that the delivery of those comments weren't made in a demeaning way (ie, like when an engineer is wearing a suit for a meeting and you might say, "So how was the interview?"), because that is an ingredient for a hostile work environment, which may be actionable in your jurisdiction, and if so the engineers need some talking to.
posted by plinth at 12:38 PM on December 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

To me, this one incident doesn't seem like much of a problem - maybe S had just taken a liking to B for whatever reason. Like, one of my coworkers might as me to cover the public service desk just because I'm easy to ask and friendly, not because she thinks working public service is "below" our other coworkers.

To me, the comments from the other engineers about "feeling more natural" at that desk are more troubling than S asking B in the first place.

But as for being asked to cover, and wasting an engineer's time... it's one lunch, once a year, right? B is doing a favor for her coworkers. I mean, would something bad would have happened if B had said, "Oh, sorry, no, I can't cover because XYZ"?
posted by mskyle at 12:38 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I *just* finished a massive journal article on women in computer science and engineering field, and many people found that both women and men (as a whole, not every individual), were more comfortable with women filling secretarial positions in engineering/technical offices/labs. (This was considered a small sub-part of a problematic issue, not as a good thing.) This is such an ingrained thing in the U.S. that S could have, with no purposeful bias, picked B because she was the woman out of the new hires without realizing she had done it. Unless B was the absolutely newest hire, or the other new hires have such strong accents it may be difficult to understand them on the phone, I'd talk to S personally about it. Depending on S's personality, it's hard to know what to say, but you could mention you saw B getting teased, and as it's hard enough to be a woman in engineering as it is, maybe there could be a general rule of newest hire has to fill in in reception or something, so no one could perceive any sort of sexism in those situations. If the newest hire does happen to be a woman, though, she should have to fill in when it's her turn.

(As an aside, computer science and engineering is the only science or technical field where the number of women graduates is consistently declining. Undergraduate rates are now 18-20% or lower, depending on which survey you use. This decline appears to be caused by stereotypes and perceptions, not academic or technical skill, so little incidents like you mentioned are important.)
posted by wending my way at 12:41 PM on December 15, 2010 [25 favorites]

It sounds like BS to me, but speaking as a man who got the sort of "demoted" comments every time I answered the incoming line because our receptionist was away from her desk, I wouldn't put too much stock in those comments (not that you're seeming to). But it seemed to always surprise people when I answered the phone, and they'd scramble to come up with a response, which was invariably stupid.

Though the guy who said, "feels more natural?" sounds like an ass.
posted by neuromodulator at 12:42 PM on December 15, 2010

Yes, it was sexist. I'm a guy and the idea that someone might ask me to help out on reception is almost offensive to me (offensive is not the word I was looking for, hold your vitriol), but I thought nothing when a female colleague who is actually higher up than I am was asked to cover an absence. I'd suggest S didn't really think too much about it and defaulted to the stereotype that women are receptionists. That doesn't make it better.

It doesn't matter whether the new hire was bothered. You were, and you work there, and it's unfair that you now feel inferior or less valued because you don't have a penis (imputing emotions to you to make a point - I obviously have no idea how you feel). New hire might also just be too afraid/stubborn/angry/sensible/stoic (read nothing into the order of those adjectives) to say anything about it.

Talk to S privately.

There will be a risk of S making a big deal about asking a man to cover next time and causing some embarrassment.
posted by doublehappy at 12:43 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

As another female in a male-dominated technical workplace, my immediate assumption is that B was definitely asked because of her gender. Even if S is female she can still buy into the sexist assumption that the receptionist is supposed to be a woman. Sometimes women are way worse about being sexist, especially if they feel threatened by another woman.

My next thought is that unless you plan on leaving the company, or are a very, very senior member of staff, I wouldn't bother saying a word to S, or anyone in HR. Unless it's completely egregious (or maybe, especially if it's egregious) rocking the boat can exacerbate the problem by making everyone hyper-vigilant about sexist behavior, and if you are the one who bitched about it, it becomes your "fault".

Sucks, but that's the way it looks to me.
posted by mneekadon at 12:44 PM on December 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

As a fellow engineering(ish) highly educated female working in a small company, this single incident does not strike me as sexist. There isn't really enough information here to determine. Maybe she's the least experienced out of all of the other new hires. Maybe she was the only one who didn't have pressing work to do at the time. Maybe she is the friendliest out of all of the new hires. Maybe other (male) new hires were asked but they said no. There could be a handful of reasons why she was chosen that have nothing to do with her gender.

Your coworkers' joke about it being more natural for B to be at the receptionist's desk than her own, however, does reek of sexism.
posted by joan_holloway at 12:46 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

As someone who works in an organization with a similarly gender-dimorphic office (though not as exteme as yours), I would have found that really odd/offensive/weird. Push-back is warranted, I think. S, in particular, needs to have a chat with someone, particularly as head of HR. Her job is to prevent the company from being sued for having a hostile workplace, not to foster one.
posted by bonehead at 12:46 PM on December 15, 2010

Gah, <35, not >!
I'm going to end up babysitting this thread at this rate, going to let it filter down from here on out and see what the predominant concensus is.
posted by lizbunny at 12:46 PM on December 15, 2010

For what it's worth, I think *anyone* asked to man a desk below their station would get that kind of ribbing. Gender issues aside, it's a joke about as generic is telling the stand-in, "WOW, [Insert Receptionist's Name], you look different today!" And I have, in fact, seen guys in that exact situation being henpecked like that. Someone's got to do it, & in this case a lady got picked. Can't speak to whether the lady getting picked was inherently sexist or not.
posted by Ys at 12:47 PM on December 15, 2010

I worked in HR for many years, and this feels very inappropriate to me.
posted by pinky at 12:47 PM on December 15, 2010

Here's the thing; why is any engineer being asked to take care of reception at all? It is not generally considered part of an engineer's job, and frankly, I seriously doubt she would have asked a guy to do it if no woman were present. Mostly because I've never seen a male professional ever asked to do secretarial tasks. Temps, maybe, but skilled workers? Nope.

I have on the other hand, seen women professionals asked to do such tasks, as well as get coffee, entertain a coworker's baby, or get refreshments for an event. But never a guy.

What would they have done if there were no women to ask? They would probably have designated someone not to go to lunch but to have food brought back for them so they could run reception (or let them leave an hour early, or some other such payback).

Having said all that, as far as what you should do, maybe Etrigan had the best answer. Privately share your discomfort with seeing female engineers, who already face so many obstacles in getting taken seriously as equals, asked to do secretarial tasks, and add that you worry it might not reflect well on the company. You might even worry out loud that it could lead to a complaint by someone--which no HR department is going to be happy about.

S may very well get defensive, in which case you don't have to insist she accept your POV, just leave it as is. Hopefully, even if she thinks you're oversensitive, she'll not let the same thing happen again.

Ideally, B would protest as well, to her higher-up, that this was inappropriate. Whether she's willing to do so depends on how safe/supported she feels in her position.
posted by emjaybee at 12:49 PM on December 15, 2010 [8 favorites]

I would have a major problem with it as well as the comments made by the men. Moving forward, this is a learning opportunity for your company. In future how will they handle the receptionist's absence when there are no female clerical staff around and what steps are they taking, starting with today, to make your workplace inclusive?
posted by saucysault at 12:49 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I would be very disturbed by this incident, personally. I think that as a woman engineer in an office of mostly men you have to be *particularly* careful about agreeing to do this sort of work for your reputation (as the jokes evidenced). B is new, so she likely didn't feel comfortable saying no.

By the way, this happens everywhere at every level - ask me how many times I've been asked to get the drinks for a group of (male) colleagues in a meeting, even if I was senior to many of them. Unless I was the most junior person in the room I did not comply with a request like that and usually made a joke about it while requesting a more junior male do the task. Consider this a corporate hierarchy issue and not a gender issue and you can train others to respect your position.

My suggestion is to talk to B and tell her that she never has to do something like that again. If she is asked, she should say she does not have the bandwidth to sit at the desk during lunch and leave it at that. If her boss is going to have an issue with that approach she may want to clear it with him or her before saying no.

It's not worth making a big company-wide thing of it, it's more about a younger woman protecting her professional reputation. As for S, she may just be clueless and I wouldn't bother talking to her.
posted by rainydayfilms at 12:50 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

As you noted, a number of possibilities.

Maybe B had told S, "I owe ya one." Maybe she was the new-hire S knew the best, felt most comfortable approaching.

Maybe let it ride, see if there's more of this sort of thing?
posted by ambient2 at 12:50 PM on December 15, 2010

Yes, sexist, either in fact or in appearance, which from the standpoint of creating a hostile work environment is equally bad. From a pool of people who are predominantly male, the person selected to cover reception should have also been male.
posted by hworth at 12:50 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am curious why a two hour lunch didn't have two people staffing the desk for an hour each. I also think it was probably done unconsciously, that the intent wasn't sexist, that the result *was* sexist, and that you need to have a company policy about having engineers staffing reception. Newest hire seems like a reasonable choice.

As B is a new hire, she might not be comfortable going to HR, but someone should, because they are the ones who should come out with a policy. When you go to HR, you should assume that S did it for reasonable, non-sexist reasons.
posted by jeather at 12:54 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am a male engineering manager and my perception is that this is another example of gender bias in what you correctly identify as a male-dominated environment. My large company has diversity and inclusion programs and when I address these with my staff, I discuss how I saw different treatment of my ideas from that of my female coworkers. It is something I try to be aware of.

In this case S may have had some level of discomfort in asking an engineer to fill in for this because there is also the divide between engineers and administrative staff; and the easiest thing may have been for her to ask a young woman. That doesn't make it right, but may help to understand.

It's much more important to insure that the female engineers are getting the same engineering opportunities than to worry about this one instance of a couple of hours, but I would mention it to your manager and to S, not as a big deal, but suggest that you wouldn't want to have a perception of bias. (and that next time they should have one of the smart-asses making the comments fill in!)
posted by Edward L at 12:56 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree that S's actions can be sexist, but some unknown factors are whether she asked other male employees beforehand, whether B just had the best demeanor, or whether S simply felt more comfortable asking B because they interacted more. It's hard to say, but I think it's perfectly reasonable to have a sit down with S to discuss. She certainly could have handled the situation better.

The comment that strikes me that most was the coworker saying, "feels more natural in that desk than yours?" That was absolutely sexist, and degrading both to B as a woman and S's usual duties. In fact, many of the males engineers' comments (as well as your own tone ) strike me as terribly elitist.

Also, I'm not sure I understand your point about all females in the company being equals so it shouldn't be beneath the female engineers to do such work. It shouldn't be beneath any of the male employees to do the work either, so gender should not factor into this. Granted, it's not a great use of time for the engineers, but that applies to anyone of any gender deviating from their specialized duties.

As a side note, perhaps it'll help to not consider receptionist work as "beneath" anyone, but simply not a good use of a specialist's time.
posted by lacedcoffee at 12:56 PM on December 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yes, this is icky. At my old job, despite there being many, many newer male employees with fewer responsibilities, I was often asked to cover the receptionist's desk, and yes, I did get many annoying comments that were similar to those you described. It would have been wonderful if someone had taken the time to say "Gee, this is incorrect" to the person making those decisions, because whenever I complained, I was made to seem lazy or inconsiderate to my coworker that needed covering. Please say something to S or S's supervisor.
posted by two lights above the sea at 12:57 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yes, there's a whole lot of inappropriateness here.

I think, though, that if you approach S from the standpoint of whom she chose for the reception desk, you'll immediately put her on the defensive and she has plenty of wiggle room to make her decision seem neutral.

Instead, as others have noted, focus on the subsequent behavior of the other male engineers. Those comments are unquestionably boorish and sexist, and should not be tolerated in a work environment. S should immediately be on your side on that, and she should quickly clue in to how her choice led to that.
posted by mkultra at 1:02 PM on December 15, 2010

Just perhaps, she'd had experience at it???

It may have been sexist, maybe not. But it irritates me that a) it's that big a deal to man a desk for an hour or two and b) that it's implied that an engineer of either sex is too high and mighty to answer phones a couple of hours.

As long as male and female engineers in general are getting paid the same, and not in general being treated in a sexist manner, I think it's really silly to get worked up over this. The world would be a better place if we ALL realized that answering a phone or getting coffee is NOT beneath us.

(Note I am not talking about systematic sexist demeaning treatment. That's another plate of pintos.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:03 PM on December 15, 2010 [12 favorites]

PS as to the comments, context is king. Guys might have been acting like a bunch of sexist baboons or they may have simply been ribbing a friend. Depends on the people involved.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:06 PM on December 15, 2010

I agree that S's actions can be sexist, but some unknown factors are whether she asked other male employees beforehand, whether B just had the best demeanor, or whether S simply felt more comfortable asking B because they interacted more.

Just want to point out that factors such as perceiving B as having a better "demeanor" or the fact that she did not also feel at liberty to say no like the men did can be just as much about gender stereotypes as can stereotypes like "women should be secretaries, not engineers."
posted by yarly at 1:08 PM on December 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

I too work in Engineering - and we have almost the same gender ratio. I am male with a degree.

When our (female) PA was off for a week, I collected the mail, answered the door, brought in the milk etc.

I was one of the most junior, and the boss thought that I could most easily fit the extra stuff in, based on the work I had going on.

The situation at your work was a one-off for a few hours? They had to choose SOMEONE to do the job. It happened to be a female.
posted by trialex at 1:08 PM on December 15, 2010

if a woman is consistently asked to man the desk as a replacement, then yes, it is sexist. however, if this is a one-off incident, then there is really no way to know what S's motivations were, and it would be presumptuous to jump to the conclusion that she was doing it due to sexist motivations. based on the information presented by the OP, to me, B got picked because she was new.

what was sexist could be the coworkers' remarks. but honestly, i know i would encounter those kinds of remarks regardless of the gender of the person asked to replace the receptionist.
posted by violetk at 1:10 PM on December 15, 2010

that it's implied that an engineer of either sex is too high and mighty to answer phones a couple of hours.

In many engineering companies it's an issue of money. Answering-phone time is overhead. It means we bill it as an extra fee. We want to keep that extra fee as low as possible so that we remain competitive. If we could completely eliminate all support staff and have a fee of $0, we would. Barring that, we want to have low-wage people working those jobs. Engineers have higher-education degrees - I know personally that I bill 2x what our receptionist bills. I'm not high and mighty - I worked through much of college as a receptionist or project assistant - I'm too expensive.

As an engineer, male or female, I would feel extremely uncomfortable if I was asked to "fill in" for a job not in my job description. I would take it up with my manager and only agree with his or her explicit authorization. But this is different because B clearly isn't willing to do so and it appears that the task is already completed, so there's not much that lizbunny can do except wait for it to happen again.
posted by muddgirl at 1:16 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

The world would be a better place if we ALL realized that answering a phone or getting coffee is NOT beneath us.

This is so worth repeating. Especially in a smaller company, there is nothing wrong with a highly skilled person being asked to do a task like this for a short amount of time. No, it is not cost-effective in the long run and it would be pretty sexist if it was always a woman asked to do it on a regular basis. But a single two-hour incident? No big deal. Everyone should be willing to pitch in with these tasks.

If B didn't want to do the task because she thought it was sexist or beneath her pay grade, she could have said no.
posted by joan_holloway at 1:18 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have to chime back in to say that I disagree with all of the "But maybe B is just nicer/more pleasant" comments. This is another one of those instances where something women are socialized to do (be non-confrontational and agreeable) acts to their detriment. Assuming that most adults in a society can be civil, there is no reason that a guy (if he happens to be the newest hire) cannot maintain a neutral tone when answering a phone or greeting customers. A woman shouldn't be asked to waste her time specifically because she is "more friendly" or "nicer," or be chastised for thinking things are beneath her when she was chosen to downgrade her position, even temporarily, just because she's a woman. (Not saying that's definitely what happened here.)

I agree you shouldn't make a huge deal out of it or accuse S. even of being sexist, but letting little things pass without note because "answering the phones isn't a big deal" is indicative of larger societal problems than actually answering the phone. If a group is 85% male and it's one of the remaining 15% chosen for a task, it could be chance, or it could be unconscious bias.
posted by wending my way at 1:24 PM on December 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

I wrote a really angry response and deleted it. I am a (college educated female) receptionist. What I do has value to my organization as do all support positions. Maybe it was sexist maybe it wasn't. It is elitist and rude to think that answering phones is beneath anyone.

Perhaps a more equitable approach in the future would be to make a list of everyone in the office and when there is a need for someone to cover the front desk simply choose the next person on the list. When everyone has had a turn, start over.
posted by rachums at 1:25 PM on December 15, 2010 [14 favorites]

I don't think you are out of line. It's a poor use of B's time, and I would feel weirded out by this too

It isn't really your proper place to object if B doesn't object, IMNSHO. First, the question is not whether this is the best use of B's time. The question is whether there was some way of obtaining coverage for the desk that was more economically efficient. If the answer is no, then it doesn't really matter whether B happened to be chosen this time, or one of her male counterparts.

I also question whether this is a poor use of B's time, given that B largely appeared to do her real work. Without a pattern of conduct, it might be very unwise to raise issues that some people might take offense at, especially S.
posted by Hylas at 1:29 PM on December 15, 2010

I used to work at a small-ish company and someone told of a similar story. The only female engineer was asked to fill in at reception. She left shortly after that. I would have done the same thing.
posted by redyaky at 1:31 PM on December 15, 2010

Maybe it was sexist, maybe not. The comments weren't helpful. It might be worth saying, "hey, Sasha, next time maybe you could ask Mike or George to fill in at reception instead of Becky? I'd hate for everyone to start thinking that reception is a girl's job."
posted by SMPA at 1:32 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Agree with those above, S's actions wern'te sexist assuming this is a one off incident. However, the male coworkers with the awful "feels more natural there, huh?" comments are enormously, ridiculously, I-don't-understand-how-that-wasn't-reported yet sexist. "You got demoted" can be seen as friendly ribbing; I don't think the same can be said about the "feeling more natural" comment.

As a datapoint, as a female in a male dominated environment (business strategy), I've been asked to "man the desk" a few times - primarily because of my friendship with our administrative staff. The men in the office who are friendly with them have been asked the same.

Asking a woman to fill in as an admin isn't sexist, however allowing commentary like what you mentioned she had to endure above most certainly is. I'd be reporting those male engineers, ASAP.
posted by CharlieSue at 1:32 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been in B's situation lots of times in recent years, and it is irritating as fuck to 1) be asked to do the "female" stuff and 2) second-guess every request wondering if it would have been made if I were a man. S could have had B cover one hour of the two-hour absense and had someone else cover the other hour.

That said, I think B did right to grin and bear it. If the engineers making weird remarks were B's peers, she should have told them to STFU because next time it will be their turn. If they were B's superiors, she could have a quiet word with S about it.

Be glad you work someplace with an HR department! There are lots of small engineering firms with no HR staff and literally no one to go to about this stuff.
posted by beandip at 1:33 PM on December 15, 2010

I am in a similar work environment, very similar. I understand the feeling of having to prove yourself first and be accepted second - to contrast, while in one grad school stint I worked at a fairly high level fashion/design related position, I was presumed to know what I was talking about, because I looked like I should.

If there is not a pervasive problem of gender discrimination in your particular workplace, I don't see a problem with S asking B. I probably would ask the person I felt most comfortable with, which might well be another woman who started there around the time I did. It might also be a man that I felt was willing to pitch in and help and not make a big deal, or maybe one I talked to last week about the football games.

I don't think it demeans a smart, educated, successful woman to sit at reception for a couple of hours. I don't think it demeans any educated person to do an admin task - but I get the culture that implies it might.

I don't like the pattern of usually subtle gender discrimination in the field, but I do think it's getting better, especially as I grow a little older and start dealing with people my age or younger, most of whom seem to not have as much of that initial hesitation.

The problem isn't stemming from just your workplace, it's an industry and to a large degree cultural mindset. I feel like to get upset about the reception desk, to me almost makes it more than it is. I'm not saying never acknowledge an issue, but I wouldn't look for one either.

I don't think it's counter-progressive, as I think that if B is smart and does her job well then the fact that she sat at reception for a few hours doesn't hold her or any of you back. In my experience at least, within workplaces I have generally found opportunities to prove myself, and have not felt like doing "girl work" would diminish that.

(As far as the joking and ribbing, I have just learned to go with the flow and dish it back as necessary - assuming that your experience has been like mine, where everybody is subject to a little bit every once in awhile, it's good natured, and they usually are just awkwardly bonding in the way they know.)
posted by mrs. taters at 1:38 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hey, this happened to me! (Female, and one of the 5 non-admin females in my office of 70.)I did it once, and got the really dumb comments. And then I went to HR and said I wasn't comfortable with it - it took me away from the work that I'm supposed to do, and I got comments that made me uncomfortable.

And then it happened again. And I complained again, and CC'ed the CEO. And then I never had to do it again.

It's a really, really hard situation to be in. It's hard to say no (what if they fire her? what if she gets labeled as uncooperative? Just saying no is harder than you think.) and it's hard to say no once you've done it before. And it's extra hard for you because the main player here has decided to just put up with it.

I really wished someone would have said something for me when this first happened - but that's me, not B. Ask B if she'd be okay with you going to HR about it. Ask her if she'd be okay with this happening from now on, because there's a good chance they'll use her as a backup receptionist.

To answer your question: I think your feelings are justified.
posted by punchtothehead at 1:45 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Female scientist here and yeah, this is sexist and yeah it is common. But it's getting better I think because the younger folks who work for me don't seem to fall into these patterns. I hire a bunch of techs every year and task them with logistics and they live in field camps and very rarely do you see anyone under 25 expecting the female staff to buy the food or the men to be the only ones who can fix the engines anymore. That used to be common.
posted by fshgrl at 1:46 PM on December 15, 2010

I will bring it up with S but not make a big deal about it, just that I wanted her to know I felt a bit uncomfortable that she chose one of the few female engineers to fill in, instead of one of the many guys.

Actually, I mentioned this to our receptionist just now, and she agreed with me, she said she didn't think it was quite right for S to have done that.
posted by lizbunny at 1:55 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yes, it was sexist, and the resulting comments were somewhat offensive. I'd likely praise B for "willingly covering the reception desk and allowing the staff to have a holiday lunch. B's graciousness in pitching in is much appreciated." to emphasize the positive aspect.
posted by theora55 at 2:33 PM on December 15, 2010

[few comments removed - question is not anonymous, please take side conversations to MeMail and don't answer if you can't be constructive.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 2:46 PM on December 15, 2010

It's not only sexist, but kinda stupid. How much does a temp receptionist cost, really? Surely less than a talented engineer.
posted by pwnguin at 3:57 PM on December 15, 2010

It's not only sexist, but kinda stupid. How much does a temp receptionist cost, really? Surely less than a talented engineer.

What would be stupid is to bring in a temporary employee, who would doubtless have to be trained on the phone system, taking up the time of the receptionist and preventing her from doing her job for the entire morning, for a two hour lunch break.

This is not a big deal. As others have said, if B doesn't see a problem with this one-time thing, it is not your place to complain to HR. If this becomes a pattern of behavior that's a completely different story, but this is an isolated event.

I'm another college educated (summa cum laude!) secretary who is taken aback by the widespread assumptions that this work - done on a very limited basis in order to help coworkers out - is seen as beneath someone who primarily works in a professional position. I've worked for executives who don't understand Google and could not string two coherent sentences together. It's my belief that administrative work isn't "beneath", but is in fact just different.
posted by something something at 4:28 PM on December 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have to chime back in to say that I disagree with all of the "But maybe B is just nicer/more pleasant" comments. This is another one of those instances where something women are socialized to do (be non-confrontational and agreeable) acts to their detriment. Assuming that most adults in a society can be civil, there is no reason that a guy (if he happens to be the newest hire) cannot maintain a neutral tone when answering a phone or greeting customers. A woman shouldn't be asked to waste her time specifically because she is "more friendly" or "nicer," or be chastised for thinking things are beneath her when she was chosen to downgrade her position, even temporarily, just because she's a woman.

Cannot favorite this hard enough. I have been a (college-educated!) receptionist, and I have seen women essentially get punished for being "pleasant" and "agreeable" and doing administrative tasks well by always getting stuck with the least glamorous/interesting tasks, while men, even in admin positions, get slightly more interesting assignments by being bad at simple tasks like answering phones. There is no absolutely reason that "nice" people should get stuck with the shittiest work all the time, especially if it happens because do it better than people (often men) who can' be bothered to do admin work correctly. All of that said, no one is ever too good to answer phones. The healthiest office environment I have ever been in is one where everyone up to and including the chief of staff helped man the main phone lines on days when there were more calls than the receptionist could manage alone. I completely believe in the value of administrative work and the importance of, from time to time, reminding other people in the office about what it's like to be at the bottom of the totem pole - as long as that's everyone and not just the women, 'cause "gosh they're just so friendly and answer phones and greet people so well!"
posted by naoko at 4:32 PM on December 15, 2010

Data point: at my old internship, I had to do some stuff all day at the CCO's desk. I got all kinds of funny remarks ("hey [CCO], new haircut?" "movin' up fast, eh?" "chair looks mighty comfortable, right?"). It's sort of funny to look at the receptionist's desk and see an engineer there, just as it's funny to walk past the CCO's desk and see an intern there.

While the comments made to B were still annoying and inappropriate and latently sexist, I would try to bear in mind that her co-workers probably had no intent whatsoever to be demeaning, even though that was the end result. They were probably just being jokey, without thinking through what they were saying about receptionists and women in general.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:41 PM on December 15, 2010

I'm interested in the fact that you're highly concerned, and burning this many cycles, second-guessing a decision made by a presumably trained HR person (see 3rd paragraph from the bottom), and seem to only be barely concerned in passing, if at all, by the fact that you work at a company where the corporate culture is "the producers are men, and the support staff, who are held to be way lower on the totem pole, are mostly women."

I mean, your company sounds like the engineering version of "Mad Men," and not because they asked one of the female engineers to ride the receptionist desk. Frankly, one of the best signs that your office culture isn't completely sick is the fact that she got ribbed about it. That's a sign that a) they're comfortable enough with her to kid her and (b) they actually noticed that she was doing a job that isn't her "natural role," as opposed to taking it for granted that, well, yeah, she naturally dropped into that desk because all the other "girls" are gone to lunch.

Don't get me wrong; something rings a little strangely about the "more comfortable in that desk than your own" remark, because it seems like a PA slap at her competency in her actual job. I would read it that way regardless of gender roles, not having body language, knowledge of their normal working relationship, etc. to work with.

But honestly, most people, I've noticed over the years, just can't resist making weird and awkward remarks about anything out of the ordinary. Anything from getting a new car to wearing a hat when you normally don't. I don't know why. But most people do this, and I don't think you can change it. But you can go crazy trying.

And to chime in along with some of the folks in admin and the like who have already pointed this out, I realize it's not cost-effective to have someone who is acutely qualified in a narrow area get their time frittered away by tasks better done by generalists, but it might pay you personally, and/or your company in general, to rethink the value of some cross-training. And for whatever reason, there's something that rankles me about anyone feeling that a given task that is necessary for an office to function is demeaning, and this attitude is implicit in your entire question.

There's this school of thought among many people who are competent in some field that requires a lot of training and/or education, and that is that the rest of us in marketing, accounting, HR, etc. are just flying by the seat of our pants and that any monkey could do our job. I don't know if that's you, or the management of your company, but it does reflect the attitude of many engineers, including those I've worked for or sold systems to (God, don't get me started about trying to sell electrical equipment to EEs.)

I'm the general manager of an entire office, i.e. everyone in the building works for me, and I answer the frickin' phone every day.

Based on the time-stamps, by the way, I'm willing to bet that you lost more productive time stewing about this today than B did yesterday.
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:58 PM on December 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yes, this is bullshit. I would never agree to answer phones for my male coworkers. Nor would I agree to make coffee. Does this make me a bad sport? Maybe, but I don't work as an engineer at a company big enough to afford admins so I can fill in for them when they take a lunch outing. Picking one of the extremely few female engineers to fill in as the receptionist just sends all the wrong messages and is definitely worth having a conversation about.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:03 PM on December 15, 2010

I'm familiar with the faint feeling I'm getting slighted because I'm a woman... things are sometimes taken away from with with the premise of "helping", I'm assigned to less strenuous or skilled tasks, talked to like I don't know anything about the field, people censor their language around me, etc, etc. And there's never any one thing that is a giant red flag saying "hey!!! sexism!!!"

It's stressful being a woman in a male-dominated field because of the constant feeling you have to prove yourself, that you can't ever screw up or no one will take you seriously, and above all, that it's weird that you're there and they don't really know how to handle you in their relaxed boys club.

While I don't think any of what happened was intentionally sexist (it never is, is it?), I am will to bet it left a bad taste in B's mouth as well as yours. She couldn't say no to helping out the company she just got hired with, and while the ribbing was mostly good natured, those kinds of comments begin to wear on you. You wonder if people just think you're cute, not competent.

So, yeah, it's sexist. But probably not because anyone meant it to be. I might have a conversation about it, which sounds like what you're going to do. Seriously, thanks for having the (metaphorical) balls to say something. It's such a fraught subject.
posted by annie o at 8:09 PM on December 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Things like this have happened to me before - for instance, as someone's assistant I've been pushed into doing emergency childcare when I'm pretty sure a guy wouldn't be put into that position.

I'm as feminist as they come, but in the moment there's not much one can do. Usually I'll snark (with a smile/in a flippant manner), "Good thing your assistant has childcare experience, huh?" or, depending on the situation, "Are you sure you'd ask a guy to do this?" But I'll still do whatever the onerous shitwork task is, because I'm a nice person and I don't want to put anyone out.

My usual goal is that, through my joking, the person thinks about gender and what's appropriate to ask from an employee (or why they asked me instead of a male counterpart). Then again, if the person wants to be dense and just think I'm snarking, fair enough.
posted by Sara C. at 8:14 PM on December 15, 2010

I will bring it up with S but not make a big deal about it, just that I wanted her to know I felt a bit uncomfortable that she chose one of the few female engineers to fill in, instead of one of the many guys.

That's exactly what I was going to suggest, and I hope you'll be explicit about how she needs to be extra-sensitive to gender issues among engineers. Talking to her about your experiences as part of a male-dominated profession may make her more aware of this issue in the future -- even though it may not seem like a big deal to her, these little incidents add up. (For instance, I remember when I first started working at a software development job and wore a skirt, I got numerous comments from people assuming I was a secretary or a salesperson. I learned quickly to wear jeans like everyone else.)
posted by chickenmagazine at 8:49 PM on December 15, 2010

Even being approachable can be a problem - maybe S. was just most comfortable talking to B., but that could well be because they're both women and she feels more comfortable approaching her for help (female professors get this, from what I understand - everyone goes to them, even for things beyond the job description or for help finding buildings and other secretarial business, because they're more 'approachable'). I spend a good bit of my time at work (engineering, similar gender ratios, but the security guys are the ones who sit in for the receptionist ladies) telling other engineers on my team how awful writing documentation is and how much I suck at it, because every time someone thinks I don't mind it they start going on about how I should help with THEIR documentation because they just caaaan't seem to follow the template and doc control gets so pissssyyyy...

Also, I don't see the OP being mean to support staff here. Both do important work, but when someone says "all engineers should be men and all receptionists should be women", women are getting the short end of the stick. No amount of talking up the fact that receptionists do critical work on the part of the OP is going to make the position suddenly have the respect and prestige of an engineering job.

So yeah, I agree there's something here that the OP should bring up - just to let S. know that it's tough enough, it's NOT 'all the same' who she picks.
posted by Lady Li at 11:58 PM on December 15, 2010

It's hard to say in this situation if it was sexist, because it has only happened once. Possibly sexist, possibly not.

But I will chime in that I've been in this position before and it was 100% sexist bullshit in my case. I used to work in an office as a computer drafter, with other drafters as well as engineers. All females on my team, in addition to their technical duties, were expected to file, make photocopies, and get coffee for the boss.

Secretarial work is certainly not beneath me, I have worked as a receptionist before. Maybe that's the problem someone alluded to above. Women are more likely to have receptionist experience and are therefore slotted into the role, unconscious or not. Whereas men are assumed to be bad at this kind of stuff because they are less likely to have experience answering phones.

Anyways, be aware and watch out if this situation arises again. I'd stay quiet about it for now if it's just a one off thing. Definitely say something to hr if it becomes a regular occurrence.
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 12:37 AM on December 16, 2010

Of all the comments you quoted, "feels more natural in that desk than yours?" is the only one that strikes me as offensively sexist. Keep an eye on that jerk.

I would privately point out to HR that they were reinforcing a sexist stereotype to automatically ask a woman to fill in, and that it led to some insensitive/offensive comments. Next time they should just hire a temp. Yes, there's a 99% chance that the temp will be a woman, but that's a lot different than undermining the status of a regular employee.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:11 AM on December 16, 2010

Lady Li, thank you:

Also, I don't see the OP being mean to support staff here. Both do important work, but when someone says "all engineers should be men and all receptionists should be women", women are getting the short end of the stick. No amount of talking up the fact that receptionists do critical work on the part of the OP is going to make the position suddenly have the respect and prestige of an engineering job.

Secretarial work is not beneath me, I like it. I've coordinated a number of business development events in this office, and a lot of that was being the event secretary. I'm friends with the receptionists, if they had to step out for a minute and personally asked me to sit there for them I'd do it happily.

Being pretty much told to do it by a person of authority, however... If the office were half women, I'd not bat an eyelash at one of us female engineers being asked to do it. But there are 4 of us, one's chinese with a thick accent, and one's an older woman around 50. So that left 2 to pick from. OR like 25 young guys who know how to answer a phone too.
posted by lizbunny at 7:50 AM on December 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

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