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Career Women and the Helper Role

September 12, 2011

I just dove into another great career book for women, and was completely unsurprised to read that at work, you should never volunteer to make copies, get coffee, or other “helper” type jobs when everyone in the room is an equal.  It’s not surprising that careerist are advised not to do such things, but what if you are already stuck in it?

When I joined my team, I was assigned the role of “running the weekly meeting” and creating the status slides (which means I asked everyone what they were working on and typed it up).  I was told that they have the newest person do this, but when two new people joined the team, the task didn’t shift.  That was my opportunity to speak up, and I didn’t take it.  Bad job SP!  Now both of those two people have been shifted to other sub-teams, and there are only 3-4 of us remaining.  I’m again the newest one.

It was a good thing for me to do initially.  It gave me visibility to all the people that attended & kept me in the loop.  But I don’t “need” the visibility anymore.  The right people already know me.  The most irritating part is that while I techincally “run the meetings”, whenever my lead is there (usually) he takes charge and runs pace/topics of the meeting while I mostly just flip through slides.  It makes me feel like a secretary.  This isn’t the first time he has made me the lead of something in name, but makes all the decisions himself.  I respect his right to make the decisions, but don’t tell me I’m leading it when I’m really just maintaining the status of it.  Right now, I don’t see a way out of it.  It probably is best to wait this out – but I’m never going to miss an opportunity to speak up again.  Lesson learned.

(I do largely make people put in their own status – that just makes sense.  But I can’t seem to get out of being the chart flipper.)

I have another coworker who routinely tries to get me to “help him” with his work by delegating (menial) tasks to me.   The last time I agreed to help this delegating coworker, it was frustrating.  It took me longer to get set up and going with the software that it would have took for him to just do it himself.  My other (male) coworker stopped by and said “Oh, you are helping with that?  I told him I didn’t have time.”

The truth was, I didn’t really have any more time than this guy did.  I could make time, but it wasn’t a good use of my skills & time.  Still, it never really occurred to me that saying no was an acceptable answer.  A light went off in my head.  The next time my delegating coworker asked for help, I told him I was swamped and couldn’t do it. It worked.  (I recognize that there are certain things & people I should say yes to, but that doesn’t mean I have to say yes to everyone & everything.)

I’ve been working really hard to change the dynamic between me and the delegating coworker.    When I first started, it was fairly appropriate for him to delegate small tasks to me  because I was new and didn’t have that much responsibilities of my own.  At this point, it is simply no longer appropriate.  I do not report to him and I’m not really involved in his work.  He already has someone working part time whose role is, essentially, to help him.  Unsurprisingly, this person is a woman.

If you are a woman, do you find yourself getting placed in helper roles?  Do you have to actively try to avoid being stuck in them?   I think this is probably most common in male dominated fields like mine.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. September 12, 2011 5:57 am

    During my first internship, I was an assistant to the department, so the purpose of my job was a helper role. At first, people walked right over me and bombarded me with demands and didn’t see my real potential. I was firm with people – when they asked me to do things that they themselves could have just as easily done, I would instruct them how to do it, or, if they refused to be instructed, let them know (somehow) my thoughts on it.

    I hated being in a helper role, and my new internship is nothing like that. I have so much freedom that sometimes I’ll be locked in my office all day and nobody will check in on me until lunch.

    • September 12, 2011 7:52 am

      I hate it too. It’s hard when you are both young and relatively new and also a woman. Because generally, young & new people get stuck in helper roles to start regardless.

      (To my delegating coworkers credit, I noticed he’ll happily delegate to anyone willing to let him. It’s not a sexist thing, but women are less likely to say no.)

      I’m glad you have more freedom now!

  2. September 12, 2011 7:02 am

    Can I ask what book you are reading? I work in a mostly female field, however my field does have a sort of class system. Even though I have two advanced degrees and I’m intelligent I find that I’m often asked to take minutes at meetings. I hate it because it makes me feel completely undervalued. It is hard to break those roles, especially when it is a VP level asking you to do these things.

    There are a lot of mistakes I’ve made in current job that I won’t make in my next job. I really have learned from my mistakes.

    • September 12, 2011 7:51 am

      I’m not done yet, but i was maybe going to talk more about it later. I mostly have just skimmed it, but it has lots of things you can implement. So far, I definitely recommend it!

      I agree it is much harder when it is VP level people. And sometimes if you are brought in at as someone newer, it is hard to change people’s perceptions and you just have to move. (But the book didn’t say that, I’m just speculating.)

  3. September 12, 2011 8:15 am

    Thanks! I think I might invest in the book. I’m very conflicted about my job and future right now so I’m actively looking for things to help me figure out what is next.

  4. September 12, 2011 7:15 pm

    Fascinating post! I think it’s important to be aware of this. I am a teacher, so it’s a little different, but I think it’s good to keep in mind not to trade in your professional power.

  5. deenadollars permalink
    September 12, 2011 8:54 pm

    This was a problem at my last job. It was entry-level, so of course at first there were many things that I was supposed to be the “helper” on, and I was willing to pay my dues. However, I noticed that male hires were asked to “help” more on substantive projects, and I was asked to “help” make phone calls, make copies, send faxes, and do secretarial work. It wasn’t that they thought I was bad at substance, they just didn’t realize they were doing this. One of my bosses told me, “don’t be too good at organizing meetings, you want to be the one presenting at them,” and I took that advice to heart. I eventually put my foot down and started demanding to do the substantive projects and saying no to the secretarial work. I did not mention that it was a gender complaint I had – I feared being seen as whiny or inflammatory – instead, I used my tenure there as an argument against doing menial tasks. I think you have the right attitude, and now that you’re aware of what is going on you can avoid it in the future.

    • September 13, 2011 10:28 pm

      Yeah, it’s tricky. Even if you think it is at least subconsciously somewhat gender motivated, it is almost never a good idea to mention that. Your approach was much smarter – it helps if there is someone younger & newer (and maybe male?) that can be doing those sorts of things

  6. Serendipity permalink
    September 13, 2011 11:58 am

    I try not to be in helper roles but sometimes I do get stuck helping people here and there, doing things they can easily do themselves. I mainly think that it was because of my old supervisor but I am much much happier I can work directly with my current supervisor. I think a lot of things were getting lost in transition.

  7. September 13, 2011 11:59 am

    Oops my comment ended before I was done. Although now I don’t think I will find myself with helper roles, it’s a good thing to note because I can easily see how women can get pigeonholed into this. We are way better then making copies 😉

  8. September 13, 2011 12:59 pm

    I have that book! Haven’t picked it up in years, but I remember really enjoying it. Maybe it’s time for another skim. I seem to recall it saying something about not putting candy/food out for people so you don’t come across like a mom/housekeeper/caretaker on the job. To your post though, I think women in general think that working “harder” – i.e. doing as much as possible even if it’s beneath you – is necessary and beneficial to getting ahead. The reality is that saying no, delegating, and skipping out early now and then to have happy hour with some colleagues might actually give you more power, more allies at work and – eventually – more raises/promotions as people see you as a decisive leader type who is in control of her own workload. It’s hard to walk the line especially when you are young, but women in particular need to remember that offering to do menial tasks only makes people mentally assign you to a menial category.

    • September 13, 2011 10:30 pm

      Exactly. I would never put candy out (though when i think of the 3 people in my office that do, two are men!) because it isn’t really my personality. However, working “harder” to be helpful is definitely something I would do.

  9. Alice permalink
    September 13, 2011 6:45 pm

    More of this please! I’m about to graduate college so it’s nice to see practical career advice from a young woman who’s already in the working world especially since as young women, we usually have to deal with extra problems and issues.
    I will definitely remember to speak up for myself in the workplace.


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