Don’t Give In To Stereotypes

In the inaugural post on Women of HR, Shauna Moerke called for women (and men) to Be Subversive. As a self-proclaimed subversive, I loved it. I especially liked her definition of subversion:

Subversion isn’t about rebelling for rebellions sake, it’s about having the awareness to know the status quo sucks and doing something about it. It’s about holding firmly to your ideals and morals despite overwhelming pressure to give in. It’s about creativity, determination, empathy, and entrepreneurial spirit.

These are words to live by and the inspiration for my post.

W.C. Fields once said, “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” It may be bad form to quote this misanthrope for a posting on the Women of HR but there are lessons to be learned from everybody. My wife and I were recently discussing this quote as it applies to women in the workplace. She shared an incident with me where she and one other woman were attending a lunch meeting with seven men.  When lunch was over,  the other woman proceeded to clean the conference room table of all the lunch garbage. Nobody else lifted a hand.

My first thoughts were that some people do not pick up after themselves (slobs) and that this individual had been brought up well and wasn’t going to leave a mess. My wife saw it very differently. After 25 years as a working woman, she saw the men in the room expecting that “someone else” (most likely the female administrative staff) would  clean up the room. This woman, while a comparable organizational level as the men, took on the traditional “woman’s role” to cleanup. In doing so, she “answered to what she was called.”

Did this woman just like it neat or was she giving in to overwhelming stereotypical pressures? Was my wife’s generational view born of 25 years working with male chauvinists? At first, I honestly thought she was overreacting but I know my wife gets it. As a guy, I will never be able to understand the challenges, real and implied, that women face at work. It really baffles me that these challenges still exist.

Over my 24 year career, I have found the women who worked for me and that I worked for and with to be smart, hard working and focused on success. They knew what to answer to. I am working with some particularly impressive women now, namely a recent college grad and two interns. If they are representative of the women entering the marketplace, I am confident their generation knows what to answer to.

What do you answer to?  Let us know in the comments.

Photo Flickr

About the Author

Shaun Emerson

Shaun Emerson is a Partner at Tutto Persona. After 12 years with big companies, he has spent the last 11 years indulging his entrepreneurial spirit by starting two companies and running both a venture-backed and privately funded company. Shaun resides in Glen Ellyn, IL with his wife, a woman in HR, and his three kids. He blogs at Tutto Persona and you can connect with Shaun on Twitter as @shaunemerson and on LinkedIn.


Stephanie M Andrews

I agree with your wife. It is consistently the (same) women who organize events, and clean up after them.

Is it totally ingrained in me to pitch in – yup.

But do I also ask the guys to take out the trash after the staff bbq – you betcha.


I have experienced cleaning/not cleaning up at work as a power-trip thing before, but honestly I think a lot of that is in my head. Sometimes, for example, I have purposefully cleaned up a mess that was not mine because I didn’t want non-management employees to think I was a snob. That’s not a gender-role thing so much as my discomfort at being a senior manager. But I have also purposefully walked out of a room before the cleaning started in order to avoid the senario your wife experienced. Again, could be all in my head.

Interestingly, I have worked in both male-dominated and female-dominated offices where who made the coffee was not an issue; those who drank it, made it – but at an office with a balance of men and women, making the coffee was an ongoing battle. The employees who were assigned to make it & wash the pots (2 administrative women) were offended because it was “beneath them.”

Perhaps any domestic activity colliding with work grabs women’s attention? Puts us all on high alert for others’ perceptions, maybe.

working girl

Wow, tough one. Honestly, despite other challenges, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I HAD to clean up a conference room while the men sat around looking like they never had to throw away a napkin in their lives. There have even been times when I rushed out of a meeting without lifting a finger while male colleagues cleaned up after me. When I clean up it’s because I empathize with the person who has to do it if we don’t and rather than leave a big mess as a matter of principal, I try to do my part.

Maybe it’s less that men expect women to clean up after them (I’m not saying none of them do), and more that women are more likely to consider the feelings of the other person – in this case, the janitor.

Wait! I don’t mean that men are unfeeling toward others, but maybe women are more likely to think like this all the time while men sometimes, uh, need a bit of prompting.

Just a theory, no evidence. 🙂


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