#1 Take Notes
Do not volunteer to take notes, ever. Why? Because if you do it once, you will find yourself doing it again and again. You are or will become a technical expert. Neat handwriting and fast typing skills are not going to advance your career in a meaningful fashion. And that hour or more you will spend after the meeting to review, spellcheck, get a boss’s sign-off, and email those notes (assuming no one has corrections that require a revision)? Your peers were spending that time working on a technical project with much more visibility and importance to the boss than writing notes.
That time adds up. Which do you think will be more impressive to your manager at the end of week: “I sent out the meeting notes and didn’t quite get to finish your project” or “I finished that project you requested and started on the next one.”
I once had a manager tell me I was excellent at “documentation.” While I’m sure it was intended as complement, in an office of engineers that’s not what I wanted to be known for. Unless you want that to show up on your next performance review, reconsider ever (and I mean EVER) volunteering to take notes.
The only two exceptions I will make on this is if I am running the meeting, or if it is explicitly requested of me. I have headed off the explicit request in meetings by asking “Who will take notes?” before we start. That automatically implies that it won’t be me.
#2 Office Housework
Women in most offices do more “office housework” than men (if you don’t believe me, check out this interesting article), and in my opinion it’s even worse in engineering offices. Cleaning up from a lunch-and-learn, cleaning out the (admittedly nasty) refrigerator, taking out the trash because the cleaning company didn’t show up, and ordering supplies all needs to be done.
Once again, don’t volunteer.
Often that means you’ll have to put up with a mess for a while and simply pretend you don’t see it. Or, if you do find yourself “volunteered” or asked to do any of those things, enlist the assistance of your coworkers of both genders.
If you are at all like me, some of this behavior is likely automatic. I grew up as the oldest of 8 children so I understand how cleaning up after others can be an ingrained behavior. (See picture of myself and siblings from the 90's below, can you find me? If not, the video above has the answer.)
Just remember that time you are doing this is time you aren’t working on a meaningful project or expanding your professional network. Focus on your career goals and ignore the (hopefully temporary) office mess.
#3 Event Planning
Birthday celebrations, happy hours, golf outings, and lunch-and-learns all require planning and are common in many engineering offices. Professional connections who know and trust you at a personal level are extremely important to building your career. So, at first glance it seems logical and networking-expanding to be the office event planner.
This certainly can be true if planning is minimal and/or you can delegate “background” tasks. Calling your local country club to reserve a tee time and inviting your boss or a client is likely worth your time. Ditto for the 5 minutes it takes to reserve a table for a lunch meeting that expands your professional network, or throwing together a “let’s go to happy hour” email.
It’s a completely different matter to actually plan an event, even a small one. Take a small birthday celebration: even if all you are doing is a surprise cake at work, someone has to coordinate when, pick up the cake, and get plates and utensils. Unless it’s your work BFF - in which case I’d encourage you to get out of the office for celebration purposes – your time is well spent asking an administrative person in your office to take care of the details.
No administrative staff? Then, may I suggest that a professional, heartfelt, and preferably hand-written “happy birthday” note expressing your gratitude for the recipient’s professional skills on their special day would be more appreciated and remembered than a cake.
I love to bake, but if you’ve read my book you will see how bringing homemade baked goods into the office can go wrong. Enough said, don’t do it. (If you haven’t read my book, head over to the “book” tab to learn more – the baking story is in chapter 7).
#5 Saying “yes” all the time.
I am and have been guilty of this many times over. As women, we have been socially conditioned to say “yes.” We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, we often don’t like confrontation, and we were raised from childhood to agree with authority figures. We are also strong, smart, and high-achieving, yet we still feel a twinge of guilt any time we say no.
How does this show up at work? Responding to that late-night or weekend email. Taking on that extra project to please your manager when you know you can’t get it done without overtime. Rescheduling a lunch-time exercise session because a co-worker called you with his third last-minute request this month. Working overtime for weeks on end to meet deadlines. Cutting short a vacation (or not taking one at all!) because you have too much work to do.
This has nothing to do with being a team player, and everything to do with learning to set proper boundaries. The ability to set boundaries at work is a critical skill to learn as early in your career as possible.
To put this another way, I have a three year old. She will ask me for candy as a snack, “just this one time.” I almost always tell her no, but occasionally cave. The last time I said yes, she thought she should be able to have candy for snack-time for the next week and threw a temper tantrum when she did not get it. Why? Because in giving in that one time I set the expectation that I would let her do it again.
That is EXACTLY what you do when you think to yourself “just this one time” and agree to something you know, deep down, you shouldn’t. You set an expectation with another person – your boss, your client, your co-worker - that you will continue to answer emails off-hours, prioritize work above taking care of yourself, work overtime, and jump on another project without having discussed expectations with everyone involved.
“But,” you may be thinking, “If I say no I won’t be perceived as a team player or a collaborative person, which I know is important for career growth.” This is very true if you don’t know how to set clear expectations or say no with purpose. Here’s what to do instead:
On answering after-hours or vacation emails: Ask your manager/boss what the expectations are for answering emails after hours or on vacation. Many will tell you this is not an expectation if asked. If it is, ask how they would like you to monitor and document your time spent, and how you will be paid for this either in overtime pay or comp time.
Set the expectation with him/her that you will generally not be checking emails when not at work (since we all know a rested employee is a much more productive one). In the event of an emergency, he or she can call you directly. Most (good) managers won’t abuse that policy if you’ve had this discussion.
On taking on extra project requests: When presented with a request, do not automatically say “yes.” If it will take less than 5 minutes, do it immediately. If it will take more, stop and think for a moment.
Ask the person to elaborate on completion date, and their expectations as to time it will take for successful completion. Then, consider who is making the request, and if this person is someone with the authority to change your work project priorities? If so, when can you realistically fit it in?
Since you can only actually work on one thing at a time, what other projects would need to be moved down in the priority list if this new one is really the top priority? Are you the only person who can help? Or is someone else either have the time needed to address this task or is simply better suited to this particular request?
Let’s say you don’t think you can fit in this request and it is your direct manager who is asking. Instead of saying “No, I don’t have time,” you can say “I’d be glad to help you on this and already have a lot on my plate. What other projects can be a lower priority in order to complete this one first?” Do you see the difference? You just said no with purpose.
To be clear, I am not advocating that you say “no” all the time in your career. Saying “yes” early and often – especially to challenges that will help you learn new skills – is critical to having a fulfilling career. The important thing is to be intentional about why you are saying “yes”. Is saying yes moving you closer to your career goals? Or is it moving you towards frustration and burnout? Only you can know the answer to that question.
Looking for more books on behaviors and habits that are holding women back at work? Check out the two books below.