Dear Mentor: My colleague treats me like his secretary

Dear Mentor,

Imagine that you are a young female professional who occasionally (or maybe not so occasionally) is instructed by a (non-supervising) older Male Colleague to do Simple Tasks that he could just as easily do himself with the same amount of time and effort he used to tell you to do them for him. Note that almost all of the time, these Simple Tasks are purely administrative, such as reserving classroom space or copying handouts, and are associated with his own professional work, not with shared departmental responsibilities or yours; there is rarely any question that these could actually be your responsibility. Note also that Male Colleague has had no peer or junior female colleagues in the past 20 years, and in fact you are now the first younger female colleague in Male Colleague’s department.

How would you respond the next time he "assigns" a Simple Task?

  1. "Sorry, I'm not your secretary." [said with a smile]
  2. "Gee, I'd love to help you out, but I just have too much on my plate. I bet our admin staff could help you out with that. Good luck!"
  3. "No, I am not willing to do Simple Task. And this is the third time this semester that you have asked me to complete tasks that are your responsibility."
  4. Forward his email request to your mutual supervisor and point out that this type of behavior is part of what contributes to an inhospitable climate for women in your male-dominated field and department.
  5. Start sending him email instructions on how he can provide secretarial-type assistance to you.
  6. Other

Thanks for your advice!

from an anonymous guest mentor

Dear Young Female Professional,

I smile at your sense of humor at the same time that I wince at these inappropriate requests from your colleague. No doubt you have tongue firmly anchored in cheek with proposed responses (1), (3), and (5). I expect (2) and (4) are the only ones you are seriously considering.

That said, I would actually suggest two different alternate possibilities (6 and 7?), as I think (4), though on the right track, could also be counterproductive. Forwarding email, rather than having an in-person conversation, is extremely unlikely to be an effective way to handle sensitive situations.

So, here are two alternate proposals:

(6) Call on a trusted mutual supervisor to negotiate for you.

It should not be your job to explain to Male Colleague how to relate to his colleagues appropriately; that should be your mutual supervisor’s job. Is that supervisor someone you can trust to recognize the inappropriateness of these requests and to be discreet, patient, and wise in handling this? Above all, do you trust your supervisor to fairly handle your tenure case? Will he or she recognize if Male Colleague is unfairly critical of you in the tenure process, and if so, be willing and able to make the case to the tenure committee for why his criticisms should be discounted?

If so, I hope you are keeping a record of inappropriate requests from your colleague. This would include copies of emails, a list of his verbal requests, and possibly names of others in the department who might have observed these requests and are likely to be willing to confidentially affirm your account of the situation. Schedule an appointment with your supervisor as soon as you can provide enough evidence to give him or her a basis for planning and taking action. Say something like, “I understand that because he is from a different generation and hasn’t ever had a younger female colleague before, he doesn’t necessarily understand that I am a professional colleague rather than his assistant. Are you able to help communicate that to him and bring these requests to an end, while helping us develop a truly professional working relationship?” Make it clear that you are willing and able to be patient with your older colleague as he learns to change his expectations. That doesn’t mean that you will do these Simple Tasks, just that you won’t hold these requests against him.

(7) In the absence of a trusted mutual supervisor, consider whether an in-person, carefully structured conversation with your colleague could be effective. Without a trustworthy and effective supervisor, this will be much more challenging to handle.

To maintain a good relationship, ideally you will communicate clearly and firmly that although you are very glad to put your professional expertise at his service when there are ways you can be a helpful professional colleague, these Simple Tasks do not involve that expertise and are not your job. Encourage him to ask the administrative staff for help. However, do your best to say this in a very matter-of-fact way that doesn’t leave the impression that you are angry or offended. (It is perfectly reasonable for you to be both angry and offended, but expressing those will almost certainly be counterproductive to achieving your goals of getting the requests to stop and still getting tenure.) If you are good at using humor in difficult situations, by all means do so.

To have such a conversation, you need a time to sit down and talk when you have his full attention, rather than just when passing in the hall. I don’t know enough about your situation to know how best to do this. Ideally, you could just stop by his office and say, “Do you have a few minutes to talk about departmental responsibilities?” Otherwise, find a way to make an appointment for something very neutral-sounding to avoid raising the emotional temperature, and keep things very matter-of-fact.

Without knowing your colleague personally, I don’t know if this is actually a good idea. I wouldn’t undertake this conversation on your own unless there is a reasonable chance that he will hear you and respond positively. If you do undertake this conversation with your colleague, I would protect yourself beforehand by seeking out a senior colleague who can be your advocate in the tenure process. Describe the situation and ask if he or she is willing and able to support you in dealing with this, by helping you figure out the best approach and by possibly writing a letter to your tenure committee if this should become a significant issue. This person doesn’t have to be your supervisor or even in your department, but does have to be someone both credible at your institution and who knows your colleague and your field well enough to be listened to at tenure time. If this colleague agrees to support you this way, report back afterward on how the conversation goes.

In addition, you should get advice from others who know him on how best to deal with Male Colleague. Having such sensitive conversations effectively also requires understanding that individual. What works for one person might not work for another.

As a last resort, your option (2) is reasonable. It unfortunately doesn’t communicate that this isn’t your job, so chances are good that you’ll keep getting these requests, but it does avoid confrontation. If you don’t have a supervisor you can trust to help you with this, and you are concerned that your colleague’s temperament won’t allow for productive direct communication, maybe it’s the best option in a bad situation.

Good luck!

Senior Female Colleague who made it through (so you can too)

from guest mentor Katherine Leary Alsdorf

Great question — one that I’m sure many of our readers have pondered. To be honest, I know I’d be angry, and I’m sure I’ve tried each of those responses, without any particular success.

I think the best place to start is with your own heart and to look at the anger or annoyance or whatever you feel comfortable calling it. We need to explore what’s going on in us and what’s going on between us and God as we respond to these kinds of situations. (There is no wisdom apart from him.)

Were I now in your situation and looking into my own heart, I’d find resentment, envy, entitlement, self-pity, and lots of documentation of injustice. In fact, I have a running log of injustices going all the way back to 11th grade when my Physics teacher told the whole class that women couldn’t work outside the home because they’d miss too much work each month during their menstrual periods! I confess that most of my career I’ve employed “worldly” strategies to respond to injustice — the clever retort, the sassy refusal, the attempts to call into question or even destroy the offender’s reputation in the organization — your tongue-in-cheek responses cover them all!

However, I believe the gospel reorients our hearts and gives us wisdom that at least has integrity if not resounding victory:

  1. The gospel tells us that God is fully aware of our situations because in fact he has us there for his purposes — either for good work in us or for good work in our environment, or both. We can’t accomplish anything truly worthwhile without God working in and through us.
  2. The gospel tells us that the world is broken — there are thorns and thistles everywhere! Your male colleague is, in this behavior, a thorn and we’re not entitled to work without thorns this side of the Fall.
  3. The gospel tells us that even we are broken and can be thorns and thistles. While we all long for the Garden of Eden, when good work was fruitful and meaningful, that longing can turn from something that draws us to God to something that makes us bitter and resentful. I realize I am downright envious of some of my white male colleagues — at least for the absence of such injustices in their work lives — and that envy hurts me far more than it hurts or changes them. When we have owned up to and repented of our sin that can keep us from a vibrant relationship with God, he is better able to work in and through us.
  4. The gospel tells us that in all the work we do, we should work as for the Lord. Continue to thank God for the joy you find in the work itself, regardless of how you might be treated.
  5. The gospel will continue to renew and redeem all things — sometimes even before our very eyes. Can you pray for this colleague? Can you truly care about him enough to want him to have a real relationship with Christ? Hope in the things unseen.

With our hearts in a better place and our hope in the gospel, we might be able to both imagine and implement some new, creative solutions. We might be able to say:

I’m happy to help you this time because I care about you and I want you to succeed, but my own workload might make it impossible for me to help you next time. Maybe we could take some time and talk about how we could help each other.

On the other hand, sometimes even our most sincere, loving behavior may not reduce an injustice. Certainly many Christians have suffered injustice, and sometimes the very suffering has served God’s purposes. I hope you will pray to hear from God and that you will find wisdom that only can come from him. Let us know what happens.

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