There is a memory from secondary school that is as sparkling as sunlight. In it, my mates and I had gone on a school trip and food was packed for all of us. There were other girls and boys my age in the bus but for some reason, the lead male teacher asked me to share lunch.
I ended up sharing the lunch to other people and ideally it should not cause me so much anger. But it was his statement shortly after he asked that still pisses me off till today. He said: “Be our mother for today”. I wanted to ask him why he couldn’t tell any of the boys to share the lunch and still be the father. Was he trying to imply that cooking and food were inherently female domains?
When a dear friend on Twitter told women not to take on the duty of serving food and tea in the office but instead to stare if it wasn’t in our job description, the memory came back sharply. Yes she was talking about the office and not school, but still it irked me, that even in professional spaces where men and women are meant to leave gender roles behind, women get the shorter end of the stick.
I say this because as rightly pointed out by someone in her comment section, no matter how much men are touted as providers, men in the office understand boundaries. This is such that if a woman is their colleague and not their wife or family member, they do not give money without the knowledge that it is to be paid back.
Infact, it hardly occurs to women to ask their male colleagues for financial help. If anything, women in the office are likely to ask other women for financial help. Still, it is not uncommon for women across the world to be asked with so much audacity to serve tea, serve food and be unpaid event planners.
It may not even be in the office and can be during conferences where women expect to be asked to bring things like water for male colleagues in tones that often suggest that it is their God given right as men to have a personal servant in any location they find themselves.
But why is this so? Why is the delegation of domestic duties to women in the workplace so normalised? Why are women made to do things that step out of what their contract states? Even more, why is it that women who state explicitly that they shall not be anyone’s personal office chef may even get more bullying from their fellow women in the office?
To further understand why women are made to behave like unpaid stewards in professional settings, I spoke to a few women.
Speaking with Nana, a writer and social media manager, she told me how she once volunteered with an NGO that instructed women in the office to cook from home and bring it for the events.
She went on to explain how there were three women and eleven men in the office and although she had told them that she hated going to the market and preferred to emcee the event, they said women should cook and bring the food for the event which she did not do.
Because of her insistence, they eventually ended up contracting the food to cooks and the women in her office didn’t cook again. She also gave another example of another workplace where a man continually complained of how the office fridge was dirty even when there were women and she was the only woman in the office. To that, she said she just kept ignoring him.
For Nafisa, a blogger, cybersecurity expert and student, she mirrors the words of Nana when she shared her story to me.
To quote her: “I’m a research student and that means we do host defence twice a month; now during defence they always do item 7 and the ladies in that department are in charge of organising and sharing.
There are forty students in my department and only six girls, which means that there is a probability that a lady might not defend that month.
Now on three occasions, all boys had presented and for item 7 they were always asking the ladies to help them organise and share refreshment.”
She went on to say: “Now this is the interesting part, they had never asked me, which I figure out is cause of the following:
1. I hardly eat or drink what they are sharing unless I am defending that day.
2. I’m very vocal about how it is not the responsibility of a gender to do a certain duty, so I guess that might be the reason why.
3. They believe I have pride because I try to do everything on my own.
4. On days, I am not defending, I ignore everything and sit comfortably while sipping my water, watching Asian drama or reading.
But if you are my friend and you are defending that day, and you ask me to collaborate with others I will.”
Another woman who prefers to be anonymous had this to say about taking notes in meetings. She said: “I used to be a note-taker during meetings until I eliminated keeping track of when the meeting started and condensed all the useless talk into – Topic + Action item + person responsible. They didn’t want me taking minutes after that.”
For Aisha, a writer and journalist, she said that she has never felt the need to share food in meetings because paying attention in the meeting is her priority. In her words: “I have never felt the need to share food when I’m the only woman in a meeting. I’ve worked in spaces where I was the only woman, and whenever we are at a hang-out or a meeting with snacks, I sit down very comfortably and act like I don’t know what’s happening. I believe if, as a woman, you feel the guilt or whatever pressure there is to do this…Then it would help if you unlearned it.”
She went on to say: “You should be paying attention in the meeting or at least be comfortable. You’re not a maid or the waiter at the table. I understand the one at birthdays if there is no father or male relative around. But if there are men that can help out, why should they sit down?”.
Gender roles are the bane of women’s existence because it even affects the women who have no plans of marrying or living with men.
If women are expected to take on menial tasks in the office, it can create resentment and that can affect our productivity.
Angel Nduka-Nwosu is a writer, journalist and editor. She moonlights occasionally as a podcaster on As Angel Was Sayin’. Catch her on all socials @asangelwassayin.