118

I am a young female engineer fresh out of school. I am a few months into a new job at a company that is less than 100 employees. My company has very few women, most of which are on the admin team.

One of the executives asked me to do some work that is clearly the responsibility of the admin team. At first I just thought he was asking for a favor but I realize that he assumed that I am on the admin team and isn't aware I am actually an engineer.

I tried signing my emails to him with my professional signature (including job title) to get him to realize his mistake but it hasn't worked.

How do I tell him that I am an engineer and that the work he assigned me is not appropriate?

  • 26
    Having been an engineer/developer over the years, there have been many times when I've been asked to do something that could and/or should have been done by someone in an admin - is the work ongoing? Is he making more requests than just this one? – HorusKol Nov 1 '17 at 21:27
  • 13
    I guess it would depend on the task and how closely related to your normal work that task was. Just because it is something an admin could do, does not necessarily mean its something an admin should do. Is it possible that the exec wanted to make sure it was done with a professional eye? What was the task and how did it relate to what you do? Is it possible you are just being overly sensitive because you think it may be demeaning to you rather than just assuming you were an admin? Do you work with this exec? – IDrinkandIKnowThings Nov 1 '17 at 21:40
  • 83
    It would help if you could describe more precisely what sort of work you're talking about. Especially, are you say "the admin team" are you talking about business administration (i.e. something an administrative assistant should do) or are you talking about systems administration (i.e. something IT should do?) I read it as the latter at first, but some comments and answers seem to have taken it both ways. As others have said, software engineers doing stuff IT could do is completely normal, especially at smaller companies. – reirab Nov 2 '17 at 7:10
  • 5
    Can you be clear that you are being asked to do tasks that your male counterparts are not. – Strawberry Nov 2 '17 at 13:03
  • 3
    What exactly is your concern? Do you think you're not qualified for admin duties? Do you think admin duties are lower status? Is doing admin stuff taking time away from your normal duties? Also, is it really safe to assume that non-tech people can tell the difference between admin and engineering? You saying "I'm an engineer not an admin" to the exec could very well be like saying "I'm a key grip, not a dolly grip!" to someone who doesn't know anything about movies. – Acccumulation Nov 3 '17 at 3:37

11 Answers 11

202

Could you raise it to your manager? (Assuming that someone sits at a level between you & the exec, e.g. a head of engineering) A few months in the door & at a junior level, it makes sense that you don't want to push back to the person on the board.

You could simply ask them for a word & say something like:

The other day, X from the exec asked me to do [admin style task]. I'd be happy to do it to help him out, but I wanted to check if with you if it's something you think I should be working on?

I got the impression that the reason he asked me to pick it up was that he thinks I'm in the Admin team.

I'd imagine that your boss would be in a position though where they know the exec better (if a small 100 person company), and they'd be able to raise it quite easily, in a way that's not a big deal, but without you worrying about affecting your impressions with senior management.

Hey, you asked user79040 to take a look at task X. Is there anyone from admin that can pick this up? You know that she's in my team right? I've already got tasks that I'd like her to pick up.


Edit: Just to add, as a junior engineer, I'd also always be asking myself — is this something I can apply engineering know-how to? (If you have some downtime), is there a way that you could automate this task, if you do/did pick it up? Would be nice to be able to go back to the exec & say, task X is finished and next time it can be done in 5 minutes instead of 1 hour because I've automated it — then he'd remember you were an engineer :)

  • 10
    Good answer - and even if the exec had asked to do something that the OP thinks is more in their area, the OP should still run it by their immediate supervisor for two reasons: a) the supervisor is responsible for tasking the employee, and the exec bypassing the supervisor is a mild inettiquete; b) the OP will eventually have to explain to their supervisor why their assigned tasks were delayed by the exec's request. – HorusKol Nov 1 '17 at 21:30
  • 78
    It's important in any situation like this to make sure your manager knows someone else directed you to do a task he or she doesn't know about. It's up to them to decide if it's something that you should be doing or what to do about it if that's the case. – StephenG Nov 2 '17 at 5:16
  • 15
    @TonyEnnis You're recommending that a new entry level employee tells their manager they're not going to do something an exec asked them to do? I can't imagine that going well. OP isn't the one who makes tasking decisions. – user812786 Nov 2 '17 at 13:56
  • 4
    @whrrgarbl - If the direct manager doesn't know about a time consuming, recurrent task their team member is working on, it's the responsibility of the team member to bring this up. The boss decides how to handle. – Jirka Hanika Nov 2 '17 at 17:56
  • 6
    Emailing one's supervisor on this also establishes a paper trail. That's potentially useful in and of itself. – Charles Duffy Nov 2 '17 at 23:29
79

The other answers are also valid, but none have mentioned this idea yet: When tasked with an admin task from an exec, try one of the following responses

  1. Sure, I can do that, but can you clear it with my manager, <manager's name>, first so they know what I'm working on
  2. Sure, I can do that, but it will mean stopping work on <engineering task>

Both of these responses make it clear that you are an engineer by forcing the exec to consider; either your direct superior (scrum master, tech team lead, whatever engineering manager title), or your current task (obviously engineering related, since you're an engineer).

  • 9
    One should just say "I think that is something admin would handle, please have a word with them". – camden_kid Nov 2 '17 at 9:33
  • 62
    @camden_kid a response like that to an executive that asked me to do something, provided it was legal and work related, would be one-hundred percent unacceptable where I work; others should consider their workplace culture carefully before attempting that response – John-M Nov 2 '17 at 11:50
  • 9
    Definitely agree with @John-M. The two responses posted in the answer would be acceptable where I work. The response in the comments would not be acceptable at all. The two in the answer give the impression of "YES, I can and will do that but have you considered..." whereas the response in the comments comes across as "NO, I will not do that, talk to X,Y or Z instead". – Kalmino Nov 2 '17 at 13:01
  • 8
    It should be worded something like "This is something that an admin would be much better at than an engineer..." – Mr Lister Nov 2 '17 at 13:22
  • 16
    @industry7 A janitor may or may not be capable of a programming task, so no. A programmer is probably more than capable of mopping a floor, and probably should if getting that floor cleaned is important and no janitor is around. – Jeff Lambert Nov 2 '17 at 14:41
48

I have had this happen to me at every single job except my current one (we have a female CEO and female VPs).

Also, we expect junior people to do tasks seniors don't want to do. Don't make a big deal if junior men are also asked to make copies or whatever.

For the last 40 years, my response has been:

"I'll get Mary in admin to do this for you."

or

"Admin is the third door on the right. I work in Software Development." (this one is best for total strangers you have never seen before.)

It gently makes the point that you are not in admin and lets him know who should be doing it.

For the hard core who don't get it after a gentle reminder, I tell them what I am working on in some nasty technical detail and ask if this is higher priority. Surprisingly, sometimes it is.

If you are not junior and he persists, delegate it to a male who is junior. (for those who object to this, I am not saying all suck tasks should go to junior men, only that she needs to do it to make a point that if this is unacceptable for the man to do it (as it likely would be), it is unacceptable to ask the senior woman to do it as well. Delegating to a junior woman doesn't make that point.)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – enderland Nov 3 '17 at 21:35
  • Good. This establishes right from the beginning that this is not the type of work you do. Don't let others dictate your work level by their ignorance. – Möoz Nov 6 '17 at 3:28
  • 3
    OP indicates she is fresh out of engineering school, and thus is in the junior position. As such, it would be better to respond "let me check with <insert engineering manager's name> and make sure they're okay with me doing task X you've asked". The name drop may cue them in that oh, you're in engineering, not admin, and asserts and respects the chain of command without outright refusing the task. – Doktor J Nov 6 '17 at 15:31
25

Admin team is probably not very happy with you doing their work outside of their control either.

The most elegant answer to that executive would be: Sure I can solve this. Let me take it to the admin team for you. They get upset if I mingle in their responsibilities and as an engineer I am not really that proficient with those tasks anyways.

Do this for a few occasions and this person will learn to go to admin directly.

If it keeps stealing your time, you can go a little bit more aggressive: Sure I can help you, I am just on task X, does this have time till I´m done or do you want me to reschedule X?

Always stay positive - educating your managers takes a lot of patience and forgiveness :)

  • This is one of the better answers. Except that the engineer should not "Take it to the admin team". Let the exec do that. There is no reason for the engineer to own any of this. "ExecMan, I'm in engineering, perhaps (boss of admins) would be get you a faster result." – Tony Ennis Nov 2 '17 at 10:53
  • 4
    @Tony Ennis: While you are technically correct, there are places where such an attitude can create problems for you. Especially since OP used to just do these tasks in the past and is relatively junior. – Daniel Nov 2 '17 at 11:11
  • 1
    @TonyEnnis Actually, this is the correct response. The exec asked YOU to do it, and so you do have a responsibility. Once you give this response, the exec is most likely going to back down on the request (if it indeed was mistaken identity)... and if they don't then you could ask the exec to accompany you to the speak with Admin Team (I don't have the authority to assign tasks to Admin Team). If he says no, then you go first to your manager, explain the situation and then both of you go to the Admin Team. – Phil M Nov 2 '17 at 17:43
  • Where does OP say she used to do these tasks in the past? – Herb Wolfe Nov 2 '17 at 20:01
  • 2
    I'm going to agree with @Daniel on this... You want to be positive (Sure I can help!) but keep the task where it should be (With the Admin Team). Nothing wrong with That's not my responsibility, but I'd love to introduce you to John from the Admin Team. I know he'll be happy to take care of this. - The Exec wants it solved. That doesn't really mean you have to DO it... You can help solve it by facilitating the right connections, opening a ticket, etc – WernerCD Nov 3 '17 at 15:30
25

Contrary opinion: just do the task that was asked of you.

It sounds like your company is small enough that the expectations of the employees are still quite fluid. But even at a large firm, balking at a task that you're competent at doing because it's "not in your job description" is not a helpful attitude.

If you believe the work is distracting you from other higher-priority tasks, let the exec and/or your manager know. If you think you're being given menial work that your male coworkers of equal experience level are not, that is a separate and more serious issue.

EDIT: In the context of computer science, "admin work" means resetting passwords, figuring out why the web site is down, etc. It is legitimate and often business-critical work (though sometimes disparaged). In no way am I suggesting that the OP fetch the boss's coffee. There was no coffee in the OP.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – enderland Nov 3 '17 at 22:04
  • 14
    As an admin, I literally don't know how to do software engineering tasks, and I definitely don't want any software engineers to even have the user privileges to do admin tasks, much less actually attempt to do them. They won't know our standards, processes, documentation locations, etc. I don't even want them seeing admin tickets, in most cases. – Todd Wilcox Nov 4 '17 at 0:38
  • 2
    In the context of pretty much any business ever, "admin work" generally refers to stuff like HR, accounting, and office management tasks (ordering supplies, sending/receiving/distributing faxes and mail, etc). The edit you added would be referred to as "sysadmin work" or "IT work". As @ToddWilcox pointed out, even if your inference of the meaning of "admin work" is correct, it's not something engineers should have access to, or even if they do, should be doing. At the end of the day it'll just make more work for the people who are supposed to be doing that job. – Doktor J Nov 6 '17 at 15:34
  • As a developer who used to be an admin, I would not think of dabbling with tasks that are clearly systems or IT. Despite the fact I would likely enough not cause a disaster, there is simply too many bits and pieces you may not be aware of. However, I do take care of my own equipment ;) – bytepusher Nov 6 '17 at 22:32
10

Embrace the opportunity, or hand it over to the proper team

As an engineer myself, having worked small (<100 employees) to very small (<5 employees) to large and very large workplaces, there has never been an employment where I am not being asked to do administrative tasks.

You essentially have two options:

1. Embrace the opportunity

Avoid pigeon-holing because your title does not define you or your future. Just because your work title says "engineer" does not mean it is bad for you to do other tasks as well and find breadth in your experience. As such being asked to do other tasks is a learning opportunity and something that may sit well on your CV.

2. Hand it over to the administration team

In case you find that this task is unsuitable for you — in that it is taking time away from the tasks you were hired to perform and this side-task hinders you — then simply hand the task over to the people in the administration team. And when you are doing that, include the executive in the communication, such as cc:ing them in an email.

Something like:

Hello [admin team],

We have this administrative task that needs doing and I believe this belongs on your table.

[Task description]

[Signature, with title]

If said executive then makes a stink of this, then simply tell them that such tasks belong with that team; that they are more suited to handle the task; that your assigned work would suffer from being diverted away from it; and that you have seen to that the work gets done... because delegating the task to the proper team is a valid and prudent way of getting work done.

Just because you were informed of work that needs to be done does not automatically mean that you must be going through the motions yourself.

  • Doing admin tasks is not "broadening your horizons" or career prospects, as an engineer, in any positive way, and besides that you seem to have missed the (in my opinion both obvious and important) gender aspect of the question. – Casey Nov 2 '17 at 18:03
  • 1
    @Casey Why do I detect a certain, well, for lack of better word: snobbery here? Your comment — and when re-reading the original post — creates an air of that engineers are supposed to be better than admins and that the glorious, wonderful, precious engineer should not have to stoop so low as to do a lowly admin task. But I could be mistaken. So... am I mistaken? – MichaelK Nov 3 '17 at 6:55
  • 1
    I don't think I'm "better" than a janitor, but if I took an engineering job where they kept asking me to mop the building I would not be pleased. It's the same thing really. – Casey Nov 3 '17 at 11:13
  • @Casey So essentially you are saying that admin tasks are menial, low-qualification jobs that are beneath your position. I wonder if the admins agree with you on that one. As for my situation, which I used for my anecdote (anecdote, Nota Bene) the administrative tasks that I have been asked to do were neither of those things. Also I know for a fact that all administrators that I have had for colleagues usually pull a really heavy load requiring diverse and highly qualified skills and experience to perform. Maybe that is not the case where you or OP works, but in that case my point #2 applies. – MichaelK Nov 3 '17 at 11:24
  • 1
    The problem here is that we don't know if the OP is talking about a server admin or an administrative assistant, as @MichaelKarnerfors said. – Feathercrown Nov 6 '17 at 15:03
2

It's a small operation, but in a larger organisation, when I am asked to do something clearly beyond the scope of my normal duties it gets billed to the cost centre responsible at my rate. Get your manager to ask them for some budget at the end of the week and see how that goes down. This applies for work below and above my pay scale. Your manager's job is to fend off free riders.

Explain that you have been asked to perform tasks for X, and is this OK with them? You are their resource? Then explain the tasks are not terribly challenging nor a productive use of your time? If you did not have a lot of work on, it might be better to be busy than idle. Maybe not go so far as to ask for training as this may be interpreted as a change in career direction. Instead ask if the work can be transferred to an admin resource.

One more thing, are any of the other ladies there "token" or "quota" hires? Prejudicial attitudes can arise in these circumstances. Back to your manager then.

1

When being first approached by a task (especially in a larger organisation), it's always a good idea to remain humble and ask yourself 'is there anyone else who can do this task better than I can?'.

If the answer is yes, then your response to a non-relevant task is:

The best person for that is (name here)

Or a non-relevant question:

The best person to ask about that is (name here)

This constructively does a number of things; firstly, it indicates you're not the best person to ask for this particular task (IE your specialism lies elsewhere), it lets them know who is, and it redirects their effort to achieving their outcome (don't offer to contact the person or they might see you as a helper of some sort they can just run to. Offer up the contact details or best direction, or if you don't know the contact details, point to someone in your immediate vicinity who you think does).

Naturally, some execs might not take the hint and might ask pointedly:

Why can't you do it?

Which is why it's important to have completed the first step (by determining the best person for the task you've also answered this question). I try to remain humble here and say:

(name) knows (way) more about (thing) than I do, and he's part of (department) who (specialise/deal with) (thing), I'm 'just' a(n) (role)

So, I'll get asked 'can you reprogramme the printer for me?', I might reply 'It might be best to ask one of the other staff members here, as I only deal with computers, and I rarely touch the printer.'

If you don't know anyone specific, you can just shrug your shoulders and say:

Sorry, I can't really help you with that, as I'm 'just' a(n) (your role). Maybe someone down in (role) department can help you with that?

The above worked for me very well. I'm one of those 'all-rounder' job type males where people automatically assume if you can do one or several things really well, you can do everything, and I've often been asked to do tasks out of my depth or not related to my particular area of expertise (I'm actually a programmer).

You don't usually explicitly tell anyone you're any specific thing, you just infer that there might be other people far better suited to their particular query. This way, it avoids offense (because you're actively appraising other staff members and seeing them on an equal footing).

If they absolutely insist (as some are wont to do), then defer them to your manager (if they aren't your manager) as they're the ones who have to approve your reassignment (as they manage your time):

You'll have to have a word with (name of manager) about me doing (task), as (I don't know what they have schelduled for me yet/they might have to fit it into the schedule).

By requiring the exec go through the hoops of due workplace process, the chance of them returning to you with 'just a small favour' will diminish, and the honest execs will know the best place to make a direct port of call.

If they ask you to do the task, ask them if they've spoken with your manager yet, and then confirm with your manager. If they haven't left the spot and are still asking, simply defer again and say:

I think (name of your manager) has a (big) project planned for me today, so I can't commit to it right now. If you speak with (him/her) about it, I'm sure they can sort something out.

For your present situation, as you've already accepted, just repurpose the above phrase:

You'll have to have a word with (name of manager) about me doing (task) on a regular basis, as (I don't know what they have schelduled for me yet/they might have to fit it into the schedule).

Be like Wally out of Dilbert: Defer, defer, defer!

0

Being asked to do not your job actually happens quite often, especially to juniors. Juniors are not specialized yet and many people sees them as being able to be molded into whatever they need at the moment. Usually such requests are benign, that is the person asking doesn't realize there are other people better suited to do the job. Sometimes it's because the asker thinks that you're free or your current task is less valuable - such cases are more difficult to clear up. IMHO the proper way is to simply state that:

I think that team X is better equipped to do this job. / I believe this is within competences of team X. / I don't want to step into team X competences. / Please clear that with team X, I can't do their job behind their backs.

If that fails, or you don't know who's job is this: This task is outside my competences. Or simply: I shouldn't be doing that.

You have to put emphasis on being unfamiliar with company procedures for this task (therefore likely you're going to do it wrong) and/or not infringing someone's else turf rather than "I just don't feel like doing it." The important distinction here is that we're talking about the job you were hired, company trained and paid to do, not a task you CAN do. Although, as a junior, you may get asked to do chores - that's unprofessional but comes with your low position in the pecking order.

Another angle is to apply the feudal approach: manager of your manager is NOT your manager: Please run this through X. If the executive insists, then state firmly I am sorry, but X is counting on me doing the task Y, I can't abandon the work I've been assigned to.

It's important to never back off: Once you state that hierarchy carries more weight than exec's whim, you have to run this to the very end, that is actually checking that with that person/team. Otherwise you're effectively admitting that it was merely an excuse. Once you get cleared with the new task, do your best.

-2

It looks like there have been several good answers here for how to manager the situation politically. As an engineer who also has a degree on the side in Women's Studies, I can tell you that this is actually a critical issue for your career. There are about five main factors that contribute to women having lower pay than men. Two contributors are that

1) For the first job out of college, men tend to be given positions with a higher career ladder than women; and

2) Men tend to be given projects with higher career potential by default, whereas women have to ask for these projects.

These phenomena also affect people of color.

It is good that you are noticing this issue now and speaking up about it. Perhaps talk to your manager and question whether you should be working on the task; let them act as the intermediary to the executive. Also, during the discussion, reinforce that you would like to follow a technical track in your career.

Good luck!

  • This is an interesting comment and perhaps speaks to why the OP should tell the executive "I am an engineer" but has nothing at all answering the actual question, which is how to tell the executive that. Please don't remove what you've written, it's great, but can you add some material that actually answers the title question? – Kate Gregory Dec 23 '17 at 22:34
-4
  1. Update your LinkedIn profile. HR may notice.
  2. Actively look for another job, preferably with a much larger company.
  3. When you land a job at a company that properly values female engineers, you can explain in your exit interview that female engineers are clearly not supported at this company, and you are taking your skill set where it is valued. You can also suggest that they stop wasting their time hiring female engineers in the first place.

Believe it or not, there are companies which understand the value of gender diversity, actively recruit female engineers, and make sure they are treated equally. I work at one of them. The companies which do not understand that gender diversity is a competitive advantage must be punished in the marketplace by abandoning them.

Even if your current company is not Uber-level bad, it clearly has bad apples, and they operate at the executive level. Culture flows down. Which means that if the company grows, it will fill with more men who think and operate like the boss. Let them wallow in their own patriarchal failure.

The real challenge is if you really enjoy the work there. Maybe you work for a hot new startup and you are passionate about the work. Then you have the tough decision of deciding whether it's better to sell your soul working for someone who thinks you should be bringing his Starbucks every morning, or working for a less exciting company that will give you proper opportunities for professional growth and development. Nobody else can make that decision for you.

When looking for your next job, find some women engineers who work there, try to connect on LinkedIn, and ask them if the company properly values women. The market will eventually punish the less competent, sexist companies, but don't waste your whole career waiting for it punish yours. In the mean time, you can network with other women engineers at events like the Grace Hopper conference. There are lots of opportunities out there for meeting folks who are working in better environments. Find one near you, and go.

Everyone else is trying to be optimistic, even telling you to give in to the patriarchy. This is B.S. I am a man, an engineer, and I work for a Fortune 500 company. My current team is myself and 4 women. We do great work, and while no woman here will say that my company is perfect w.r.t. women, they will say that diversity is actively promoted and that women in leadership is a strategic goal which is measured on a monthly basis. People change slowly, and some people don't change at all. Your life and your career is too short to wait for your executive's attitude towards female engineers to change. You must punish him swiftly and effectively, by taking your skills elsewhere. Eventually he will learn, or his company will fail. But trying to reason with him will not get you anywhere.

Bad managers destroy teams. A good manager, in my book, is one who identifies the bad apples and does the difficult work of removing them from the team. I respect a manager who gets rid of bad apples far more than ones who deliver flashy projects. You spend 1/3 of your life in the office. Don't waste it on a bad boss or a bad executive that you report into. Your current boss is either powerless at protecting you from a backwards, patriarchal executive, or is also backwards and sees nothing wrong. They are part of the company culture. They are a bad boss.

You will likely switch companies many times in your career. Almost every time, it will be because you have a bad boss. Practice escaping right now, and leave your first bad boss. Then raise your standards when you take your next job. Ask the hiring manager about opportunities for women. Pose your very scenario to them and ask how they would handle it, and how they would expect you to handle it. If they don't give you a satisfactory answer, then say: "Thank you for your time" and keep looking.

No executive at my company would assume that a random female is an EA. It is possible, even likely that a random female is a Director or VP, making such assumptions extremely dangerous, from a professional perspective. Such companies exist and are dying to hire engineers like you. So stop fooling around, wasting your time, and get moving!

  • 8
    Please edit out the continued mention of 'patriarchy'. It negatively impacts the otherwise interesting contribution, making the tone quite bitter and sounding like conclusions have been arrived at without due consideration. Can you please also describe how to identify if a company properly values female engineers? I'm interested as my department massively lacks diversity and it makes my skin crawl. – Gusdor Nov 3 '17 at 16:01
  • 8
    Bad answer: Jumps to all sorts of unfounded conclusions and is tainted with politically corrected BS. – Vector Nov 4 '17 at 8:26
  • 5
    95% chance the superior is simply associating her with the other women in the company, or mistaking her for one of them. It would be different if women in that company were spread evenly among different job areas, but since they're all in one place, it's easy to say "Most women are in department X, and this person is a woman, so she probably works in department X." It's probably not sexism, just association/categorizing, which we humans seem to really like to do. – Feathercrown Nov 6 '17 at 13:54
  • As long and detailed as this post is, the essence is "quit your job," which, while it may be a valid answer, it's not a very good one and could apply to just about every question on this sight. "My boss is asking me to do something I don't feel comfortable with." Quit your job. "My coworkers are mean to me." Quit your job. "There's no organic lettuce at the salad bar." Quit your job. For all you know, the OP may be perfectly happy with her job despite this one small problem so it doesn't make sense to suggest quitting as the optimal solution. – AffableAmbler Dec 23 '17 at 23:52

protected by Jane S Nov 3 '17 at 3:33

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.