Sunday, December 2, 2012

Don't clean up.

The attentive ones among you may have noticed that this post first appeared a few days ago.  Still trying to figure out precisely how blogger works... *sigh*

Several years ago, when I was at the major conference for my discipline, I attended a session on Women in the [Field].  There was a panel discussion among five or six scholars at all ages of their careers, and they provided witty and insightful advice about navigating the gender gap in our field. When I asked what advice they would give a graduate student or untenured professor trying to sort through the gender dynamics in a hostile environment, the panelists all hemmed and hawed a bit, deferred to each other, and then the most senior scholar, professor emerita after a distinguished career, looked me straight in the eye and said:

“Don’t clean up.”

Her words stuck with me.  If you want to be seen by your [male] colleagues as a colleague, then you behave as they do.  They don’t clean up, so you don’t clean up.  If I am here as your peer, I will not do your dishes nor your laundry.  I will not take messages for you, or organize the transportation to other events.  I. Will. Not. Clean. Up.   

And I thought of her again last night, as after a department reception, I looked around and saw I was one of four students who had stayed to help clean up: three women, one man. 

When I first arrived in the department *cough* years ago, 2/3 of it was comprised of men, 1/3 of women.  That's evened out now to roughly half and half, and yet the women in the department still do the lion's share of set up and clean up for every event, as they did when they were the significant minority when I arrived. Especially clean up. 

I know all this, and it is crazy-making, and yet I do it.  So why do I clean up?  I've figured out a few reasons: I'm good at it, I notice when it needs to be done, I have a strong sense of community loyalty, I like to do what I'm requested to do, I feel terribly guilty about leaving someone else with a mess to which I (by virtue of eating cheese and crackers and drinking a glass of wine) contributed...

And there are all sorts of subsidiary problems here, particularly problems of class and economics.  Why is cleaning up such a menial task?  Why do we disparage those who do it?  What kind of privelege are academics embodying if we are defined as people who can't pick up after ourselves? 

Is the best solution really to plead senior student status and retreat before the time for cleaning up draws near? 



  1. I'm a cleaner-upper too, Lauren. Like you, it's something I know I can do. So when tables need to be set up or chairs put away or pizza boxes stacked up and taken to the dumpster, I pitch in. As a guy, I may be in a minority alongside the women, but it gives me a chance to chat with them and build more bonds in the workplace or ministries.

  2. Tim, I think you're right that shared work is a great way to bond with people. But what I was trying to address in this post was the gender imbalance in my professional academic life; why is it that, when the population of this community is majority male, the women are the ones doing the most work to make that community function? And what are the personal and professional consequences to buying into that system vs. trying to operate in a different way?

    So who throws away the pizza boxes doesn't really matter as much as who is seen to be throwing away the pizza boxes, whose role it is to throw away the boxes, whose role it is perceived to be to throw away the boxes, who is assumed to be responsible for the group, who is actually responsible for the group, etc, etc, etc

    1. Good questions, Lauren. My professions is heavily male, but when it comes to the type of duties you describe, men are as apt to jump up and throw away pizza boxes as women; I think that is not only reality but perception as well. But in workplaces generally, the gender issues are still dividing us instead of bringing unity within professions. Sad, isn't it?


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