To take the minutes or not to take the minutes. Six strategies to skirt around interfering gender biases.

Women get asked more than men, and volunteer more, to do undervalued and time consuming tasks at work especially the ‘office housework’. One perhaps easily overlooked example of office housework is taking the meeting minutes.

I was asked to take the minutes at a meeting recently where there was no admin resource. Now I accepted with a proviso, which I will get to, but the consequences for me of taking the minutes was striking. The agenda was so full, and the items went so fast, and the content so complex that all of my attention was on documenting what others were saying and deciding … I didn’t get to speak at all.

The more women volunteer or accept these tasks and do them instead of their male counterparts the less time they have to focus on vital leadership tasks. Leadership and career advancement requires, amongst other things, building visibility and credibility. Women can inadvertently undermine their efforts if they offer to take the minutes – (assuming this is not actually part of the job description).

If you are recording the conversation you are significantly less free to think and to speak. You can become invisible to those at the table. Recording is essentially subordinate to talking, contributing and deciding.

And thus, inadvertently, the ‘helpful’ task of taking minutes can disadvantage women especially over time resulting in in low visibility, low credibility.

Now in my meeting my proviso before accepting the task of minute taking was to request that the job rotates around the group and I then allocated men for the next two meetings. If you find yourself often taking the minutes there are things that you can do about it. I’m going to share 6 simple strategies that you can try out so you can free yourself more often to focus on contributing to the discussion and decision making rather than simply recording it.

Six Strategies to Avoid Minute Taking

  1. The first thing to do is simply to notice – when there is no admin support, who usually takes the minutes? How powerful is that person? Notice how others, especially men, avoid taking the minutes? How often do you take minutes? Do you volunteer or get asked? Why do you think you get asked?
  2. Don’t volunteer. Let someone else do the minutes even if they are terrible. Let go of time-sucking perfection and embrace ‘good enough’.
  3. If you don’t really need to bring a notebook or device, then don’t – it makes you an easy and obvious target for the chair to ask you to record.
  4. If do you need paper or a device then don’t put it on the table and make it visible until the minute taker has been chosen.
  5. Prepare a response if you get asked.
  • You know who would benefit from the experience …. / You know who would do a wonderful job…. / You know who hasn’t done it for a while (or never)… (insert male attendants name here)”. You are still being communal and thinking of others while at the same time setting a boundary.
  • Simply decline with no apology or explanation. “No thanks”
  • Decline with a rationale. “No, I can’t. I need to speak to (insert topic/s) today” or “I’m really keen to learn/get an update about (XXX) today. It would be great if someone else could do it.”
  • Decline with a statement about redressing the balance of women too often having the task of taking minutes and thus placing them in the subordinate position of recording and not speaking. (Choosing this option of course depends on your context and how safe it would be for you).
  • Accept with a proviso – consider the principles of quid pro quo or reciprocity. “Sure I can do it today if you will do (insert task) for me”.
  1. The fairest option is to ask that a roster is established – with everyone taking turns, not just rotating around the junior women!

I’m sure you’ll find that a full arsenal of strategies is needed to offer you choice and flexibility in responding to different types of meetings, contexts, levels of formality and power dynamics in the room. I’d encourage you to start small, experiment and notice what happens.

I’m keen to hear what strategies have you found work well to avoid time consuming and undervalued tasks at work?

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