Written by Katie Bishop
Being talked over at work or forced to do “office housework” not in your job description can lead to low self-esteem and imposter syndrome. Two women reveal what they’ve learned from being walked all over at work.
Have you ever noticed you’re always the person making teas for the entire office? Perhaps you’re often talked over on Zoom calls, the colleague everyone dumps their admin on, or you’re always expected to take the meeting notes – regardless of whether or not it’s in your job description.
If the feeling of being the office doormat is familiar to you, then you’re not alone. Research suggests that women are 29% more likely than white men to do so-called “office housework” such as making coffee or organising team events, and only 8% of women say that they find it easy to make their voice heard at work.
We spoke to two women who have experienced being walked over at work to find out how it impacted them.
Jessica, 32, from West Sussex, works as a freelance hair and make-up artist. She’s often found herself being walked over at work and belittled by clients.
“My whole adult life I’ve been told that I look younger than I am. I just used to smile and never thought much of it. However, when I went freelance I started to notice an uneasy energy when I first arrived at a meeting with a new client. They either seemed slightly nervous or would talk to me in a very condescending or patronising way.
People would often seem surprised when I told them how long I had been working in hair and make-up and tell me that they had assumed that I was much younger. I often found that when they realised [I wasn’t as young as they thought] they would start to speak to me more respectfully.
My most memorable experience was being booked for a fashion editorial for a magazine. When I arrived I was met by the stylist, who asked if I was the runner for the day. When I politely explained that I was actually doing the hair and make-up she looked me up and down and suggested that I must be the assistant – I was shocked and embarrassed, as this was all said in front of the team that I would be working with for the day.
I completed the model’s hair and make-up, but for the entire time that I was working I felt bullied, pushed around and spoken down to. I drove home that evening feeling awful. It was obvious that the stylist thought that I was fresh out of training, but even if that was the case then that’s no reason not to treat someone with respect.
Unfortunately, this kind of treatment is still a regular occurrence for me. It has undoubtedly given me a level of imposter syndrome and an added layer of nerves before a new booking. I’ve learned to remind myself that how people treat me isn’t anything to do with me and my ability. It can sometimes be enjoyable to shock someone by how talented you are – it can be really satisfying when your work speaks for itself.”
Yasmin, 25, from London, accepted a job as a legal assistant during lockdown. But she quickly found that her boss had a tendency to walk over her employees.
“Like many people, I experienced a lot of job insecurity during Covid. I was eager to work and continue to develop as a professional, so I accepted a job as a legal assistant even though my background was in political science. I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn.
Unfortunately, I quickly found out that my boss could be horrible to everyone. I was once asked to buy a new kettle for the office. After I had gone home in the evening my boss texted me, calling me incompetent because I hadn’t washed it out. She continued to send me endless texts asking me how it was possible to mess up such a straightforward task. The job was advertised as a legal assistant – I hadn’t realised that I was going to be treated as a maid!
Once, when I had to quarantine for a week, my boss refused to pay me for the time because she didn’t “trust” me to work from home. She said that the broken trust was due to not cleaning the kettle. When I returned to the office, having taken two negative Covid tests, she still told me to go home.
Eventually, I handed in my notice. Even then, my boss just handed it back to me and told me to think about it. By the time I got home she had called me multiple times and messaged me asking to reconsider.
Being walked over at work taught me that you should never compromise when it comes to your mental health. I learned to stick up for myself in a professional environment, and realised how important work culture and decent bosses are to me.”
Victoria McLean is the founder and CEO of City CV. She shares her top tips to gain confidence and avoid feeling walked over at work.
Break out of the people-pleasing cycle
“If you’re a compulsive people-pleaser then you should identify why you feel pressured to keep others happy. Then think about what it’s costing you – time? Relationships? Integrity? Work/life balance? Once you’ve figured this out then it’s time to establish boundaries. Push back, provide a timeframe you could realistically help out in, or simply learn to say no. This brings me to my next tip…
Learning to say no
This is an artform that everyone can master. Saying yes to everything can be stressful and exhausting, and it impacts your success at work. So be polite but firm, clear but honest. Expect that you may get negative feedback and get comfortable with that. You can’t please everyone, and neither should you have to.
Deal with imposter syndrome before it impacts your career
A lot of us experience feelings of doubt, or the sensation that they are a fraud. This can be exacerbated if you are being walked over at work. So first of all, know that you’re not alone. Remember that you earned your job and were chosen to be where you are based on skills and experience. Keep track of your successes so that you have physical proof to look back on. Talk your feelings through with your mentor or manager. And most importantly, be kind to yourself.
Working from home? Set clear time boundaries
Remote working has brought fluidity to the nine-to-five, a different approach to childcare, and the feeling that our laptops are seemingly fused to our fingertips. This can make it easy for bosses or colleagues to take advantage of your time. Establishing clear ‘time zones’ when you are available, and periods where you are away from your screen is important to avoid working (and overworking) at all times of day and night.
Don’t settle for less than you deserve
Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, and everyone deserves to be happy. Compromising on any of that, no matter where or who the compromise is coming from, is a choice. Remember that you can always choose what’s best for you, whether that’s a new job or a new attitude.
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