The roles women choose to fill—and the ones that are chosen for us

Photo by  Geneva Boyett

Photo by Geneva Boyett

I make really good banana bread. It’s not a skill, exactly, because banana bread is easy to make, but it is a fact. I make really, really good banana bread.

I used to make the bread and bring it into work, where I’d leave it unlabeled on the “free food counter” every office has. Most of the time, no one asked who made it; they ate and enjoyed and moved on. Ideal. Then, once, I added chocolate chips instead of my signature blueberries, and people started investigating. Two male coworkers found out I was the secret banana bread baker (say that five times fast).

“You need to take credit for your work,” said one, which was kind.

“Now I see why you spout all that feminist stuff. You’re secretly a domestic goddess,” said another, which was not so kind. I stopped baking banana bread.

There’s a certain joy in providing for others, especially if it’s something you’re good at, that I think a lot of people, men and women, understand: You cook someone a meal, they enjoy it, and you feel like you’ve added value to their life.

But when you’re a woman, that joy is often stifled, both at home and at work, because once the role of caretaker is forced upon you, you’re distilled to a simple stereotype. You’re no longer organized and efficient, you’re the office’s “fixer,” and your boss would “be lost without you.” You’re no longer planning one office potluck, but you did such a great job that you’re also planning all the office gatherings from here on out. You’re not someone who bakes for the office occasionally. You’re “the office baker.” Domestic goddess. Masquerading feminist.

I successfully avoided the “office baker” title for a while by never publicly taking credit for my work, which seemed, at the time, like the lesser of two evils. Even though I wasn’t recognized, I could still do something I enjoyed without becoming something I am not. I knew the minute I was outed, I’d be put neatly back into my box: another woman who knows how to make the most out of a few rotten bananas. All my talents and worth in a nine-inch bread pan.

That’s what happened, of course, and I’m sure many career thought leaders out there will tell you it’s because I wasn’t “acting like a man.” I baked, which is something women do at home. In the workplace, that has consequences.

But what if we start allowing me to be a dynamic person, not a flat character in a children’s book where little boys are “strong” and little girls are “graceful.” What if I’m an all-the-time writer and a sometimes baker? What if I have hard-earned skills and a heightened awareness of banana ripeness? What if I only bake for the office so I can eat raw banana batter at home?

It’s time for the way we talk about women to change. Women are whole people, just as men are, and regardless of gender, someone’s willingness or ability to take care of others doesn’t cancel out their monetizable talent, let alone define their personality. My boss didn’t suddenly order me new business cards because I knew how to preheat the oven, and neither should you.

Would I love for men to take on more administrative tasks in the office? Absolutely. You don’t need an “office wife” to set reminders on your Google calendar. But more than that, our work culture needs to embrace the idea that working women are diverse. We’re people with wants and needs, likes and dislikes. It’s perfectly plausible that a woman might be both career-focused and enjoy watching The Great British Bake Off on Saturday nights (this is highly likely, actually).

If I plan the office holiday party, it’s because I want to. If I remember when your next meeting is, it’s because I have a good memory. I’m not the party planner. I’m not the fixer. I’m not the office baker, but damn, I make good banana bread.

Beth Castle is the managing editor at InHerSight, a platform where women rate companies by how female-friendly they are.