The Surprising Sexism of Who Makes a Cup of Tea at Work

Zulie Rane

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When I worked at a tech startup, had a fun tradition at our workplace, in common with lots of others I know of England: when someone gets up to make themselves a drink, they ask the office if they want one, too.

I lived in England where the national pastime is drinking tea, so this little ritual happens quite a few times a day. It’s happened often enough that I started noticing an odd pattern.

The men don’t offer.

Seriously: I counted. In one day, the women in the office made 17 assorted hot beverages — instant coffee, decaf coffee, peppermint tea, regular tea, with sweeteners, with real sugar, soy milk, cow milk, just black.

The men? Three. One developer got up to make himself a cup of coffee and I forcefully handed him my mug and said I’d like a peppermint tea, please. One of the finance team handed him her mug as well, requesting a decaf instant coffee. But that was it. Just three.

In a week, this tallied up to 53 hot drinks consumed by men, versus 11 drinks made by men.

Now, you might say it’s a choice. The men just don’t want tea and coffee, they’re so busy coding that they forget they’re thirsty. They’d be fine if nobody offered, they’d simply not drink. They don’t get up and make only themselves drinks — if nobody offers, they go without.

But I think it goes deeper. It’s revealing, to me, that there’s no implicit feeling of reciprocation. The men in the office have no problem accepting cup after cup after cup, without once feeling that they should offer, too.

The men take, but they don’t offer.

Here’s the thing: I can’t imagine taking without giving. I can’t imagine receiving without reciprocating. I feel guilty enough whenever someone does me a favor and I’m unable to do anything but say “thanks.” It’s foreign to me, to think of accepting anything, whether it’s a word of praise or a cup of tea, without wanting — no, needing to reciprocate as quickly as possible.

These office workers have no problem accepting drink after drink after drink, the thought never once crossing their mind that they could offer to do the same — even if they weren’t thirsty!

They don’t do it intentionally — there’s no malice in their inability to reciprocate, it’s simply a systemic lack of consideration for others. A lack of thought that others’ time is valuable, just as valuable as their own. Paired with the women in the office generously and dutifully offering hot drinks on a regular basis, there’s been no need to develop this sense — so radical to some men — of thinking of others.

One man that I worked with actually set himself a reminder. At three pm every day, he’d get a little buzz — reminding him to get up and offer cups of tea, in exchange for the 3–4 he’d have made for him throughout the course of the day.

And so many times, I watched him look at his phone when it buzzed, look up at his own work, and switch the alarm off without making the offer. Like clockwork.

Sexism goes further than a cup of tea.

I noticed this months ago and for months I resisted my conclusions, thinking I was reading too much into it. But see an instance of casual sexism happen often enough, and you have no choice but to admit it’s a pattern. Week after week, I watched the women get up, offer to make hot drinks. I watched the men thoughtlessly and thanklessly accept. I counted how often they reciprocated and the number was small.

And it wasn’t just the tea. When the office lines were left unattended by the receptionists, women were asked to cover them, even though the men were closer. When the office manager asked people to clean up after themselves in the communal kitchen, the men most often neglected this task.

It’s part of the same culture that expects women to do “office housework” — these unpromotable gruntwork tasks that somehow, someway, even in the most progressive companies, always seem to fall to women.

My rebellion was to be more selfish.

The advice given to women in these situations? Simply stop. So, I did.

It’s possible this wasn’t the right choice. It felt selfish. But in an era where women are expected to do it all if they want to have it all, it seemed revolutionary to just make myself cups of tea, without offering others. And even then, men still passed me their cups on my way to the communal kitchen. Was my time worth so much less than theirs? Were my needs so much smaller?

It’s just a cup of tea, at the end of the day. It’s only an extra few minutes. But add that all up, add all that extra housework up, count the number of times you clean dishes that aren’t yours, make teas that aren’t yours, organize office parties, bring in baked goods, or any other bits of work that you’re silently obliged to do?

If you’re like me, the result means it’s worth your while to be a little more selfish in the office. I make myself my own hot drinks, and if the men want one? They can make their own like anyone else.

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