Who should take the notes?

Yesterday, I posted the following note on my Facebook page. It has generated considerable enthusiasm, much more than I anticipated for a modest bit of administrative advice. Since folks seem to find the advice useful, I am posting it here too, for a broader readership.

Earlier this week, I told a bunch of female colleagues that, for many of the meetings I attend, I don’t bring paper/pencil because, too often, a woman with writing tools is seen as the best candidate to be recorder for the meeting. The colleagues — especially the more junior ones — were very excited about this tactic, and many resolved to start doing the same.

Today, I was at a consultation at which each table was provided with a note pad and pens and asked to assign a recorder for the table. I was the only woman (and the most junior person, from the puniest department) at the table. I told the table that, on principle, I do not take notes when I am the only woman in a group, and that one of them would therefore have to take notes. After some kerfufflement, the most senior person at the table (a quite senior admin) took the notes for the table. I feel good about this result.

Friends, let me recommend that when a note-taker is needed, you try to identify the person at the table whose perspective is least likely to be overlooked, and have them take notes. That way, those (women, racialized people, junior folks, etc.) whose perspective is most likely to be overlooked can put all of their energies into sharing their perspective rather than recording the alpha dogs’ perspectives. If you are the alpha dog, or think that you might be, consider volunteering to be the note-taker so that others’ voices can emerge. This saves the more junior/marginalized folks from the sometimes scary task of refusing to be recorder.

Postscript: A couple of further notes in response to comments folks made under my Facebook post.

  1. Note-takers are important. We shouldn’t diminish the important work that careful recorders do, nor neglect the power that a recorder can have to influence what goes on record. For some folks, in some contexts, recording may well be a better, more powerful, way for them to contribute than talking.
  2. Having said that, it is quite likely that for some folks — women in particular — regarding recording as more powerful than speaking is an adaptive preference. That is, if the context isn’t conducive to their full participation in a discussion, then recording — and valuing recording — may be a way to feel empowered rather than disempowered in an otherwise disempowering situation.
  3. The aptness of the above advice varies by context and purpose. Junior folks can learn a lot from senior folks if the former record what the latter are saying, and in some contexts that’s desirable. After all, typically students take notes while profs explain stuff. In such a case, the work of recording helps the junior person to learn. However, in a meeting intended to survey a range of perspectives — as opposed to a context in which expert knowledge is being passed on — it makes sense for someone whose perspective is over-represented to record.
  4. The distinction in #3 between contexts in which a range of views is sought and those in which expertise is transmitted is a fuzzy one. As standpoint theorists, such as Sandra Harding, have been telling us for decades, a crucial but oft-neglected question in inquiry is who gets to count as an expert and why.

2 thoughts on “Who should take the notes?

  1. I don’t doubt your own experience, but in almost 30 years of business, working in small firms, a large multinational, a public university, and then a startup, I never came across *anyone* seeing a woman being the best scribe simply by virtue of her being a woman. Nor can I even imagine such a thing. I’m in tech though — computing hardware — could that perhaps explain the difference in our experiences? For example, maybe the “woman == best scribe” assumption is at large only in older industries with relatively older employees.

    FWIW, I’ve been trying to teach myself Gregg Shorthand for over a year now. If I ever manage to do it, you can rest assured that with such awesome power, the role of meeting scribe role will be mine, all mine, and anyone, man or woman, who wants it will need to prise the pencil from my cold dead fingers! (I’m the CEO. And a dude. :-) )

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