Diversity & Inclusion

7 lessons about gender roles that tech can learn from The Office

Emma McGowan 12 Nov 2021

Right now, we have an opportunity to make big changes at work. Why not learn lessons from America’s worst boss on how to make the workplace better for everyone?

NBC’s The Office is just a show about ordinary lives in an ordinary — even boring — office park. And yet it’s arguably one of the most popular television shows of all time. In its total mundanity, it manages to highlight deep and almost universal truths about friendship, love, work — and even society. Whether we watch it because it’s familiar or because it’s a glimpse of a totally foreign work environment, we’re all always watching The Office.

But while we focus on Pam and Jim and Dwight’s failed pranks and the weird stuff Creed does, The Office also illustrates how gender dynamics play out in a professional setting. The show started in 2005 and wrapped up its last episode in 2017, but those gender roles — and more specifically, the ways that women are treated — are still very often at play in offices across industries. 

Let’s see what we can learn from Michael Scott, his ARM (Assistant Regional Manager), and the rest of the Dunder Mifflin crew about what not to do if you’re looking to create an equitable and open workplace, for people of all genders.

Sexual harassment

Michael Scott is the king of sexual harassment, from his iconic “That’s what she said,” — which turns even the most innocuous statements sexual — to his comments about the physical appearances of the women he works with to straight up watching porn in the office. Oh, he also dates two coworkers, has sex in the office at least once, and sends a photo to the entire company of his boss/friend with benefits (at the time), Jan, topless in a bikini bottom.

There’s even an entire episode (Season 2, Episode 2) titled “Sexual Harassment,” in which Michael gets called to task by corporate for his total lack of understanding about what’s appropriate and what’s not in the workplace. Unsurprisingly, he turns the sexual harassment training video viewing into a pizza party and can’t keep himself from blurting out “That’s what she said,” when Jim goads him on. 

It should go without saying but let’s say it anyway to be very clear: Don’t comment on the bodies of your coworkers. Don’t hit on them at work. Don’t bring them to the mall and offer to buy them underwear at Victoria’s Secret. Don’t have sex in the office. Basically, if you’re a man? Don’t do anything Michael Scott does to and/or with the women he works with.

Party planning

The Party Planning Committee (PPC) is a source of constant conflict at Dunder Mifflin. Originally ruled by the (tiny) iron fist of Angela Martin, the PPC organizes all of the office get-togethers. 

And there’s one glaring fact about the PPC that we all need to pay attention to: It’s all women, at least until Michael decides the women can’t handle it anymore and hands it off to Jim and Dwight, who fail miserably.

Both the fact that the PPC is all women and the fact that Jim and Dwight appear to completely incapable of planning a party — or, perhaps, feel it’s beneath them — illustrate how women in office settings are often expected to do much of the unpaid social labor. Things like buying cakes for a coworker’s birthday, running Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), and organizing off-site social activities fall disproportionately on the backs of women. They also take time and energy away from the jobs that women are paid to do, which can make it harder to advance at work.

Cleaning up 

Let’s talk about the microwave. No one likes to clean the microwave and, one day, Pam gets sick of it. What follows is an entire runner that includes Ryan, the sleaze ball slacker of the office, trying to get Pam to do it because he “just doesn’t know how.” 

That excuse, while obviously silly, is one that’s used all too often in both professional and personal settings. And, as that interaction between Ryan and Pam highlights, it’s usually man saying it to a woman in order to get out of doing certain chores. 

Women doing a disproportionate amount of the cleaning up around an office falls under the same aforementioned unpaid labor that party planning falls under. Cleaning, like organizing the social calendar, tends to fall under expected “female” roles, because those are the roles that women traditionally play in the household. 

Emotional support 

How many times have we seen Pam prop up Michael when he’s sad? She even knows the level of upset he is based on which comedy routine he defaults to. In fact, you could argue that like 70 percent of Pam’s job is managing Michael’s emotions. And do you think that was in the job description when she agreed to take on the role? Of course not.

On the other hand, Angela Martin almost exemplifies the opposite. She’s a woman in the office as well (possibly the highest ranking one in the Scranton office) and she never minces her words, worries about people’s feelings, or provides a shoulder to cry on. It might sound weird to female fans of the show, but maybe we should be following Angela’s example more than Pam’s?

Homophobia 

Homophobia directed toward gay men is a close sister to misogyny, because it’s almost always about hating the “feminine” in them. The only gay character in Scranton office is Oscar, one of the accountants. And when Michael finds out Oscar is gay after getting called out by HR for making homophobic comments, he proceeds to not only out him, but also watch gay porn in the office and kiss Oscar in front of the entire team. 

That’s the most egregious case of homophobia in the series, but little things pop up later. People constantly question Andy’s sexuality because he’s dapper; Oscar is invited to join the PPC (the committee that up until then was only women); and there are insensitive gay jokes peppered throughout the series run. 

And while these can sometimes feel like as much of a vestige of a bygone era as the casts’ flip phones, we’re definitely still dealing with LGBTQIA+ discrimination in the workplaces in 2021.

Women in lower positions

That’s what she said. (Just kidding!) But for real though, women in the office are almost always kept in lower positions. Michael even alludes to this being on purpose when he’s talking about hiring a new boss to replace him and refers to that person being a “he.” When Angela points out that it could be a “she” as well, he condescendingly “agrees” with her. 

The only woman in a higher position at Dunder Mifflin is Jan — and she proceeds to lose her mind, get a boob job, start dating Michael, and get fired. In other words: Not the best role model for executive women in the workplace?


Further reading:
7 tips for women who want to get ahead in leadership
To have more women in senior leadership, we need to walk the talk


Excessive drinking

Look, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of wine at a holiday party. But Michael Scott has a habit of encouraging extreme over indulgence at company events. From the Christmas party where Meredith caught her hair on fire to the party he attempted to throw at a conference (instead of doing his work), Michael doesn’t know the meaning of moderation.

This is relevant because there are links between excessive drinking and sexual harassment of women in offices and workplaces. Drinking too much, as we all know, can lead people to lower inhibitions and say and do things they really shouldn’t. Why take the risk? 

The Office, of course, is satirical. The jokes are often offensive and so over the top in order to highlight the absurdity of prejudices, including sexism, racism, and homophobia. We laugh at Michael Scott because, at some level, we all know a Michael Scott — or even have been him ourselves, at times. But we also know that no one should actually be Michael Scott.

Right now, as companies contemplate moving back into their own offices, we have an opportunity to make big changes. Why not learn these lessons from America’s worst boss on how to make the workplace better for everyone?