Taking Notes At Meetings

There’s a very thoughtful post by drmsscientist at Tenure She Wrote about the gendered nature of being asked or otherwise expected to take notes at meetings.

Here’s the set up:

I take a lot of notes. I take them every single day, in both research and in meetings. Depending on what I’m doing, these notes are electronic or handwritten. When I meet with my students, I take notes on what they are doing, then transcribe my own action items to a separate “to-do” list and file that note page away. When I’m in meetings with colleagues, I’m usually taking notes on my computer or iPad. Some times these notes float away into the ether, but in general, I find my notes super useful, in so many ways. I’ve used them to jog my memory about what else happened in the meeting, to figure out who made a specific comment to follow up on later, sometime even just to provide context to my overall day. They are also, it turns out, also useful to my colleagues and in general, I will happily send my notes along if someone requests them*.

But recently, I’ve been involved in a few groups where the gendered nature of note taking was almost laughable.

And later she asks:

But what to do about the gendered aspects of this? I don’t want to stop taking notes since it’s useful to me, nor do I want to not make those notes available if they can be helpful. And really, it’s not that I shouldn’t be taking notes, it’s just that everyone in the room should also be taking their own instead of relying on me or those like me. More sets of notes on the same topic is never a bad thing since people note different things. This is where I hit up against a wall. I have control over my own behavior but not over that of others. Do I subtly try to encourage EVERYONE at the meetings to take notes, then send them to me for compiling? The first might be good, but the second is just another form of housework. Do I simply say “no” when asked whether I can take notes? This doesn’t work because I often already AM taking notes and it’s difficult to be surreptitious about it. Do I laugh it off and say I’m terrible at it and they’d better ask someone else?

Here’s my suggestion: I think it would be perfectly reasonable to respond to an unwanted (or even wanted) request to take notes, “The notes that I routinely take are very informal and just for jogging my own memory. If we agree that it would be useful to have authoritative notes taken at our meetings, let’s discuss a formal mechanism for getting this done.” This way you completely prevent your taking notes from becoming the path of least resistance for the group. And you also force recognition that taking notes is valuable work and should be acknowledged as such.


  1. leni says

    That is a really good suggestion. I may use that in the future. Similar things come up where I work. Or, well everywhere.

  2. gingerest says

    Yeah, that’s a really savvy approach. I take notes all the time but meeting minutes are a whole different proposition. You need to be at least a little detached to take minutes properly, and that precludes full participation in the meeting, I think. So not only is it a valuable but devalued contribution, it comes at a cost to the minute-taker at the time of the meeting as well as the cost of time afterwards pulling the notes into minutes, circulating them for approval, etc.

  3. Bruce says

    The other approach (which may or may not be appropriate here) is to publicly or secretly take the position that the one who takes notes decides what really happened at the meeting. If the meeting is boring, this is a waste of effort. But if the meeting makes decisions, then the group never gets to decide anything unless you/she approves of it. Will there be trouble when/if the thumb is found on the balance pan? Only she can say.

  4. Daniel Schealler says

    Everyone should be taking notes of some form. It’s crazy that they’re not. That’s ass-covering 101.

  5. MadHatter says

    I noticed that issue in a team I was in that was all men (except me and the admin assistant). I avoided taking notes at all at first because people would ask for them sometimes. Then I started letting them see how disorganized my notebooks were. I know where to find stuff (I didn’t admit that), but no one else could.

    So when I started running a team, where I was again the only woman, I instituted a rotating note-taking rule. Different person every day, and they emailed the notes to everyone else afterwards. I’ve also had to explicitly avoid being the organizer/note taker in my current (all men) group, again pushing for a rotating system.

  6. psanity says

    An important aspect of this is that the person who is taking notes is less able to participate in the discussion. So, it’s two birds with one stone — slough off an unwanted task onto the girl person, and also shut her up. I think this is usually unconscious, but definitely a bonus.

    I handle it basically as the proffe suggests — my response when asked to take notes is “You don’t want that. Nobody understands my notes, and I don’t have time to translate. We could rotate, or hire somebody/get a student or intern.” Also, if a group wants me to take notes, and I’d consider doing it, I pull out the digital recorder. I will not take notes in lieu of participating, and of course I wouldn’t want to neglect anything important. Some people don’t want all their bullshit recorded; go figure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *