I changed my mind about bringing baked goods into the office. Twice.

I haven’t always had strong opinions on this complex and important topic. But in 2012, I brought in cookies for a meeting. I was nominally in charge of a large group of folks, and I figured as a courtesy, I would bake some cookies to make everyone feel better about having to attend on less than 24-hours’ notice. They were complicated cookies - Christina Tosi’s chocolate chip marshmallow cornflake cookies. I overanalyzed how many people had eaten. Who went back for seconds. If they liked them. And as the cookies disappeared, I felt as if my authority to actually lead the meeting was disintegrating - crumbling into the carpet along with the stray crumbs. They were delicious. I swore “never again.” No more baked goods in the office.

It wasn’t a totally unreasonable position. I haven’t been able to track down a citation, but I’ve heard that Sheryl Sandberg once said that you should never bring baked goods into the office. The unspoken end of that sentence is “if you’re a woman.” You should never bring baked goods into the office if you’re a woman (or read as one). Because then you’ll be a mom, rather than a leader, a nurturer rather than a respected colleague. And if you had to choose (and it certainly seems like you did have to choose), wouldn’t you pick “respected” over “comforting”? I would. I did. Besides, opting-out of feminine labor as a feminine presenting-person felt radical. It felt transgressive.

It wasn’t just that I had brought cookies into that meeting. I cared about what people thought about them. And that was the second problem - just baking cookies shows that you spent time and energy on taking care of others, a no-no - but desperately wanting people to like your baked goods is even worse. Caring about what other people think gives them power over you, and giving people who have to respect you power over you was scary.

Changing my mind about my no baked goods policy wasn’t a bolt from the blue. I didn’t wake up one morning, shout “the patriarchy is full of lies! good leaders can be vulnerable and show that they care!” and bake a whole pan of brownies for my colleagues. It was a slow process, like sugar caramelizing on the Great British Baking Show, where nothing appears to be changing until the entire pan is almost burnt. 

When I took a class from an amazing biological anthropologist who baked for us, her students, every week, I didn’t respect her less. When I read Teaching to Transgress and bell hooks talked about the importance of being vulnerable and present in order to create a learning environment, I found myself nodding along. I thought about how many more risks I was willing to take with colleagues who were open about their struggles and uncertainty.  I followed a long conversation around emotional labor online and reflected upon how I loved the feminist spaces, where people put time, energy and attention into creating dialogue. 

Over time, I watched who was able to not focus on the feelings of those around them. I could, as a “scholar”, but my friend, the administrative assistant, she didn’t have that option. The black women I chatted with at conferences couldn’t – they’d be perceived as angry. My younger colleagues, who worked for male bosses who weren’t quite as secure as mine – they couldn’t get away with not performing emotional labor and femininity in the workplace.  I grew more uncomfortable opting out of care work just because I could.

In short, I found a thousand counter-examples to my initial thesis that there was a transgressive power to just opting out. In a society where vulnerability and care are devalued and seen as a sign of weakness, care-work, like baking, is radical.  Sometimes it is more transgressive to opt-in. To choose to do the work, even though you know you don’t (or shouldn’t) have to.

I now believe that vulnerability and visible care are not at odds with leadership and respect. They are inseparable. Admitting that you care, that you are willing to put in the time and energy, is fundamental to showing those around you that you respect them. And giving respect is a good way to earn it.

I’ll never quite know if I was right, in 2012, that I was respected less because I baked for people. It’s not clear if my confidence in embracing carework now come from the sense that I am more confident I am better at my job, more sure that I am worthy of respect (not to mention a better baker). But one way out of the trap of patriarchy, where you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t, is to do what you would have wanted to do anyway.

So now I bake.

This essay is a slightly modified version of the talk I gave as part of the Harvard Law School Library’s Why I Changed My Mind event. You can watch the talk here