Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Indispensably Devalued

[This is my post for Blog Against Sexism Day. After writing it I see it's more a work-related observation than a sexism-related one, but I think the idea of being treated as simultaneously indispensable and valueless tends to be much more applicable to women than to men in our sexist society.]

I've been a secretary for over 25 years, long enough to see my designation go from "typist" to "executive administrative professional" or whatever multisyllabic nonsense is currently in vogue. I started as a speed-typist at an appellate printer in the days before computers became plentiful in the business world, when we programmed short macros into our electronic typewriters so we wouldn't have to type the same frequently-used phrases over and over. I remember carbon paper and dot-matrix printers and switchboards with plugs. I also remember joining 9to5 and hearing horror stories about secretaries having to do personal work for their bosses like picking up dry cleaning and making/serving them coffee or lunch, and hoping I'd never be in that type of servile position.

We didn't know how good we had it in those days.

From what I've seen on the job boards I still peruse, the modern executive secretary is not only expected to be organized and make online travel arrangements and have expertise in the usual suite of computer programs, but it is often assumed she or he will also be doing a fair amount of personal scheduling for her or his boss(es), particularly if the boss in question is a CEO. Which not only infuriates me but confuses me - modern communication has made it so easy for just about anyone, especially the online-savvy which many bosses are, to take care of personal matters themselves that there's no real excuse to have their secretaries do it. For many, it seems to be just another way to exercise power over one's subordinates. And for most, that's a sexism issue because, by and large, the bosses are men and the subordinates are women.

The grey area between secretary and servant is often tricky to navigate. Take HIPAA, for instance. What started out as a way to protect patient privacy has become a nightmare for the secretary trying to find out information about her boss' family's claims status. "How are you related to the patient?" I'm not, I work for the family. "I'm sorry, we can't give out any information unless the family [jumps through various hoops to basically give the secretary power of attorney]." Many doctor's offices nowadays won't even let you schedule an appointment for someone to whom you're not related.

Mostly, being a secretary-servant means you get used to being treated as both indispensable and of little value simultaneously. If you work in an office with less than a couple dozen employees, chances are you're the only secretary, and if the office doesn't employ temps you can't take vacation days unless the boss approves (in some cases this means you don't go away unless he does) and there's nothing pending that only you can do. You learn to schedule your life around your boss' and his family's, to make their concerns your own even if you're not Elmer J. Fudd, Millionaire who owns a mansion and a yacht. You also learn very quickly that any compassion you show is unlikely to be reciprocated, that your presence is going to be taken for granted, that as a de facto servant you're often regarded as being lower on the totem pole than if you were "just" an employee not directly reporting to the person at the top.

The up-side? If you're lucky you get paid more. You get to vicarously experience a lifestyle you will never be able to actually live even if you do get paid more. Your abritrarily-assigned tasks are often impossible but never boring. And you can make lots of high-level contacts which may serve you well in your quest for a job that doesn't assume you want to be a servant.