Welcome to Harpy Seminar, a regular feature we plan to have at regular intervals, unless we get too busy to have it at regular intervals, in which case it shall appear whenever we have time and inclination for it. Each Seminar begins with a question, which we discuss amongst ourselves, and we then edit the highlights of our conversation into a post. Please feel free to join in in the comments!
Happy Administrative Professionals Day, ladies! We’re using this special day as an opportunity to chat amongst ourselves about women’s work. Because, let’s face it, Administrative Professionals Day holiday started in 1952 as Secretary’s Day, a way for the Boss (i.e. men) to acknowledge his Secretary (i.e women). And while we don’t call them secretaries anymore, the overwhelming majority of “administrative professionals” are women. “Administration,” like teaching or nursing or childcare, is still almost exclusively women’s work. So let’s talk women’s work, shall we?
What kind of woman-ly work have y’all done to pay the bills?
PilgrimSoul: I used to help administer summer medical conferences as an undergrad, and it was rid. ic. u. lous, the way people spoke to the organizers of what was essentially an opportunity to bathe in corporate sponsor money in a location. The organizers were, of course, women, who spent their days and educations on deciding on fonts for the program and fielding calls from overly self-confident professionals who clearly thought we were stupid illiterate hacks who nonetheless were there to wait on them hand and foot.
BeckySharper: During high school I was a “summer receptionist” for a big suburban real estate office. I had such pleasant phone manner! Then during my summers off from college I worked as a “junior secretary”–oh yes, they still called it that in the mid ’90s!–for a labor union on L Street in DC. That was less about the pleasant phone manner, more about entering data for the benefits department, including, sometimes, sorting through piles of death certificates, which was a little ghoulish, but also voyeuristically fascinating. Still, at both places the office staff showed up in the requisite knee-length skirts, flats and pantyhose. That’s how the ladies rolled. I never once saw–in those jobs or any of the temp work I did–a man in an “administrative professional” job.
SarahMC: My first job was that of administrative assistant too; I worked for a small non-profit. I (wo)manned the front desk, answered the phone, and acted as assistant to the communications director. The office consisted mostly of women and our board of directors was almost exclusively women. That’s another interesting facet of the working world – the non-profit sector is predominantly female. It wasn’t a bad job but there was no room for growth so I moved on after a year.
So I moved to DC to work as an admin assistant at a lobbying firm (aka the seventh circle of hell). My bosses were a male lobbyist and a female lobbyist, who were absolute jerks. I sat at a cubicle between the two offices and suffered abuse from both sides. The man had an anger management problem, and would get up in my face if I made an error or failed to accurately read his mind. They did not allow any sort of learning curve. The woman took advantage of me. She’d have me run to the ATM to withdraw money for her, contest parking tickets for her, return diet pills to the online distributor… etc. I hated every minute of it. Luckily that stint was short lived; after three months HR let me go because I was not cut out for it. Damn straight.
sarah.of.a.lesser.god: I have intense phone-answering anxiety, and the one time I was hired as an administrative assistant, I had a panic attack my very first hour on the job and ran out crying. That was not a high point in my scattershot career!
But the two jobs I had the most fun with were also the most “womanly.” I was a daycare teacher, in charge, alongside one other teacher, of fifteen children ages two and three. I potty-trained fourteen of them (one had developmental problems and refused to be trained), dished out bad tater tots, broke up kiddie fights, read stories, and treated scraped knees. It was heaven for someone who loves kids, and solidified my maternal longings, BUT it paid next to nothing. About $7 an hour. And there were no male teachers or administrators in the entire facility. Definitely pegged as “woman’s work.” If there was ever evidence that child-rearing is still considered a woman’s job, I think it’s the that the care of young children even outside of the home is almost exclusively designated to women.
I also worked in retail, in the children’s section at Nordstrom and then as a lingerie stylist (ooh-la-la!) and assistant manager at a large upscale New York City store. Again, it was very female-dominated. It definitely fit the stereotype of all women’s boutiques being staffed by women and gay men. The gender politics were pretty interesting at that place given the emphasis that was put on how you presented yourself.
PhDork: I’ve never been in an admin/secretarial position, but I have done puh-lenty of “service” work to get through school debt-free, like catering, waiting tables, dishwashing, child-care, teaching and/or babysitting young kids, shilling sportswear and toys…and those are just the ones I can think of at the moment.
Hmmm, what do all of those gigs have in common? Oh, I know! 1) they’re poorly paid and little respected, and 2) they’re disproportionately performed by women.
BeckySharper: But is that to say that “women’s work” is all just scut work? Or can women still “top from the bottom” in the workplace?
PhDork: Working in academia, you learn right quick–if you’re at all wise–that department admins (who in my experience are female 95% of the time) are simultaneously the heart and the brain of any given department. Not only do they often set the emotional tone of the office, since they spend so much face-time with people, they are the clearinghouse for information. They have contacts, they know how the university works, and they can use that information for or against you, depending on how you treat them.
They may not be terribly well-respected in the world at large, but the department admins I know are rightfully both loved and occasionally feared. They have power, and they know how to use it. My regret is that their power has to be cloaked by ideas or affectations of subservience, so that it can continue to exist.
PilgrimSoul: Mostly, these days, though, administrative professionals work for me rather than above or at the same level as me, so I evaluate them. And usually, as with my current assistant, they are twenty years older than me, easily. Which is a weird dynamic. I am lucky, because my current assistant is way, way overqualified for her job and so tends not to be deferential, which would make me very uncomfortable.
BeckySharper: I’ve had more than one assistant–always female–who was the same age or older than me, and one had a higher degree than I do. It was never a huge issue, mainly because they were cool women and I tried to be a good boss, but yeah, if I’d had insecurity issues or they had, it would have made for a weird working dynamic.
PilgrimSoul: I generally have more in common with the admin professionals than the lawyers at my workplace, so I am buddies with most of them, and I find that important as an activist tool. Because it makes my workplace feel, I think, less structured and hierarchy-driven, when people disregard the terms on which they are supposed to “professionally” interact with others.
In conclusion, I seem to make an extremely poor professional. (ed: Untrue!)
SarahMC: In my current job I was hired as assistant to the president, and my boss showed a lot of appreciation for my work. After a year I was promoted, and I’m no longer working in an admin position. It’s hard stuff, doing that grunt work and juggling the responsibilities coming at you from every angle. I’m glad I’m no longer doing it because I am easily frazzled. Kudos to the ladies (and gents) doing traditional “women’s work.”
BeckySharper: Amen! So ladies, what’s your take? Work it in the comments..