Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Take a memo, Miss Jones

With the return of Mad Men, secretaries are once again in the public eye, in a way that they are, pretty much, no longer in the private eye.

Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency is built around a charmingly retro (if gallingly sexist) division of labor. Secretaries screen calls, arrange meetings, manage calendars—and often make great wives—allowing their bosses to create life-changing ad campaigns and go out for boozy client lunches. Tellingly, everyone’s desk looks fastidiously neat. Those were the days. (Source: Business Week.)

That’s for sure.

Once the technology was such that people could write their own memos, pink collar support for rank and file white collar workers started going dodo-bird.  And once DYI apps for filing expense reports, let alone the ability to book your own darned flight on Orbitz, became available…

I was never a real secretary. (I never had any shorthand.) But between dropping out of a PhD program and dropping into business school, I did work off and on as an office temp: answering phones, filing, filling in forms, typing memos and reports and letters (that were given to me on legal pads, written in long-hand). Sometimes I got coffee.

And I am of an age when secretary was a solid profession that many women pursued – some with secretarial work as their end-game (up the ladder to executive assistant or office manager), some as an entrée position. Katherine Gibbs, perhaps the most prestigious secretarial school, had, in fact, something called an Entrée Program that helped liberal arts grads who didn’t want to teach get a toe-hold in the business world.

My mother was a secretary, as was one of my cousins.

I do know that by the time I got out of business school in 1981, there was very limited administrative support provided to anyone other than the head guys – at least in the tech world, where I landed.

Yes, someone answered the phone and left you a message on a pink message slip. And someone made your travel reservations for you. But if you wanted to write a memo or a report, well, that’s what the computer was for. Even if it was a mainframe that you accessed through a dumb terminal. Even if there were only two fonts to play with – Times Roman and Helvetica.  And especially if you were a woman.

Because the truth was that, in the first place I landed after business school, the female admins were a lot more likely to do things for the guys than they were for the women. Our admins were smart and capable, but many of them bore quite a bit of resentment towards the women who were sitting in the offices rather than the cubicles, going on the business trips, and taking home checks that were bigger than theirs were.

I remember asking one admin if she could do some copying for me.

Her response?

“That’s not my cup of tea.”

I didn’t pull rank, but my manager – at that point a woman – went a bit ballistic when she saw me standing at the copy machine.

Fast forward a few years, and I did end up with an admin reporting to me. She supported my group (about 25 people), and I can’t really remember much of what she did: booked meetings, ordered lunch when the meeting was held at noon, did the photocopying. By that point, we were pretty much doing all our own letter writing – it was all e-mail – and producing all our own documents. Expenses were filed online. There was a corporate travel group that made our reservations. But mostly we were on our own.

What’s been the impact of the decline in the admin function?

In Women Laid Off, Workers Sped Up, a paper for the Roosevelt Institute, authors Bryce Covert and Mike Konczal note that women lost 925,000 jobs in “office and administrative support” occupations between 2009 and 2011. And they point out that the continuing “speedup” within the economy has workers taking on ever-increasing burdens, often without extra compensation.

So when you ask yourself why it is that people have to work longer hours these days, it’s to some degree because they’re doing “for free” what someone else used to be paid to do for them.  (Of course, another reason why people work longer hours is that many of the the vaunted “productivity tools” are actually anti-productivity tools. And, yes, that’s you I’m talking about, Power Point. After all, in the days of the 35 mm slide show, you created your presentation and were stuck with it for six months. With Power Point, you can keep changing it ad infinitum. Without, of course, any resultant benefit to your organization.)

Those at the C-level, of course, continue to enjoy administrative support, which makes plenty of sense:

For someone earning close to $1 million a year, an $80,000-a-year assistant needs to help the boss become only 8 percent more productive for the company to break even. “When workers see the boss loading paper into the copy machine, the theory goes, a ‘we’re all in this together’ spirit is created,” writes the article’s author, Melba Duncan. “But as a management practice, the structure rarely makes economic sense. Generally speaking, work should be delegated to the lowest-cost employee who can do it well.”

When I think about working full-time in my great old age, I sometimes think that it would be fun to work as an admin in some local school – maybe at Suffolk Law or Tufts Medical. If the boss-man (or boss-lady) could live without the dictation, I’d be great: I’m organized, efficient, a decent typist, an excellent editor, a proficient Power Pointer and Exceler, a researcher...

As long as no one asks me to take a memo, Ms. Rogers.

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