Episode 105: The Assistant

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…the most popular job for women today is the same as it was in the 1950s…

“I think it’s viewed as a very subservient role. If you tell somebody that you're an assistant, they think you spent all day answering the phone and doing typing and dictation. The reality now is nothing can be further from the truth.”

 And what does it mean to make being an assistant your career?

“I don’t need to have seven promotions, I don’t need to branch out into a different department. I’m very content supporting a person who’s in charge.”

Coming up – when your job means being ambitious for someone else.

My first ever job was as an assistant. A receptionist actually, at an insurance company in London. Then I graduated to secretary, as it was still called in England then. I was an assistant for about the first 6 years of my working life. I enjoyed parts of the work a lot, but by the time I was in my late twenties I was itching to move on to something else. Even if I still wasn’t quite sure what that should be.

Since then, I haven’t thought about the job of assistant all that much. In fact I assumed it was gradually going away, what with executives having so much technology at their fingertips.

So I was really surprised a few years ago when I came across some statistics here in the US – they revealed that administrative assistant is still the most popular job for women in America, ahead of teaching and nursing. I checked again just recently and nothing has changed.

I have to admit I found that statistic quite disheartening. Women are more and more educated, we’ve entered a ton of professions, yet so many of us are still essentially supporting someone else for a living. I wanted to delve into this and I did – with two women who know the job well.

Jessica Williams lives and works in London. She runs a recruitment company for assistants and other support staff, called Sidekicks. The common British term for an administrative assistant is PA – personal assistant – so you’ll hear her use that a lot. She was a longtime PA in London before starting her company two years ago, at age 30.

She started working as an assistant at 18.

“I always knew that I wanted to work. I was never particularly academic and the practical side of working always suited me so I held several jobs when I was 16. My first job was actually making sandwiches in the petrol station in Kent for truckers when they were on the way down to Dover to drive their trucks through to France, and I loved that. I think a big part of me going on to become a P.A was finding that I enjoyed that aspect for looking after people & caring for them.”

That was one of my favorite things about the job too. Also like me, Jessica’s family sort of guided her in this direction…

“I have mixed feelings about that, but often particularly young women, they will leave university or they will leave school and their first entry level job will be secretarial in some respects. And it can be a fantastic thing like my experience. I started off as a receptionist and really loved it and became aware very quickly that one on one PA support was something that I really wanted to do. A lot of my skills I hadn't realize that I had, such as organization and the ability to act on my own initiative--there were things that I didn't realize I had at school which was really focused around academic ability, which was never really my strong point. And I realized for the first time in my life that I was really good at something and I loved that and I wanted to see more of it. And it just grew from there really.”

She gained confidence and experience with each job. She’s worn a lot of hats over the years – something she says all PAs do. During one job she spent time outfitting a multi-million pound mansion in London’s Regents Park neighborhood. In other jobs she’s picked up dry cleaning or coffee as well as acted as office manager and travel agent...

“The best part about this job is that you’re totally immersed in somebody's life. You do everything for them in the same way as when you have a child. It's not just about the big wins. It not just about watching them graduate or get their first Job or start school. It’s about the little things as well. You’ve got to be willing to do the small things and not begrudge them.”

But I wanted to get back to that idea of women starting off as assistants. My mother pushed me to learn to type as soon as I graduated from university. As she saw it, this was my route into a job. I even learned shorthand. And I’m grateful for the typing skills. But there I was with a degree…

AM-T: “And essentially I was encouraged to come in as an assistant because I was told it’s a way you can get in at a company. And I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I was fine with that. But I was gobsmacked at this one interview. The woman said, what does a clever girl like you want to do being a secretary? And I didn’t know what to say. I just didn’t know how to proceed because I wasn’t expecting the question…I must have completely fluffed it because I never heard from them again. But this thing of ‘girls’ being encouraged to go in at assistant level, it’s not something males of the same age are encouraged to do, right? And I think this is why so many women are assistants is because we’re encouraged to be support because that’s what many of us have been raised to be. We’ve been raised with those expectations that we will be supportive. So it feels natural to carry that into a job. It did for me.”

“Yeah, it does, you’re right and I wish I could tell you your experience is unusual but it’s not. It still happens. And I think that a large part of this is that if you look at the prevailing gender of the people who are hiring assistants, they’re particularly in big corporates the bosses are male. And often a lot of powerful men in a certain position who have been raised to believe that their assistant should be a female or who have only experienced having a female assistant struggle to hand power, control of their day to day lives, in what they view as a slightly subservient role, to another man.”

But another important point I think is that young, educated men just starting out in their careers – they don’t see themselves as support staff. They want to go in with a better title. And they mostly do. Which, perhaps, is why only about five percent of assistants are men.

One thing about this job that the average man may find harder than the average woman…staying in the background.  

“Being a PA or being in administrative support in any capacity is something that you cannot do if you have an ego. You just can't do it. Because the reality is that no matter what level you're at even if you’ve been doing the job for 20 years and you're right at the top of your game and you're at chief of staff level, you're still going to be effectively managing somebody else's life. Managing somebody else's career. Managing somebody else's day. It's never going to be all about you. We have a phrase we use in the office at Sidekicks a lot: ambition worn lightly. And that's exactly what you need to have as a PA. You need to have serious ambition but on behalf of the person you're supporting, not on behalf of yourself.”

And she says because assistants stay out of the spotlight, it’s easy for other people to underestimate the role.  

“If you tell somebody that you're an assistant, they think you spent all day answering the phone and doing typing and dictation. The reality now is nothing can be further from the truth. It’s often an immensely difficult, demanding, completely autonomous role.”

Jess has worked with her share of difficult characters over the years. And I can say from experience that getting on with your boss just makes the job so much easier and more pleasant. You’re not part of a team the way so many of your colleagues are, so a rapport with the executive you work for matters.

AM-T: “What do you think about it being such a female-dominated role, does that bother you at all, or not?”

“No, the reality doesn’t bother me. Which is that the role is extremely female-dominated. What bothers me is the perception that it should be done by a woman because it’s somehow a subservient role which it’s absolutely not.”

Now like many other jobs done almost exclusively by women today, the role of secretary used to be the preserve of men. It’s only been during the last century or so that women have taken over. When the typewriter was invented women’s fingers were seen as being nimbler than men’s. At the same time more women were seeking an alternative to the drudgery of life as a domestic servant. And as in other professions where the sex ratio was changing…bosses offered the new women applicants less pay, and they accepted.

Even today in America – that tiny number of male assistants – they earn about 14 percent more on average than their female counterparts.

Depending on your experience the demands of the job, a personal assistant today can earn a really good salary. And Jessica you may be supporting others but you’re far from powerless.

“A lot of PAs end up wielding an awful lot of power. It’s quiet power. It’s not something you shout about. And it’s something that comes as a result of doing a job really, really well.”

The vast majority of her candidates are women, although with the millennial generation she says that is changing, the number of men is going up. But this profession has its biases just like male-dominated areas like tech or engineering. She says it’s tough to place a man in an admin job, no matter how great he may be for the role. She has been working with a candidate in his 50s lately…

“And we've had a lot of discussions internally about this particular candidate because he's incredibly capable. He's an absolutely fantastic, exceptional assistant. He is very senior. He came from a military background. But he is an assistant. And I didn't think it would be hard to place him but it surprised me the level of resistance I encountered to his gender.”

As she said before it’s mostly senior men hiring assistants, and they carry those familiar stereotypes in their heads…

“I had a client once, a private household client who was a highly-respected, very wealthy individual, and he told me that in his household, the females were the PA and the nanny, and the males were the chauffeur and the security. And that’s the way it was. He absolutely wouldn’t entertain anything outside of that.”

In a moment, how Jessica is trying to change some of the biases in her industry. And how one woman found her career as an assistant.

Janel Wallace is in her early 50s and she’s been an assistant for about 15 years. Right now she’s an executive assistant at an international retail company based in the Midwest.

AM-T: “How did you become an assistant or what used to be called a secretary?”

“A secretary, I’m very comfortable with the word secretary.”

Janel started college but she didn’t graduate. She met a guy, got married at 20, and had her first child at 22. She didn’t work when she was a young mother. Her husband didn’t want her to.

“I was quite young when I met him, he was 5 years older and his goal was always to have his wife at home with the children, career wasn’t something that was offered at that point.”

But after 18 years the marriage ended. And Janel needed a job. She’d pitched in at her family’s business on and off over the years and she had always admired her father’s assistant, a German woman who effectively ran the operation. This lady knew every little detail of what went on. Janel says she became indispensable. She is still with the business decades later.

Janel wanted to be like her. In her late thirties she got her first fulltime admin job…

“That really I think started out as a cupcake role, like you sit at the front desk and look pretty, and bring them drinks at 4 o’clock…that evolved into me working on disaster relief plans, disaster recovering plans for an IT firm. It all interwove, and I knew that this support role was what I wanted to do.”

AM-T: “What do you love about your current job and what you do every day?”

“It allows me to be very anticipatory, it allows me to know the boss’s or president’s schedule in and out, to anticipate his every move, his every need, his calendar, appointments, who wants to see him, know who he wants to see, who he doesn’t. And my personality responds very, very well to the assistant role and I’m passionate about it because it is my job to make him look better.”

She takes pride in that. As Jessica said a bit earlier, this job can’t be all about you, and Janel is fine with that. 

“I am very much a people pleaser and my temperament – I don’t need to be upfront, I get uncomfortable when they say thank you in front of people. I have a pleasure knowing what I did, I did well.”

AM-T: “Is there anything that frustrates you about the role of assistant in general?

“It’s interesting, as I’ve thought back on it, that we are really never recognized until we do something wrong, until there’s a misstep. I think a lot of people, especially the men I’ve supported, they think it’s just a seamless thing but it’s really like the duck paddling, it’s super calm on the top but crazy underneath. And as long as you present the super calm on the top people don’t need to know all the crazy that went on behind that.”

But recently she and some of her colleagues did get some recognition – even if it was perhaps somewhat mandated. It was National Administrative Professionals Day in April.  

“The CEO of our company and the number two of our company came in and they recognized the fact their lives were so smooth because they could holler their secretaries’ names out the door and she had it. It was nice to hear from men in fairly powerful positions they did know the role a good admin could play.”

Janel has worked for women too. She says the main difference she observed was that the women were – surprise – a lot busier, they were juggling more. Janel sometimes watched a sick kid at the office while the mother was in meetings. And she enjoyed that. She says her women bosses let her in a bit more on their private lives, whereas the man she’s working for now keeps his home life very private.

One thing I remember from my own past as an assistant was feeling awkward among friends with more prestigious jobs. Janel can relate.

She has a group of girlfriends she goes out with regularly. She says they’re hard working, talented…

“…and have extremely strong careers in the HR field or the marketing field or the management field. And these girls have been career-minded from day one and I love and respect them so very much. I do feel inadequate at times because I’m the secretary. And whether that’s my own fear or, if I’m projecting that on them…”

She doesn’t want to make out that her friends make her feel bad. Because they don’t, exactly, it’s just…

“There’s not a ton of accomplishment you get when you’re sitting around having wine and cheese and they’re talking about accounts, and wins, and programs, and you’re like well, I got the coffee delivered on time this week.”

But most of the time she feels good about what she does. She sees younger women come in and try to get a foot on the ladder by starting out as an assistant. She admires their tenacity, and she gets it – they want to use their education and keep moving up. But she believes women like her probably make better assistants, because they’re dedicated to that job. She says in every place she’s worked…

“I strive to learn every bit about their business. I sit with our financial people. I read the PowerPoints, I know about the ins and outs and that helps me be a more educated supporter of the boss. So that helps me know where we’re headed, where his stresses are.”

She also spends her quieter times – when her boss is traveling – making sure she’s up to date with the latest additions of programs like Excel and PowerPoint.  She’s conscious that she can’t let her tech skills slip.

“There’s always a new thing to learn. And number one it keeps my mind fresh and current and number two it only adds to my desirability in the role.”

But she admits she has trouble with that perennial interview question – where do you want to be in a year, three years, or five years? She says for her, the answer is always the same.

“I want to be so much better at what I do, I want to gain trust and confidence that I am very competent, I don’t need seven promotions, I don’t need to branch out into a different department, I’m very content to support a person who’s in charge, and having them trust me and know that I’ve got their back.”

And even though Janel loves her job, she was surprised when I told her it’s still the top job for women in the US. Jessica Williams in London was less surprised. She says admin roles can be incredibly varied, and sometimes offer flexible hours, too.

But for me, the fact so many women are still doing this work…

AM-T: “…something about that niggles at me. And I think it’s the support thing. We’re nearly always supporting men in these roles. And I worry that the reason so many of us still do these roles is because we may be under-confident and think we can’t do another type of role. That is I think the nub of what makes me a little bit uncomfortable about these statistics. Cos I know that when I was doing it I was under confident, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I worry about that, I think do women still think that they can’t do their own thing?”

“I’m sure some women do, not all of them, I think you and I are testament to that. I’m an example of someone who started younger, did it for 12 years, enjoyed it, learnt a lot from it, decided I wanted to step out from the shadows and do something myself. Rather than supporting the boss I felt I wanted to be the boss, because I felt that it was my time. I think that’s something we’re gonna see with a lot of our junior candidates. I don’t think the traditional role of the career PA is something we’re going to see last for much longer. But I really want people to recognize the role of an assistant is an amazing profession in its own right and it can be an extraordinary stepping stone to anything that you want to do.”

But to take that first step – whether you want a career as a PA or something else, you have to be hired. And Jessica says as her business in London took off she kept noticing something about her clients that bothered her. Even companies with well established diversity programs –  they were picking women candidates for assistants, and white women at that. Other applicants just weren’t landing interviews. So Jess and her colleagues devised a scheme – an experiment of sorts.

They now send clients a list of the top 3 candidates for a position. But all the client sees on the page is a list of the person’s skills, where they’ve worked, any education and qualifications and a summary of their character.

“But that is it. We don’t give any indication as to the gender of the person or their ethnic background or any other information that isn’t relevant to their ability to do the job. It’s really early days but what we’ve found – it’s remarkable. There are candidates that we may have sent to three or four employers and who were not being picked for interview, who are now being seen.”

She says as recruiters, she and her staff have a responsibility to make their industry fairer…

“Because if we don’t do it who else will? The buck has to stop with us. Or otherwise in ten years time we’re still going to have a landscape in our industry that looks much as it does now. A primarily female talent pool and in some industries, only some, but some industries, employers still hiring on the basis of where that person was born, the kind of education they’ve had and where they went to school, which is in my opinion, absolutely…it’s not just irrelevant, it doesn’t just irritate me because it makes absolutely no business sense, but it’s fundamentally wrong. And there are lot of other stories I could tell you of other recruiters in my industry who are still operating right now who I know for a fact screen on behalf of their clients on the basis of gender and ethnicity.”

And let’s not forget looks bias – which can take a few forms.  Some of you remember this story that blew up about a year ago – an assistant in London was sent home from her temp job when she showed up wearing flats. The job apparently required her to wear 2-4 inch heels.  

I asked Jess if she’s come up against this kind of thing, and she has. She told me about a temp job that involved wearing a uniform – the uniform came in two sizes, a UK 8 and 10. She was a 12. And because the uniform didn’t fit, she too was sent home from the job. She says sure, looking presentable in a public-facing role like this is important. But…

“It’s perfectly possible to look polished and smart and professional and make a really good first impression without having to wear a tight-fitting blouse or a stiletto heel. And I just find it distasteful and I find it irrelevant...totally...I think it’s bonkers that it still happens. But there you go. I had the flat shoe fight a lot by the way, when I was younger. I had a lot of recruiters tell me off for wearing flat shoes. But when you’re working in an admin job you spend a lot of time on your feet. It’s just not practical to be running around in stilettos the whole time, I think it’s amazing if people can do it but I can’t.”

Jessica Williams of Sidekicks. Thanks to her and Janel Wallace for being my guests on this show.

That’s the Broad Experience for this time. As usual I’d love to hear from you, especially if you are an assistant or if you’ve been one. You can leave a comment under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com or on the show’s Facebook page. Or you can tweet me or email me.

Thanks to those of you who have pitched in with a donation to the show – either a one off or if you’ve become a monthly sustainer as a listener in England did recently. If you’d like to join them just go to TheBroadExperience.com/support. Those donations help keep the show going, so thank you.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.