Not quite true to type
My week as a male secretary
Thursday 9am. I receive my first letter in my new holiday job as a secretary. The sender has crossed out Miss J P Flintoff on the envelope and written instead Ms J P Flintoff. What she has not guessed is that I am a man.
11am. A chap comes into the office I share with Sarah, the other departmental secretary, and asks: ‘’Are you girls ready for lunch yet?’’ He is not blind and I wear a shirt and tie, brogues and occasional whiskers, but his old habit dies hard. I took over the job from Joanna, and as far as he is concerned, the room I work in will always be The Girls’ Room.
Friday 12. I am late arriving at a secretaries’ forum and get stared at by fifty-odd women. Before the lecture begins, new faces are introduced. They stand and smile for their colleagues. ‘’Lastly, the one you’ve all been waiting for… J P Flintoff !’’ I bow, to applause and even some cheers – presumably just for being a man.
The secretary-in-chief, Daisy, has been kind. She says the department is lucky to have me. But the fact is that men can’t easily get temp jobs as secretaries, as many students have found this summer. Clients tell agencies off the record that they don’t want a man – and no agency is going to lose a client in pursuit of equal opportunities. Male temps are sent to work in post rooms or on switchboards – even when qualified for better- paid secretarial work.
4pm. The editor of the in-house newspaper sniffs the possibility of a story when she hears there is a male secretary on the staff. I am happy to be featured until I receive the distinct impression that the plan is to illustrate the article with a photograph of me with a big teddy bear or a bunch of flowers on my desk.
For some reason there is a popular belief that a man in a ‘’woman’s’’ job is likely to be effeminate: everyone asks when I am going to wear a skirt. Perhaps I should add a sort of military suffix to my title, and become, say, Secretary-General, like Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
Monday 9.15am. The first instance of real condescension: calling us girls is one thing – nobody would call men in their mid-twenties boys – but bringing me two letters to type and then rushing back to stress that there are two of them shows a distinct lack of confidence in my powers of observation.
Five minutes later, the second instance: I am asked to retrieve a car from the garage where it has been repaired, so that my boss can get to his meeting on time. ‘’Obviously,’’ he points out, ‘’you don’t need to call me a cab this time.’’ Obviously, I reply.
Junior managers are noticeably more careful when seeking my help rather than Sarah’s. Sometimes they go to her for something they know to be my responsibility. She then asks me. I say yes. In this way the difficulty of asking a bloke a favour is skirted round.
Tuesday Sarah is ill, but this is the quietest day I’ve had – even though I have her work to do as well as my own. All the extra requests from management have miraculously ceased. I have no longer had to send faxes and call cabs – they’ve managed to do it themselves. It’s as if Sarah’s presence rubs off on me the somehow ‘’humbler’’ status of a ‘’girl’’.
11am. A visitor comes into my room and makes himself at home, fiddling with pens on my desk. I ask if I can help and he says: ‘’No, it’s OK, I’ll wait until the secretaries come back.’’
3.30pm. A university friend asks the switchboard to put him through to me, adding that he thinks I am a secretary. The operator, who says hello and goodbye to me every day but has no idea what I do, says: ‘’Oh no, dear, he’s not on the admin staff – he’s a consultant. He wouldn’t like to hear you call him a secretary!’’
But I don’t mind calling myself a secretary. Men in other companies often call themselves assistants, which is a cowardly euphemism. If being a secretary is a source of shame, then there is little point in being one. I have found it fascinating – but then I don’t intend to be one for ever.