Thursday, August 28, 2014

On Administrative Assistants: Why “Secretary” Shouldn’t Be A Bad Word


In my senior year of high school, I was working on yearbook and often needed the principal’s approval for editorial decisions, so the office became my frequent hangout. Because I was in their workspace so much, I made friends with all of the secretaries. Getting close with school secretaries was something I had always done, though; my mother worked in secretarial positions for many years, and she always taught me to act like a mensch towards secretaries. Beyond the fact that they are human beings who deserve to be treated with respect, it’s often incredibly valuable to have a friend who can make you copies and slip you a few dollars from the petty cash stash. Secretaries are the ones who get stuff done.

And so, I have always spoken to serctearies in the same manner I would speak to any elder. I guess it’s just because of my mom’s influence, but I always go out of my way to be courteous to secretaries. When I got tagged to #feedthedeed on Facebook a few months back, I never bothered doing it. I thought it was wonderful that my Facebook friends were going out of their way to show their appreciation for secretaries, security guards, custodians, and other people with “menial” jobs, but didn’t see the need to do it myself. I treat all of the secretaries with whom I interact with politeness every day, so why do I need to take photos of it and post them on social media to prove it?

The fact that Facebook campaigns like #feedthedeed exist just come to show that my attitude is not terribly widespread. It’s no secret that secretaries are usually devalued in our society. I have always known this to be true, based off of my peers’ (and superiors’) treatment of the same secretaries who I befriended. So I guess I understand why a new euphemism for secretary, administrative assistant, has started to become popular. When I first heard it in high school, it took me a moment to get past the fancy jargon and realize that the chief administrative assistant really just means head secretary. But I don’t blame the women who worked in the school office for opting to describe their job as administrative assistant instead of secretary. If secretaries don’t get much respect in our society, maybe administrative assistants will.

But why even is there shame in being a secretary? Secretarial positions are jobs like everything else, behind a desk and answering phone calls from 9-5. Well, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that secretaries are predominantly women [find percentage]. Devaluing secretaries is part of blaming women for their own oppression, stigmatizing them for serving in submissive, low-paying positions while simultaneously blocking them from achieving higher-paying, more prestigious positions by stopping their progress (or any hopes of it) with a glass ceiling.

My default will always be to call them secretaries, but if they wish to be administrative assistants instead, then those of us on the opposite side of the desk should honor that preference. But regardless of their label, we need to stop thinking of secretaries as beneath us and start treating them as the equals they are. They’re people, and should be treated with respect by virtue of their humanity. Women especially should take pains to show solidarity with secretaries, since we are all subjects to the same oppression. A fragmented movement is a weak one. How can we hope to dismantle the power structures that keep us down if we do not fight together?