SECRETARIAL STIGMA While others are tapped for careers leading to management, all but the most ambitious secretaries can get stuck in the same dead-end job


Wichita, Kan. Eve Smith, frustrated in her job as a secretary, sometimes feels like a failure.

A college graduate who works for a local manufacturer, she aspires to a job that could lead to management.

Ms. Smith (not her real name) knows her company hires college graduates for sales positions. She thinks she would do well in sales. She regularly deals with customers. She has experience. She knows the company.

She's never been considered.

"If you are a secretary, it has a negative connotation," she said. "There are some people who are satisfied being someone's assistant.

"But there are some of us who want more."

Yet many obstacles face secretaries hoping to climb the corporate ladder. Not the least of them are the stigma of being a secretary and the discrimination women still encounter in the corporate world.

Some secretaries have been tapped for jobs with career paths leading to management. But this is relatively rare. A secretarial job, more often than not, is viewed as a dead-end position.

Why are secretaries expected to do the same job, year after year, with little hope of advancement? If a company president can start on the factory floor, then why not in the secretarial pool?

"Secretaries often are extremely knowledgeable about what's going on in the office," said Sandra Albrecht, a professor at the University of Kansas. "And I think they would make excellent candidates for management."

Secretaries generally are masters at organization and have strong people skills. They are the gatekeepers of information in an office. And they understand how a company works.

"In some ways, they are the centerpiece of the office," said Ms. Albrecht, a sociologist who has studied women and work.

And more than a few secretaries could do their boss's job.

"The majority of them could probably handle it quite well," said Gerald Graham, a management professor at Wichita State University.

Mr. Graham recalls hearing a story about an executive who was discussing his replacement with his secretary.

"What about me?" the secretary asked. The executive was surprised. He had not considered her. She got the job.

Not all secretaries, of course, have the skills or the desire to be managers.

Bruce Roselle, a management consultant, doubts that a large percentage of secretaries would be good candidates for management. Mr. Roselle, who works for Personnel Decisions, a consulting firm based in Minneapolis, estimates that 25 percent of all secretaries have the potential to be good managers.

But most secretaries do not have college degrees. This is an obstacle, of course, for any employee who hopes to advance. For this reason, ambitious secretaries often take advantage of the tuition-reimbursement programs offered by most large companies.

"Just putting time in a job doesn't mean you have the skills to be a manager," said Joanne Pfau, a senior training consultant for Personnel Decisions.

Ms. Pfau also questions whether many secretaries aspire to executive positions.

"I don't think women who want to be managers, in this day and age, take jobs as secretaries," she said. "They don't need to. They have other options.

"I tend to believe they are there because they want to be there."

Ms. Pfau's daughter, who just graduated from college, won't take a job as a secretary because she knows she would be labeled as one.

Yet the fact women must avoid being "labeled" as a secretary is revealing. This wasn't always the case. At the turn of the century, when men were secretaries and clerks, the job was often the entry-level position for management.

"Increasingly, as women got into it, it was devalued. It paid less. And it was no longer a steppingstone to management," said Dorothy Miller, an associate professor at Wichita State's Women's Center.

The typewriter, in fact, was once thought too complicated for women.

"We tend to see jobs in which women predominate as being of less value than jobs in which men dominate," Ms. Miller said.

More than 99 percent of all secretarial jobs are filled by women.

"I don't think that's a coincidence. I think it's a form of sex discrimination," said Ms. Miller, who teaches a course on women and work.

"You don't have to have blatant discrimination," she added. "You can just hire women predominantly in one [career] track and hire men in another.

"But the women's track often allows for only a couple of steps up and then it stops."

Eve Smith, the secretary who has not had success advancing, desperately wants to get into a training program.

"I asked them what I can do to make myself more attractive and obtain a better position," she said.

She is only eligible, however, for seminars that pertain to her job.

The company will send her to a seminar on word processing, but not one on marketing.

"If there is any kind of career path, it is probably going into a benefits coordinator or a personnel clerk [position]," said Ronni Haston, a human resources consultant for TPF&C;, a subsidiary of Towers Perrin.

Still, this hasn't discouraged some secretaries.

"It shocks people when I tell them I am not going to be a secretary all my life," said Abbey Jacqmain, a secretary at Boeing Wichita.

Bright, articulate and ambitious, Ms. Jacqmain is working toward a degree in management. She has been lucky. One of her bosses has encouraged her and become a mentor.

"He has already told me he will help me map out a career plan and look for opportunities at Boeing." He also nominated her for a program designed to identify potential managers. "It gave me a lot of confidence," she said.

Still, few secretaries are put in management training programs. Some secretaries break out of the corporate caste system, but not without luck and not without overcoming institutional barriers. A common refrain is "once a secretary, always a secretary."

"I think sometimes what we do is just overlook secretaries," said Ms. Albrecht, the University of Kansas professor.

This corporate Catch-22, she said, may explain why few secretaries break into management. "If you put people in dead-end jobs, they don't aspire, because there is nothing to aspire to."

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