City+: In the Square Mile your day will rarely go to plan. Annabelle Thorpe talks to the women who keep the wheels of commerce turning
The City of London, home to some of the oldest financial institutions in the world, is not known as one of the most politically correct areas of London. Although still very much male-dominated, women are slowly coming up into every level of City business. But many of the women in the smart suits scurrying to work in the mornings are PAs and secretaries, staff who are just as integral to the smooth running of London's financial district as the bankers, brokers, traders and dealers.

According to Emma Brooks, PA to the finance director of a leading City finance company, attitudes to support staff in the City are not all they could be. "Whatever people say, I've found that the City is still a very male-dominated place - and secretaries don't always get the respect they deserve. I have a fantastic boss, but it's often people lower down the scale who have an arrogant and out-of-date perception of support staff."

As a PA, Emma's first responsibility is to make sure her boss is aware of everything that is happening and organise his day for him. "He's incredibly busy so he needs me to smooth things out for him and organise his meetings and diaries. We have offices all over the world and my boss spends a lot of his time travelling to the different offices. He is away a lot - probably once a month at least - and I have to make all his travel arrangements, get hotels and cars sorted and liaise with the office he's going to see. While he's away my main responsibility is to be his communication link and the frontline person in his absence."

Emma's day starts about 8.45am, and it is often impossible to predict how the day will be. "I don't think I've ever walked into the office and found the day goes according to plan. In the financial world things happen very quickly, and you can't always plan for them. You have to think on your feet and act quickly - you'll often find yourself doing things at the last minute."

Melanie Davis, who works as a temp in various City banks, agrees. "The work is often fairly standard secretarial work, lots of typing, opening the post, answering the phone - but the pressure can be quite high," she says. "Because of the nature of commerce, it often goes in peaks and troughs - you'll be really quiet for a while and then three people will want something doing immediately. Quite often it will be a presentation, or a complicated spreadsheet, and it is quite a pressure to get it done to time."

According to one agency that deals with financial secretaries, without a good knowledge of Excel and Powerpoint there is no hope of getting a job in the City. "All companies want extensive knowledge of spreadsheet, presentation and database packages," says Jayne Davis, a temps controller. "Compared to other jobs there may be little correspondence as such, but secretaries are responsible for putting together complicated reports and sheets and sheets of figures. City employers tend to be quite demanding and expect their support staff to have a thorough knowledge of the system they're using."

But if the job is pressurised, the rewards are higher than in many other areas. A financial secretary can expect to earn up to about pounds 20,000, and the salaries for PAs are often upwards of that, with temps earning about pounds 10 an hour.

Both Melanie and Emma agree that there is a formality in the City that perhaps doesn't exist elsewhere. "I always wear a suit to work," says Melanie, "as do most of the secretaries. Everyone dresses smartly in the City - which can be an expense, if you're not particularly well off."

Emma agrees. "I wouldn't feel comfortable in the office without a jacket on and I know my boss expects me to be smartly turned out."

Although both admit that attitudes to secretaries/PAs in the City are not all they could be, both enjoy their jobs. "I'm lucky in that my boss is fairly unconventional and I've managed to mould the job to how I want it to be," says Emma. "I get on well with him and we have a good relationship. I do think I'm lucky though," she adds. "I go out at lunchtime and see groups of traders and dealers all shouting and being thoroughly obnoxious and I think - God, I couldn't work for you!"