Just don't ask her to take a letter

She's what used to be called a secretary, so why are you so scared of her? asks Bill Saunders
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Indy Lifestyle Online
One of the strange side-effects of the management revolution which has shaken up offices in the Nineties is that people are becoming afraid of their secretaries. The new secretary, or office manager, as she is increasingly called (and in 99 cases out of 100 it is still she) is a curious hybrid created by a sudden change of climate. No longer an appendage to an individual manager, she is firmly attached to a department, perhaps the only permanent face as managers and temps come and go on short-term contracts. She has all the privileges of incumbency but the collapse of hierarchy has left her adrift.

When everyone from the chairman to the janitor is Bob, Carol or Frank, where is she? All too often on the outside looking in, as work is no longer governed by chains of command but by tasks and projects in which she is never more than a bit-player. So she stalks the corridors without a proper job description, spreading terror and despair amongst her colleagues who are firmly locked into narrowly defined roles and frightening deadlines.

Her best known fictional representative is Ally McBeal's secretary, Elaine, whose head literally swells via special effects whenever she gets any attention. In real life there is the world-famous example of Bill Clinton's Betty Currie, who evidently sees making night-time raids on the homes of her boss's girlfriends to recover embarrassing love tokens as part of her remit. There may be a power vacuum in the Oval Office; there is no such thing in the corridor just outside it.

The power of the office manager should not be under-estimated. I once saw the editor of a woman's magazine collapse into her chair and mutter, "That's it, I'm finished here!" after she had inadvertently sent the office manager off in a huff. She had failed to treat the problem of coffee rings in the office kitchen with the gravity the office manager felt it deserved. One very well known television company is virtually held to ransom by its office manager and her iron grip on the stationery cupboard. She opens it once a week or so at very short notice. There is an announcement over the loudspeaker system and every department must send a representative to stand in line and beg for supplies. If you run out of anything in between, tough.

The role of the secretary is much discussed by management theorists. There is at least one PhD thesis being prepared on the subject. The term often used to describe the job is dragon/gatekeeper. Dragon is perhaps unfair, since it conjures up the image of a shrewish spinster, her hair tortured into a grey bun, venting her spite on underlings from the shadow of the chief executive's authority.

Secretaries these days are often young, gifted and frustrated. One of the most successful I ever encountered was Alison: tall, willowy, blonde and just out of her teens, Alison had a great trick of materialising in the doorway, her head on one side, seductively rattling a jar of instant coffee. By the time she had dealt with handing out the cream and sugar she had usually managed to gatecrash the meeting she had interrupted. Clever Alison had obviously worked out that provided she had a jar of coffee in her hand she could enter any office on the planet without knocking. Eventually she must have gatecrashed the right meeting for her. She is now head of European marketing for a multi-national.

But such opportunities are growing scarcer for secretaries. Caroline Juillard, a middle manager in an exhibition company, assesses the position of the secretary very neatly in describing her prickly relationship with Tania, secretary to her head of department. "I like her, we get on well, we often have drinks after work. But I'm terrified to ask her to do anything for me."

Part of the problem is that Tania's position is ambiguous. "Secretaries are both above you and beneath you," says Caroline. On the one hand Tania is supposed to be there to do the basics. On the other hand she has better access to the boss' ear than anybody else. And although Caroline doesn't quite say it, the other part of the problem is guilt. "Secretaries are obviously very intelligent," says Caroline, "otherwise they wouldn't be able to do their jobs, but somehow they're stuck."

Secretaries face not so much a glass ceiling as a glass wall. While it is true that more graduates are taking secretarial courses as a means of gaining access into corporate life, senior secretaries are rarely educated beyond A-levels. They have often risen comparatively swiftly to rub shoulders with senior management, but they don't have the qualifications to move on.

People often point to individual dynamos who began their careers as secretaries. Public relations is a field that is rich in examples. Both Lynne Franks, the PR who became more famous than her clients, and Angela Heylin, often regarded in her industry as the PR's PR, started out as secretaries. But that was a generation ago in a very young industry. "It couldn't happen now," says one PR executive. "Agencies and clients expect even junior account executives to be graduates."

This situation creates tension on gender lines. Elaine's hold over Ally McBeal is rooted in emotional blackmail. Ally is insecure and the line that separates her from Elaine is so barely visible that both women cannot see why it is there. It is different for men. Caroline's husband Tim is the golden boy in his office. His department secretary arranges his dry- cleaning and goes shopping for birthday presents for Tim and Caroline's daughter. His colleagues barely dare to ask for photocopying.

Caroline recently had an interesting insight into Tania's world. A shuffle of furniture found Caroline's desk beside the doorway where Tania's had once been. Passers by began to take her for a secretary. "People would ask me all sorts of questions and get impatient when I didn't know the answers. Everything on my desk was regarded as public property. People would just walk off with things. I saw what it is like to be Tania."