Life's Work: Take a letter mr brown

Women want him as a status symbol; male bosses are more wary. Perhaps that's why the male secretary remains little more than a myth, says Bill Saunders
veryone wants him to exist. Trend spotters have long predicted his arrival. Common sense dictates he must exist. But the longing expressed for him is so passionate that one suspects that it stems from something irrational. The male secretary remains barely more than a rumour, yet the hunt for him reveals much of what men and women really think about each other in the workplace.

The writing on the wall is plain enough. More young men are unemployed than young women. Eighty per cent of new jobs go to women. So surely men should be anxious to break into what is considered women's work. But they are not. According to Reed Employment less than one per cent of secretarial staff are male. But even Reed's statisticians are eager to point out that this figure does allow some growth. Five years ago it was less than four- fifths of one per cent. Even so one could make out a more substantial case for the existence of the tooth fairy. Yet many still yearn for him. Like all employment agencies Maine Tucker, a Jermyn Street consultancy that specialises in supplying personal assistants to top executives and even foreign royal families, cannot and will not discriminate on grounds of gender. But its managing director, Amanda Maine Tucker, admits that many of her clients express interest in having a male PA. "They never stop asking," she says, "but they are not available." These clients tend to be high-powered women executives. The reason they give for their preference is that men are "less emotional". They argue that the work of an executive PA is a high pressure job and men stand up to it better. (True, it is a demanding job, but surely these women didn't achieve their own eminence by weeping in the loo because they were having a bad hair day.) According to Amanda Maine Tucker there is also an element of having a status symbol. Such prejudices are common. A survey of personnel professionals conducted by Reed Employment turned up similar attitudes. Men are more logical, it is alleged, more dedicated, less likely to go sick, and of course "less catty". A chap lends tone, too. "More like an executive secretary," according to one respondent, "than a girlie PA". Men do not have it all their own way, though. Women are believed to be more flexible, and capable of doing more than one thing at a time. Some of these compliments are backhanded. Women are thought to better suited to mundane tasks. Men, you see, might get bored. Oh dear.

Many respondents, however, simply said that since they had never seen a male secretary they had no idea what they might be like. Amanda Maine Tucker can only recall interviewing two, among the many thousands of women she has seen in the course of her career. Her firm did employ a man in that other traditional female role of switchboard operator for a year and a half. As an artist, he wanted a job with fixed hours and he proved very good at it. Among other things, he provided a touch of balance in an all-female office. In general, those men who take up secretarial work do so on a temporary basis. A spokeswoman for Reed confirms that most male temps tend to be creative people who work simply to pay the bills. As casual jobs go it is not a bad way to make a living: with the right skills, work is plentiful, and in London relatively well paid at between pounds 9 and pounds 10 per hour. Even so, few men bother to acquire basic secretarial skills. There are only two men currently enrolled at Queen's Business and Secretarial College and generally men make up about one per cent of students. When they do enrol it is usually on the shorter courses with the aim of picking up typing and shorthand in order to follow another profession such as journalism.

It is interesting to compare this with the rise of the graduate secretary in the Nineties. Once it was received wisdom that any ambitious woman who learned to type was booking herself an express ticket to Dogsbodyville. Attitudes to secretarial work have changed and now about half the places on Queen's shorter courses are taken by women graduates. Not only do secretarial skills ensure steady work in what is still a fairly difficult job market they can also provide an entree into an otherwise exclusive career. This is especially true for such desirable media jobs as public relations. It is becoming more common for secretaries to find themselves working for someone who used to be a secretary herself.

Meanwhile the main obstacle for male secretaries is the attitude of their own sex. According to the Reed survey "men don't like employing male secretaries". They are "embarrassed" when asking a male secretary to do menial jobs such as tea-making. And some are more embarrassed if the secretary complies, since they "consider men to be effeminate if they are performing this role". According to one respondent, male secretaries "work well in the armed forces and city firms, but would my boss prefer a male to an efficient, pretty face?"

'My ideas about women have been blasted away'

James Clarke became a temporary secretary through, he says, "not really knowing what to do with my life". He has no regrets, however. Temping has taken him to "some pretty interesting places" and has finally led him to decide to train as a solicitor after a inspiring spell in a law firm. He is an electronic engineering graduate and took to temping after a spell working in design. He acquired his keyboard skills at school, where an anti-sexist policy insisted on introducing boys to typing, needlework and cookery. "A far-sighted idea," as he sees it now. Eyebrows have been raised as he has turned up at assignments over the past two-and-a-half years, but he says he has experienced no prejudice. Many of his preconceptions about women "have been blasted away" through working in female environments. He agrees that men are missing out by not acquiring secretarial skills. Temping is a way of making contacts that can lead to greater things.

'I served in the Gulf war. Now I serve coffee'

By his own admission, Peter Moore looks like he should be on a nightclub door. So when he turns up as a temporary secretary the first reaction is disbelief. Once he has established his credentials, he settles in well. He was a soldier for seven years and served in the Gulf war; then he taught mountain survival at an outdoor centre. After moving to London to be near his girlfriend he took up office work and immediately saw the advantages of secretarial skills. Initially he taught himself on his home computer before broadening his skills with training provided by his agency. He enjoys working with women. While he misses the chance to talk about football he says he usually finds things to chat about. He finds the frankness with which women discuss their personal lives can be overwhelming: "There are times when I feel I should duck away and make a coffee." Ultimately he plans to move on to office management or to set up a secretarial service from home.