"We've reached the end of the labour market and the beginning of the skills market," says Alec Reed, Executive Chairman of Reed Personnel Services, the leading employment agency group in the UK. "It is vital to gain the technical abilities and qualifications before you apply for any job, but it is equally important to brush up on your communications skills and become service-orientated. Charm is a big part of service. A macho approach isn't highly sought after these days."
As muscle becomes an obsolete tool, so men are, apparently, increasingly seeking women's jobs. According to the Equal Opportunities Commission statistics released this week, last year, for the first time in its 20- year history, the organisation received more complaints from men than women about discrimination in the workplace.
You can see why the men are complaining. Even though women's work generally comes encumbered with the baggage of low pay, poor conditions and even worse prospects, a humble beginning as a secretary has often been the way that many high-flying women have got their foot in the door. And many men who have made it in a woman's world have found it a very rewarding place to be.
Stephen Franklin, for example, found that a foray into women's roles could work to his advantage. having been an accountant for five years, Franklin decided three years ago to try for a career in television. Too old to seek the standard, post-university route of traineeships, he was advised by an insider that the best way to get in at the ground-floor at the BBC was as a secretary. So he went to college, learnt how to type 50 words per minute, honed his telephone manner and landed a job in the pool at BBC Manchester. After a brief tryst with drama, he was assigned to work for Janet Street Porter, then Head of Youth.
"I was Janet's number two secretary, so I was never actually invited in for dictation," he says. "But I think she thought I was pretty efficient, unusually efficient some might say." Or maybe just unusual. So unusual, in fact, people noticed him and asked what he was doing working as a secretary. Which was a good thing: he could tell them.
"I think because I was a man people kind of took it as read that I wasn't planning to stay a secretary for long," he says. Indeed within five months of arriving in the cockpit of yoof, Franklin was offered a job as a runner on a travel show and is now working as an assistant producer on high-profile documentaries.
"I know girls who have followed the same path have found it much, much harder to persuade people they want to do more than be a secretary," he says. "I know I got chances given to me that wouldn't be offered to a girl because she simply wouldn't be noticed. She wasn't a curiosity."
Padraig O'Luanaigh is another curiosity. For two years, he has been boldly going where few men have gone before in the female labour market: he is a community midwife in Letchworth, Hertfordshire.
"I'm not quite sure why people seem so surprised," he says of his chosen profession. "If a girl introduced me to her parents as Paddy, the gynaecologist, they wouldn't bat an eye-lid, in fact they'd probably kiss my backside. But if she introduced me as Paddy, the midwife, I'd probably get the door slammed in my face. Yet we're both working in the same area, as it were."
From the start O'Luanaigh found the profession remarkably open and tolerant; his colleagues, his clients, his friends have never once questioned that he is not as capable at the job as a woman. Fathers in particular seem pleased there is another bloke around, an ally in the alien world of the delivery room. Though he admits they may just be confused. In the obverse of the mistake which most irritates female doctors (when patients call them nurse) he finds himself constantly being addressed as doctor.
"I've very rarely come across any prejudice," he says. "The only people who have been openly sniffy about me were a couple of male GPs who said it was women's work and a lesbian midwife I was on a radio programme with and who may have been working on her own agenda."
In fact, so positive has been attitudes to him, that O'Luanaigh has found himself promoted at a rate so accelerated Jeremy Clarkson would be impressed.
"I'm not sure if it's because I am good at the job," he says, "Or if, because I'm a man, people immediately assume that I must be interested in a career and therefore give me lots more responsibility. Either way, I think it's true to say that men in midwifery generally do pretty well."
Working in a woman's world, Padraig O'Luanaigh has discovered, has other, subtler effects on a man. Studies suggest that men and women tackle management in different ways. Simplistically, women are conciliatory and prepared to consult with colleagues while men are more, well, patriarchal. O'Luanaigh has found his approaches to colleagues have perceptibly altered since he has been working in a female-dominated workplace.
"I feel I have a much more womanly attitude, though whether I've learnt it or I had it naturally, which enabled me to fit in better, I don't know," he says. "Though that tends to be to the women. One thing that's surprised me is I'm much tougher on male subordinates than I am on female. I'm much less accommodating. I don't know, I suppose it's because I think if they're men doing a woman's job they're going to have to prove themselves all the more." It sounds, many women will attest, a strangely familiar story.
Lukas Welander, a 23 year old from Gothenburg, has landed on his feet in a traditional no-go area for men: childcare. He has been living with a family in West London since last September, working as their au pair. Lukas's duties are not exactly onerous - get the seven-year-old boy up, make his packed lunch, take him to school, meet him afterwards, babysit twice a week, hoover, dust, iron - but they are not the kind of thing most 23-year-old men indulge in.
"It's not that difficult," he says of his job. "And I can't really refuse because I know a lot of au pairs have much more to do than me. Besides, I get my food, accommodation and pounds 35 a week to be in London for a year. As a student it would cost me much more. Actually it's a very good deal."
Although there were one or two raised eyebrows among mothers when a strapping young lad turned up at the school gates to collect a seven year old for the first time, Lukas is not alone. Many local mothers who have seen him in action are beginning to see the point. After all, if you are going to have a 23-year-old Swedish au pair living with you and your husband, it might be best, all things considered, if they were male.
TODAY THE TYPING POOL, TOMORROW THE WORLD
Women who started at the bottom of the ladder and worked their way to the top
Named as the 11th most powerful woman in the world by a Times survey in March, CAROL GALLEY, pension-fund manager and vice-chair of Mercury Asset Management, can make or break company chairmen and chief executives with her investment decisions. She controls pounds 70bn, and her most recent coup was successfully backing Granada in its pounds 3.8bn bid for the Forte hotel group. When she came to MAM (then SG Warburg) from Leicester University in1971, she started off in the reference library, but her chutzpah got her noticed and she moved onward and upward.
VERITY LAMBERT, producer of such TV hits as Dr Who, Minder, Rock Follies and Widows, left Roedean at 16 and spent a year at the Sorbonne, followed by 18 months at a London secretarial college. She started her working life typing out French menus for the Kensington De Vere Hotel, before taking up a string of London secretarial jobs, but then decided she wanted to pursue a career in television. A job in the publicity department of Granada Television opened a few doors, and now Lambert runs her own production company, Cinema Verity.
In the news last week for having made pounds 16m from the sale of her pet insurance firm, PATSY BLOOM went into advertising at the age of 16. Starting as a secretary, she worked her way up to account manager, handling the accounts for Mary Quant Cosmetics and Oxfam. But in 1977, as she watched the treatment bills for her sick dog mount, she had the idea for Pet Plan. She and a partner invested pounds 250 each, and built up the business over 20 years. Pet Plan now employs 220 people in Brentford and has insured a quarter of a million of the nation's dogs.
JOANNA MACKLE, publishing director at Faber & Faber, started out as a junior secretary at the publishing house on graduation. Her rise was meteoric: press officer, publicity manager, head of publicity, publicity director in 5 years. She took up her present position in 1991.
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