Take a letter, Mr Jones, and where's my coffee?

Despite the jokes, male secretaries are becoming an important feature of office life, says Richard McClure
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Six months ago, Michael Bond was a business analyst with British Telecom, immersed in a corporate whirl of operational units and data management. These days, he opens mail, types letters and attends to the photocopier. Bond belongs to that rare breed, the male secretary.

"After 20 years at BT, I wanted a complete change. I'd got as far as I was going to get," he explains. "A careers counsellor suggested I become a secretary and the idea really appealed. I thought it sounded quite trendy."

Now, after a month working as an office temp in London, Bond, 42, reckons he made the right decision. His salary has been cut by half and he has heard all the jokes, but he no longer suffers from continual stress. "I still have responsibilities but I don't worry about work when I get home at night," he says. "Managing people's diaries is a pain in the bum and I get fed up answering the telephones - but I don't consider secretarial work demeaning. Typing doesn't bother me and I'm happy to make tea or coffee for whoever wants it."

Bond appears to reflect a recent trend. At Pitman Training, where he took a 16-week "Secretarial Gold" course, men now make up 20 per cent of students, compared with just 6 per cent in 1991. After 158 years in the business, the company that has turned out generations of Miss Moneypennys has just launched "Office Skills for Men", its first course designed specifically for those it calls "Mr Jones".

While other job sectors downsize and diminish, the secretary is in short supply. Employment agencies are warning that half the permanent and temporary vacancies will soon be unfilled. While women have tired of subservience, men are now being welcomed into jobs in which they dominated as office clerks until the turn of the century. There is even a pitch to persuade us that secretaries are simply mini-executives: next week the Industrial Society will host a conference addressed by the great and the good entitled: "The dynamic role of tomorrow's secretary".

Well, so the theory goes. The term "secretary" may be disappearing from the business vocabulary in favour of "executive assistant" or "CCO" ("communicator, co-ordinator and organiser") but the time-honoured stereotype is not giving up without a fight. Last week, a Lancaster University survey found most female secretaries regard their boss's lewd banter as good-natured fun rather than sexual harassment. Earlier this month, the Equal Opportunities Commission reported a record number of men claiming discrimination when applying for secretarial jobs. CCO? Better make that coffee, cleavage and obeisance.

"There are a lot of horny bosses out there," admits Peter Corthine, the Pitman managing director, at the company's headquarters in Holborn, London. "It will take time for attitudes to change," he adds, a point neatly illustrated in his own office, which is flanked by a brace of female secretaries, one of whom instantly offers to put the kettle on.

On the ground floor, a smattering of male students are taking Pitman's new course. Slumped, glassy-eyed, before their computer screens, personal audio tapes instruct them in the finer points of spreadsheets and databases. Above their heads, signs on the wall urge "Success!" and "Be Top! Be Professional!" but even here prejudices persist.

"We deliberately called the new course `Office Skills for Men'. If men saw the word secretarial in the title, they'd stay away," confides the supervisor, Alex Paul. "They're obviously embarrassed when they first come in here. Most of them hate learning to type."

Her view is confirmed by the male students lounging in the common room. Becoming a secretary is the last thing on their minds. Like many of the women at Pitman, they are here solely to beef up their CVs. Mark, 18, wants to be a big player in hotel management and needs to type 25 words a minute to get into his Swiss university. Alexander, 20, has his sights set on the stock market. "I'm taking a keyboarding course because I'm chronically dyslexic," he says. "I don't have anything against secretarial work, but I think women look better in that role than men."

Neither gives a second glance to the jobs noticeboard where an "upwardly mobile executive search company" is seeking an office junior. Alexander deems the salary - a less than upwardly mobile pounds 7,000 - insufficient for him to trade his baseball cap for a suit and tie. "I'll consider temping if I don't have any luck finding a job," he concedes. "After all, the Russian royal family worked as taxi-drivers in Paris after the revolution."

It is, perhaps, not an analogy Michael Bond would choose, but he accepts that the male secretary has yet to lose his novelty value. "I haven't had any problems finding temp work, but I suspect it would be tougher if I wanted a permanent position," he says. "It's just part of a broader prejudice against secretaries. People are apt to talk to me as if I'm subhuman. I'm not. You won't find cottage cheese in my sandwiches."