`A smart trouser suit will not serve you as well as a short skirt, tight top and jacket'

Sexism is alive and well at secretarial interviews. Forget understated chic; think undemanding chick, says Annabelle Thorpe
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The Independent Online
There were three of them, one perched on a desk and the other two leaning against filing cabinets. Like naughty schoolboys one would make a comment and the other two would giggle conspiratorially, glancing at the other secretaries to see if the comment had reached their ears. "Well, of course we don't want a bimbo," said one archly. "We need someone with a brain." "Yes, but we don't want an ugly bird," answered the second, smoothing down his Marks & Spencer tie. "I don't want to be throwing up every time I ask her to do something."

This is not a made-up conversation. It took place in an office of a large property company, and the three men were thirtysomething surveyors, fairly intelligent and successful. They were awaiting the arrival of the next interviewee for the secretarial job that had been left vacant a few weeks before. Although the new secretary would have no dealings with two of them, they still felt the need to state their opinions, their wants, and their prejudices.

There are many things that run through your mind when you are waiting to go for an interview, but people rarely think about the conversations that are going on upstairs, along the corridor, or wherever the interview will take place. Offices are fairly monotonous places and the injection of new blood is a subject for gossip and speculation. If a CV is to hand, judgements will already have been made on the name of the interviewee, their qualifications, or past experience.

Obviously opinions do have to be formed from the information given in a CV; this is their purpose. But a CV is supposedly used to learn about the candidate's relevant qualifications and previous work experience. All too often, however, the only information that counts is address (anywhere in Essex immediately reduces the chances of an interview), marital status and, somewhat surprisingly, academic background.

"She's a bit of a thicky," said one particularly charming ad executive in an agency I temped in once, looking at a beautifully presented CV. "We don't want some bimbo who can't string a sentence together and who doesn't know one end of the kettle from another."

The girl in question had few conventional academic qualifications, but a list of secretarial abilities and knowledge of computer packages that filled half a page.

Graduates provoke equal prejudice - "We don't want some know-all arty graduate who thinks typing is beneath her." This had often been said to me, followed by a supposed compliment - "we want someone like you". Hm.

Such attitudes do seem specially reserved for secretaries basically because their role is a subservient one. They are no threat to the established hierarchy and instead their appointment can be seen as a bit of fun. There is none of the seriousness or solemnity attached that there would be about an incoming surveyor or manager.

When it comes to the secretarial interview, sexism is alive and well. Do not believe the hype. A smartly tailored trouser suit for a secretarial interview will not serve you as well as a short skirt, tight top and jacket. Not a micro-mini (remember the bimbo comment), but even so a shapely pair of legs will do you a lot more good than conversational French. Forget understated chic; think undemanding chick.

Doubtless this sort of comment will bring cries of denial from numerous Men in Grey, but the fact remains that attitudes to secretaries run deep, and an attractive woman is far more likely to land the job than an unattractive one.

Back in the property company, I was responsible for collecting the interviewees from reception and bringing them up to my boss's office where the session would take place. As we ran the gauntlet from lift to office, I tried to distract attention from the gaggle of leering blokes vying to get an eyeful of her face and legs while pathetically pretending to use the photocopier. (Since when did a man ever use a photocopier?)

When the door closed behind her and she was safely ensconced with my boss, the discussion would begin. Was she too young? Too old? Too ugly? Too fat? Too pretty? Was she a natural blonde?

The irony is that the men who were judging the interviewees would have been on the dole for years if the same criteria had applied to them. Creased shirts and clashing ties, overlunched stomachs tipping over their pinstripes, jowly cheeks and Brylcreemed hair (haven't they heard of gel?). They were hardly shining examples of the physical perfection they demanded of their employees.

When a couple of the other secretaries pointed out that they were being appallingly sexist, the men all laughed and said they were just having some fun. Of course all they were really interested in was her typing speed and shorthand abilities. None of us believed them. The truth is that many secretarial posts are given to the most attractive candidate. If you are a size 10 with good legs and a nippy suit then it is hardly going to harm your cause. Most of us, however, do not fit such stringent specifications.

This experience is not a one-off - such attitudes are prevalent in most offices I have worked in, and that spans property, banking, television production, advertising and the NHS. The worst prejudice I encountered was in the City (no surprise there then), working for a firm of commercial estate agents. They would only interview someone who was white (honestly), English and in their early twenties. Ideally, they said, they wanted someone with long blonde hair and big tits. Melinda Messenger would have been right up their street - only she would probably have been too clever for them