Keys to success

Is a secretarial job a step in the right direction - or the beginning of a long walk down a cul-de-sac? Emma Cook talks to women who moved on from making the tea to making the decisions
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The Independent Online
Depending on your attitude, a secretarial job can be a blessing or a curse; a golden opportunity or a dead end. Avoiding the latter depends on personal ambition, training and the perceptions of the employers themselves.

The good news is that where once there was a fear that technological advances may reduce the role and importance of the secretary, precisely the opposite has happened. As well as being au fait with typing and shorthand, secretaries are often expected to be familiar with the latest computer software - and to possess good communication and management skills. In short, secretaries are more qualified than ever to move up the company ladder.

Vivienne Pattison, now an account manager for Midas PR, a publishing PR company, left university seven years ago with a degree in Victorian studies. "It was when the recession really hit and there weren't any jobs around. I went on a secretarial course and then did some work experience for a large publisher. Then they offered me a job as a full-time secretary."

In publishing, the transition from typist to PR is an established one, especially if you're a graduate. But this still doesn't mean it's an easy jump to make. Vivienne recalls, "The leap between secretary and press officer was so difficult. There are an awful lot of people doing the same thing and you have to prove you've got the experience. I had to go off and do PR for a radiator company before I could get back into publishing." She still feels it was a successful stepping stone. "I'd do it every time", she says. "The best thing is the people you get to know - the contacts you make."

Lucy Butler, a series producer for BBC2, feels exactly the same way about her first post as secretary for the BBC eight years ago. "The best thing about it was being able to say, `I work in television.' It gave me a lot of leeway." Lucy was able to use her language degree to pursue a job in television research after about a year of secretarial work. Like Vivienne, she says the move wasn't easy - it took determination. "Getting the first research job was very hard - I had to be pushy and prove I was fluent in Russian. Then they let me do some translation which led to bits of research which I then exaggerated to get my next job." Lucy also had fears that her employers may fall for the adage, once a secretary, always a secretary. "I was worried that people wouldn't give me the chance to move on - that they'd see me just in this one role."

Ros Taylor, director of the management consultancy Plus Consulting, warns that Lucy's fears aren't wholly unwarranted.

Secretarial work can be a foot in the door to a particular field, like television or publishing, but to step up the ladder you may well have to go elsewhere. She explains, "Once you're in a servile role it can be very difficult for people to change their perceptions of you." She cites the example of Working Girl, the secretarial feel-good film of the Eighties, where Melanie Griffith had to fight tooth and nail to prove her salt. "She had to pull off some pretty radical things to change perceptions and I think that's what you have to do. Unless you move to another company, which is often what happens."

Add to this, Ms Taylor argues, that being a secretary and female can be a bit of a double bind. "Women can be particularly bad at pushing themselves forward. I've spoken to a lot of managers who say, `We'd love to employ more female administration staff but they never ask.' This may sound pessimistic until you look at the radically different way that men use secretarial posts. "If they go in as a PA it would really be a matter of months before they moved up", says Ms Taylor.

Something both Lucy and Vivienne have witnessed in their respective areas. "I've never met a male producer who started out as a secretary", says Lucy. "They either go in as runners or junior researchers." While in publishing, men's relationship with the keyboard and the shorthand pad is invariably short and sweet. "Men get out of it much quicker, says Vivienne. "Or they're more likely to go into the editorial side straight away."

Jessica Hall-Smith started as a secretary in the Joyce Guiness Partnership, a secretarial recruitment consultancy where she is now a partner. In her experience, the chance to move across depends as much on the industry you choose as your gender. If there are jumps to be made, stick to the media and avoid the traditional professions. "The older companies such as law and accountancy and all the bigger blue-chip ones are very difficult to move across in", she says. "They tend to have certain roles that are all allocated, but in anything creative where it depends on you rather than your professional qualification it is easier."

Ms Hall-Smith also emphasises that a great deal depends on the secretary's personal motivation. "I very often place someone then three months later the same job comes back because they've learnt the ropes and moved up. Then I'll place someone else there and they don't want to go any further. It really depends on you." Amanda Fone, 33, now a main board director with the secretarial recruitment consultants Angela Mortimer, started out 15 years ago as a receptionist in the same company. From the beginning she was determined to prove herself. "I never felt I was in a secretarial trap even though I started out answering the phone all day. The main thing is taking initiative, which can mean extra work. I used to go home at weekends and learn eight or nine facts about our most important clients. Then I'd ask to be included in meetings."

Like Ms Taylor, she feels that some secretaries aren't pushy enough.

She says it's important to ask about promotional opportunities during the initial job interview. "Many are scared to because of the myth that ambitious secretaries are seen as a threat to the company. But if you don't want to seem too overly aggressive ask questions like, `Are there examples of secretaries who've moved on in the company?'"

But what's clear is that to get on as a secretary, a degree is becoming something of a necessity. Amanda, not a graduate herself, says, "There are some roles where the secretarial role and the graduate trainee role are merging. You need to have a degree to compete for management and software skills to start on the ladder."

This is mixed blessing for all those searching for the elusive springboard opportunity. On the one hand, it's far more competitive these days - secretaries who want to get on have to to be well-qualified, academically and technically. But with this comes a renewed respect for the role of the secretary itself - one that is rapidly gaining in status and potential. As Polly Bird, author of The Working Woman's Handbook, says, "Never assume that anybody is `just' a secretary in these times. Gone are the days of `Take a letter Miss Smith'. Anybody who goes into a good secretarial job and thinks, `Oh, this is it', is taking a very shortsighted view' "