More and more men are getting their feet in the door by putting their hands to the keyboard, says Helen Jones
"People never think it's very macho when I say I'm a secretary. There is an underlying feeling that I must be some sort of wimp, but in fact I see it as a route to the top. I might be the chairman's assistant now, but at some point I intend to take his job," says a member of the growing band of male secretaries.

While some men may decide to become a secretary to forward their ambitions, "not everyone can become managing director," says Natalie Tapp, a partner in the recruitment consultancy, Marshall Tapp. "Some people are naturally happier in a support role and that can be very rewarding and fulfilling in the right environment."

The number of male secretaries is increasing steadily. Ms Tapp, whose consultancy specialises in media jobs, says: "In 75 per cent of the cases we handle we include a CV from a man, although I expect that figure would be lower if we were dealing with more stuffy institutions such as banking or the City."

Office Angels, a secretarial agency which handles a wide range of businesses, reports that 17.5 per cent of its placements are now male, either in full- time or temporary positions.

The elevation of the secretarial role from one that used to be dismissed as "women's work" can be put down to several factors. A shortage of jobs and graduate training places means that men are having to look at other ways of getting a foot in the door - becoming a personal assistant to a top executive can speed your way to the top. The rise of personal computers also means typing is a skill that many more men now possess. And the rewards can be high - while salaries for team secretaries with a couple of years' experience hover around pounds 14,000, top personal assistants can earn pounds 30,000- pounds 35,000 a year.

Nancy Harris, general manager of the Institute of Qualified Private Secretaries, says the image of a secretary as some sort of blonde bimbo who spent all day filing her nails has virtually disappeared. "In the past being a secretary was viewed purely as a female role but that is changing because now many people in business have to use a keyboard. I expect that we will see a lot more men attracted to the job."

Paul Fee has made a conscious decision to become a top secretary - and is the first male finalist of the Office Secretary of the Year awards, which take place tomorrow. Mr Fee, who works for the Bath Mental Health Care NHS Trust as a PA to the chief executive, has been a secretary since leaving the RAF in 1991. "I learnt my skills with the RAF, where the ability to type is not considered unusual. Although you sometimes get strange reactions when you say you are a secretary, it's a good career path."

But prejudice and "strange reactions" are one of the hazards of the job. Last week a male secretary, Alan Robinson, took a recruitment agency to an industrial tribunal claiming sex discrimination. He lost his case, but he says that at least he brought the issue of discrimination against male secretaries to the fore.

Marshall Tapp recently carried out a survey of managing directors' attitudes to male secretaries. Many were positive: "I think it is a great idea. It would stop support roles being seen as 'female' roles," was a typical comment. But the survey found that stereotypes persist, particularly among older staff. "The idea is so odd. It would be assumed they were homosexual," said one.