Typecast role tempts men

Male graduates are taking secretarial jobs as the first rung on the career ladder
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The Independent Online

Men and women are swapping traditional workplace roles, according to a report from the TUC. The number of female business and financial professionals has increased by 41,000 over the past three years, a rise of 61 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of men in secretarial jobs has gone up by 56 per cent, the reason for which remains an enigma to most people, particularly since many are graduates.

Men and women are swapping traditional workplace roles, according to a report from the TUC. The number of female business and financial professionals has increased by 41,000 over the past three years, a rise of 61 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of men in secretarial jobs has gone up by 56 per cent, the reason for which remains an enigma to most people, particularly since many are graduates.

The secretarial role has altered radically, even within the past decade. "With layers of middle management disappearing and the recent downsizing of companies, office support roles are no longer perceived as merely being about an 'extra wife' to a manager," says Alan Smithers, a professor and director for education and employment research at the University of Liverpool. "Rather, they are recognised as including overseeing IT, training, marketing, personnel and managing small projects."

Indeed, top salaries for personal assistants now reach £40,000. Paul Jacobs, director of communications at the recruitment consultancy Office Angels, says: "A new breed of 'execusecs', who can turn their hands to a range of different tasks, is emerging."

Of the temporary staff Office Angels deals with, 25 per cent are men - a figure representing an increase of 10 per cent in the past year alone.

Mr Jacobs believes the influx of ambitious people into such posts is a reflection of the narrowing gender gap between workplace roles rather than "swapping". However, men don't tend to stay in support roles as long as women. "Many of them have realised it's an effective first rung on the ladder of their career," explains Alison Stimpson, a careers adviser. "With around 200 universities and higher education institutions in the UK catering for more than 1.7 million students - that's almost double the number in higher education a decade ago - graduates have had to find new ways into professions. Temping has proved to be the most popular route."

This tactic is even becoming prevalent in the City, says Susan McFarlane, marketing executive at the financial recruitment consultants Crone Corkill. "A few years ago, a City secretary stayed a City secretary. But today, many are able to use their positions as the first rung on the ladder towards becoming a broker, or alternatively towards getting a top City role in marketing, accounting or human resources."

Given that many of these positions have traditionally been filled through headhunting, this marks a radical change, claims Ms McFarlane. Men, she believes, have been quick to take advantage of it. For some, entry into support roles is a response to growing student debt. Graduates meet that final essay deadline and realise that an immediate job is required if they are to have any hope of repaying their loans and overdrafts as quickly as possible. By this time they may have built up a decent typing speed, as well as a sound knowledge of the latest software. They may be not bad at presentation and organisational skills, and able to show that they are blessed with the odd brain cell or two. Temping is ideal.

Peter Alexander, 23, is one such person. "It was only after I'd been working as a PA for an insurance company for a while that I realised I'd quite like my boss's job," he says. "I also realised that I was learning far more about the business by working day-to-day with a top businessman than I ever would from a graduate training scheme where I might be one of 20 people struggling to get themselves noticed. All of a sudden, it dawned on me that this was one of the best jobs to have as a graduate."

Daniel Lay, a graduate aged 25, also advocates the secretarial route. "I'd been temping for NatWest for just three months when the company offered me a permanent contract with a view to fast promotion. In actual fact, I didn't want the job so I thought I'd check out whether the same thing would happen at Standard Chartered bank, where I really wanted to work. Sure enough, it did."

But Mick Cooper, senior lecturer in applied social science at Brighton University, is less optimistic about the trend. He believes the re-entry of men into support jobs could potentially widen the gap between gender roles at work. "What research hasn't yet concluded is whether it's the increased responsibilities and status of secretarial work that has led to more men doing the job, or whether the fact that more men do the job has led to the increased responsibilities and status," says Mr Cooper. "If it's the latter, men are in danger of pushing women back out of the picture."

Consider Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, he says. "There was a sudden influx of women becoming doctors and the status of doctors then dropped, with men opting out. Sadly, it's still possible for gender to have this kind of influence, and what we could be witnessing here is the flipside of the coin."

For the time being, however, there appears to be no such threat. Indeed, the recruitment consultancy Marshall Tapp claims many employers are still reluctant to employ male support staff. "Five per cent of respondents to our survey said that they would not give a man's CV the same consideration as a woman's," said a spokesperson.

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