We should applaud Joyti, not jail her

De-Laurey has shown that when it comes to paying women what they are worth, big business is still in the Stone Age
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The Independent Online

Is a custodial sentence really the appropriate punishment for Joyti De-Laurey, the PA from hell? Anyone with the entrepreneurial skills she has so clearly demonstrated would be better off running the prison service than simply being incarcerated as another inmate. Get this woman assigned to head office and she'll soon be dealing with overcrowding, stalled rebuilding plans, poor diet and low staff morale. Her skills in extracting over £4.3 million from her bosses before they noticed would surely be well used in any government department that needs to disguise poor performance or spiralling costs. Instead of teaching people like Joyti a "lesson" by forcing her to launder sheets or wash floors, we would do better to harness her considerable talents to more positive ends.

Is a custodial sentence really the appropriate punishment for Joyti De-Laurey, the PA from hell? Anyone with the entrepreneurial skills she has so clearly demonstrated would be better off running the prison service than simply being incarcerated as another inmate. Get this woman assigned to head office and she'll soon be dealing with overcrowding, stalled rebuilding plans, poor diet and low staff morale. Her skills in extracting over £4.3 million from her bosses before they noticed would surely be well used in any government department that needs to disguise poor performance or spiralling costs. Instead of teaching people like Joyti a "lesson" by forcing her to launder sheets or wash floors, we would do better to harness her considerable talents to more positive ends.

My goodness, how the role of the humble secretary has changed over the years! Once (mostly) male bosses expected these (mostly) single women to dress discreetly, take dictation efficiently, book a table for lunch and answer the telephone with a crisp, no-nonsense manner.

Now we expect our assistants to double-guess our most intimate requirements, be highly proficient in the latest technology, and run every aspect of our existence from booking bikini waxing appointments to planning our holidays. In the age of e-mail, letter writing is almost a redundant skill - getting an upgrade from business class to first is probably more valued by the kind of people who can afford to pay their secretary £50,000 a year. Your PA has become your alter ego - and you certainly spend more time with her than you do with your partner.

The Joyti affair shines a spotlight on the way many executives now see very little division between their private and personal lives. We flocked to the cinema in the 1980s to see Dabney Coleman personify the boss from hell in the feeble comedy Nine to Five, in which Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin played under-valued secretaries determined to exact revenge on Coleman, a chauvinist pig. We laughed when Michael Douglas belted out the lines "greed is good" and "lunch is for wimps" in Oliver Stone's Wall Street.

Both films, though deeply flawed, were Hollywood's attempts to depict the changing world of office politics. By the Nineties, any boss worth his or her salt didn't have anything as conventional as a secretary, they had an executive personal assistant. Nowadays, when bosses move from one company to another, they take their personal assistants with them.

By the end of the 20th century, the spinster who had started out in 1900 taking a train up from Epsom each morning in a little hat, suit, and gloves, had become a career woman in her own right, juggling her own family and life around that of someone who worked longer hours than ever. That means she works even longer days, for far less reward, no share options, and rarely gets a bonus. She (for it is still mostly a woman prepared to submit to this subordinate role) is expected to have all the skills her boss doesn't have - tact, diplomacy, tidiness and humility - in return for a salary that is generally one tenth of what he (for it is usually a man) takes home.

The personal assistant is a slave, pure and simple. Her own life has to take second place to her boss (indeed, he will have no interest in it whatsoever), and she is expected to pander to his every whim as if it was normal behaviour. In return for unrelenting loyalty, he might toss a few trinkets in her direction or buy her a cashmere scarf at Christmas - but nothing too gorgeous in case his wife might read the credit card bill and believe that he and his PA are having an affair.

The hothouse atmosphere at Goldman Sachs is not very different from successful businesses the world over. In return for high salaries, executives are expected to bond together at every opportunity and work does not stop when they leave the office at night.

People are amply - some might even say obscenely - rewarded for handing over their lives in the cause of producing fat profits for their employers - in the case of Goldman Sachs £1.7 billion last year. Key staff are awarded millions of pounds as bonuses and in return they are expected to spend as much time as possible on the job, with gyms and excellent restaurants as in-house inducements not to leave the building for the real world outside.

In this unreal atmosphere, overpaid executives indulge in behaviour that seems bizarre - Jennifer Moses, one of Joyti's bosses, thought nothing of spending £500,000 on her 40th birthday and leaving the arrangements to her PA, who was earning a salary of just £28,000, having started at the appalling rate of £7.50 an hour as a temp at the same company in 1998. Ms Moses, and her partner Ron Beller, who also worked for Goldman Sachs, spent £86,000 on personal travel and £17,000 on wine in one year. When questioned, Mr Beller thought that another £1.2 million might have been taken from their bank accounts, but commented that "life was too short" to track it down.

Now Joyti's three victims have been bleating to the press in interviews about how they were conned by the one woman they all trusted. How they've supported charities, endowed schools and their economical, sensible wives spend less on handbags than the flamboyant Ms De-Laurey.

But are you not tempted to ask how good they are at their chosen profession of banking if millions of pounds was routinely swiped from under their noses over a period of several years without them even noticing? Has their determination to succeed at work at all costs so eroded their lives that they no longer take the trouble to do anything as demeaning as reading one of their own bank statements. Perhaps, like bikini waxing appointments, it's something you leave to underlings.

And I notice some of these so-called victims are directors of other businesses - clearly their input at board level is worth very little if they can't spot the odd £500,000 adrift in their own personal finances.

Once, I made a television series about women at work, and in one of them the then chairman of B&Q swapped jobs with his PA for a week. While she was a whizz at running the board meetings, he couldn't even programme the photocopier. Clearly, executive PAs are an undervalued asset to any business.

The trial of Joyti De-Laurey, extraordinary though the financial revelations have been, is more interesting for the way it has revealed the delicate relationship between slave and master. Having fought my way up the pyramid of power in several corporations, I have nothing but the highest regard for my PA - I would not like to be in her shoes for all the world.

In the business culture our government endorses by refusing to follow the rest of Europe and sanction a shorter working week, few women are prepared to make the sacrifices required to achieve board level. But no woman can even contemplate holding any position of responsibility without an army of other women behind them every step of the way - personal assistants, nannies and cleaners.

So, three cheers for Joyti - her story might prove that crime doesn't pay, but more importantly she has shown that when it comes to paying women what they are worth, big business is still in the Stone Age.

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