Over the last year there have been loads of news stories with PAs right at the heart of the scandal. Last year we had Nigella Lawson’s court case, Lady Gaga’s PA exposing her strange working conditions and more recently Rebekah Brook’s former PA accused of providing a false alibi and destroying evidence. Last week we had yet another story regarding Richard Scudamore’s PA leaking sexist emails to the press.
For those that don’t know, here is a quick recap: Richard Scudamore is the Chief Executive of the Football Premier League. His former temporary PA, Rani Abraham, saw a number of emails which contained jokes, sexual innuendoes and lurid descriptions of women. She leaked them to The Mirror (a popular tabloid newspaper here in the UK) causing a furor that has led to many calling for his dismissal and many many discussions around sexism and sexual harassment at work. Here is an interview Rani gave to Good Morning Britain (for those reading this on email here is a link):
As you can imagine I’ve followed this story with much interest. It is worth mentioning that the emails were sent and received via private email not by his work email address. But, and this is significant, Rani has said the emails were automatically forward to her so that she could arrange his diary. In every single one of my assistant roles I have insisted that I have complete and full assess to my Executive’s emails. I have seen all sorts of emails that should be private, are inappropriate and could cause offence. I’m sure most assistants have seen similar and not said a word about it to anyone.
We all know that confidentiality is paramount but should we really have to put up with seeing and hearing things that are rude, offence and sexist? I wonder if a lot of PAs are used to this kind of behaviour and almost become numb to it. Most of us do not work for high profile individuals so it is unlikely we would go to the newspapers with our story but we could go to our HR departments with the same evidence. I can’t imagine many assistants would do that.
So what do we do when we find ourselves in this situation? Rani has said herself she thinks her actions may cause her problems in her future career and yet Richard Scudamore has kept his job because the emails were deemed private. The outcome of this particularly story suggests PAs should remain silent for the sake of their career and the Executive goes unpunished, but surely we shouldn’t have to read or be exposed to this type of sexism? The problem is that the sexism was not directed specifically at the PA, Scudamore and his pals were discussing other women. There just so happened to be a women copied into some of the emails and she has stated that she did not find the emails offence.
A lot of journalist writing on this story have argued that male banter is juvenile, inappropriate and quite a lot of men would be accused of sexism if their conversations were exposed. I would totally agree with this – but is it an excuse? This wasn’t banter in a pub – this was over email, it was written down and it was overtly sexist. This argument doesn’t recognise the relationship PAs have with their boss, their role and how much PAs are actually exposed to. If anything, this story yet again demonstrates the tightrope PAs have to tread, mostly on their own and isolated from their colleagues.
This story actually exposes a bigger issue in our profession. Some of us do have to put up with seeing inappropriate emails and hearing inappropriate conversations but we say nothing. It can be anything from disgustingly sexist banter to everyday personal email exchanges between our Executive and their husband or wife. In my experience, many Executives are not bothered what their assistant is exposed to, which makes me wonder if they simply don’t care, don’t think we will say anything or don’t have enough respect for us? If we do not want to know the ins and outs of our boss’s life do we stop reading their emails? How are we supposed to do our job effectively if we don’t read their emails?
For me, if I saw an email from my Executive’s wife I simply wouldn’t read it. But that is my decision not an instruction from my Executive. There are obviously times when I have opened personal emails by mistake or it came up in my reading pane as I scrolled through their other emails. What happens if, in this case, the emails were between colleagues and you had every right to read them because of your job?
My point is – if your Executive doesn’t care what you are reading and doesn’t expect you to complain, how highly do they regard you professionally? They pay your wages but have they bought your silence?