Good question right? I think so. I know so many personal assistants who are highly intelligent, experienced, skilled and  professional yet they are often deemed as the person that does the menial office tasks. Why do we allow ourselves to be seen like this? Why do we put up with it? And what actually is it that holds us back?

The secretary status

It is certainly true that the role of the assistant changed dramatically over the years. In fact I would say over my working life (now entering my 11th year) the role has developed at a very fast pace, which is great, but the shackles of our predecessors still loom large and the perception of the assistant role does hold us back.

How many of us are even called secretaries anymore? I bet the answer is very few but I also bet that many of us are treated as secretaries and are asked to do the typical tasks expected of secretaries – photocopying, typing, making coffee, note taking etc. Yes there are many skills that we want to keep from the “secretary days” but we really want to be running as far away from the old school idea of a secretary as fast as we can. The history of our role is worth celebrating – it encouraged many women into the workplace which was a huge step forward. However you don’t see people smoking in the office anymore and we shouldn’t work in an outdated environment either.

How do we overcome the secretary status? It can be hard, especially if you have a manager who has not moved on from the old days (trust me, there are loads of them still out there!) Many assistants who want to use – shall we say more modern skills – would not work for people like this in the first place. In my experience those that don’t mind being seen as the ‘secretary’ enjoy the work that they do. However, I think the faster we move away from the secretary status the more we will be taken seriously. Being taken seriously leads to more interesting tasks, more responsibilities, promotions and salary increases.

Organisational structures

Assistants come into organisations fairly low down on the company ladder and our pay tends to reflect that status. If we work within a pay grade structure it can be very hard to jump from one pay grade to the next because our competencies don’t reflect the skills needed for the majority of staff within the company (many skills are based on the needs of the industries we work in). The structure of big organisations really can hold assistants back. To overcome this I know many assistants that simply job hop so that they can increase their salary while moving up to the next level. For example a receptionist will get her next role as an administrator before leaving to become a PA for the first time and then move on again to an EA and board level role. This is really common because assistants just can’t move forward or get promoted in a company structure that isn’t designed for their needs.

Within an organisation assistants might wait for more high level assistants to leave and apply to work with their senior directors. This would be great, but once an assistants starts working with the board level directors how often do they stay? It tends to be years and years! Job hopping might not look great for the CV but it does make it much easier for assistants to receive promotions and pay increases.

Is it us?

There are many reasons that we hold ourselves back. If we are being honest can we be a little difficult to work with? Do we miss deadlines or make too many mistakes? Do we struggle to adjust to changes in the work force and new technology? Is it our lack of confidence or do we feel inadequate in the job? All of these issues will hold an individual back but not a profession so it has to be more than our own personal circumstances.

As I said at the beginning of this post, many assistants have great educations, decades of experience and can work in other professions if they wanted to. But the thing is many assistants don’t want to work in other professions because of their circumstances. Being an assistants has so many benefits. We work with the most senior members of the organisation but we don’t have the stress they have and we certainly don’t have the same pressures. Most of us can leave the office at the end of the day without a backwards glance, which, lets face it, is really nice and not that common these days. Our working hours tend to be pretty good and we can do the work that is required of us or we can take on much more. If we have a family the role becomes even more advantageous. Owing to our circumstances and the reasons we became assistants we may well be comprising the profession buy do we care when it works to our benefit?

So I do think that our own circumstances can hold our profession back but I think a lot of us become assistants because we like the perks of the job as much as we like the job itself.

Lastly and I’ve talked about this before one huge factor that holds us back is the lack of confidence many of us have in the role. I think the old secretary status and organisational structures both have a part to play in this. If we are not given respect in the role we will think of ourselves as ‘just’ the assistant. We must, must, must overcome this feeling. The best way to do this is to be proud of our profession – actually see it as a profession and take ourselves seriously. If we demand respect for our profession… well then nothing will hold us back.

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4 comments

  • Gina February 4, 2014   Reply →

    Excellent piece. I’ve been focusing on this very question in my own circumstances. This touched a nerve a couple of times. Thank you for sharing!

  • Ashley February 6, 2014   Reply →

    Thank you so much for this blog. Thank you so much for this post. Like Gina, this post touched a real nerve. I cannot express the amount of career anguish I have felt over being “just an assistant”. I’ve come to have greater appreciation for my skill set and this blog has really helped with that! I think the shift in perception must begin with us. With PAs, EAs, and Admin’s owning our professions with pride. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cringed when asked “So, what do you do?”. I am still very much working through my own relationship to my work. I really appreciate you recognizing that feeling here.

    Sincere Thanks!

  • Justine CUrtis February 14, 2014   Reply →

    Great article that I will certainly be sharing. As virtual assistants we are a little more in control of who we work with (not for!) and we can pick clients with a slightly more progressive attitude. But I agree also that confidence is key, you are never JUST an assistant, you’re the backbone of your organisation.

  • Maureen Wempe March 3, 2014   Reply →

    While I agree that the key is confidence, the tone of this piece is slightly condescending. Yes I am a PA, I am also the Office Manager and the IT person and the first aid officer and the list goes on. I am proud of my job, the work I do and I don’t consider it demeaning in any way if the boss ask me to type something for him, photocopy anything or run errands – he gets his own coffee! PA stands for Personal Assistant and to me it means helping him make his job as easy as possible. As for walking out the office at 5 without a backward glance, some days I wish.

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