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 undoubtedly true that the role of the assistant changed dramatically over the years. I would say over my working life (now entering my 11th year) the role has developed at a swift pace, which is excellent, 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 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 However, you don’t see people smoking in the office anymore, and we shouldn’t work in an outdated environment either.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, new 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 exciting tasks, more responsibilities, promotions and salary increases.
Assistants come into organisations reasonably 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 tough 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 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 common because assistants 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 honest, can we be a little challenging to work with? Do we miss deadlines or make too many mistakes? Do we struggle to adjust to changes in the workforce 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 circumstances.
As I said at the beginning of this post, many assistants have excellent 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 assistant 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, let’s face it, is really lovely 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 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 love 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.