“Just the assistant” or “administrative professional”? Perceptions of office workers

A SYTYCB entry

I am a grad school dropout.  I suppose more technically, I went in planning on a Ph.D and left with just an M.A.  Either way, my life plan of being a career academic faded in graduate school.  After four years as a grad student and teaching, I recently moved to a new city to try something new.  I signed up to be a temp and…  my first assignment, funnily enough, was to fill in as an administrative assistant in a university department.

It’s been very strange to be on the other side of the academic world, and it’s made me examine a lot of the attitudes our culture has about “assisting”, what kinds of work and production we value, and how these relate to women’s issues.  Over 90% of secretaries and administrative assistants in the US are women, and it’s one of the top occupational categories for women. 

Even before taking this job, I’ve encountered the notion that I am “overqualified” or above doing this work.  I’ve heard from various people that since I have a master’s degree, I am qualified for “better” work than this. I will admit to my own negative talk and biases when I started looking at temping to get “just an office job”.  And while I have made copies and sent faxes, I would never put “just” before any complete job description of the work this office produces every day.

Because even though I already knew that administrators do very valuable work, I’m still blown away by the amount and variety of knowledge and POWER these women have.  The woman who has been showing me the office ropes is busy non-stop – communicating across all kinds of media, amazing multi-tasking skills, knowing the smallest details about everything and everyone.  I am absolutely sure she knows much more about the inner workings of the department than most of the faculty.

I’m certainly not saying that the work professors and faculty do is unimportant, having been on that end myself.  They create awesome new feminist research and discussion to think about, for one, and a lot of readers here may owe their interest in feminism to a particularly illuminating class or teacher.  Professors have different sets of knowledge and perhaps a narrower focus, but their (academic) knowledge seems to be given much more prestige in our culture.  They create or do something, and producers get much more credit than the person who was “just the assistant”.  Assistant work is not particularly valued monetarily, either.

But beyond devaluing the type of work, we also tend to devalue the mental energy it takes to address dozens of small-scale issues within a day. It’s easy to look at a professor’s published book or course listing and see accomplishment.  And it’s easy to say “how hard is it to send an email, or make a copy?  I do that all the time”.  But try writing an email with important details while you get interrupted by three phone calls, mail you have to deliver, and two walk-in visitors, all of whom have questions that take time to address.  Would you be frustrated after an hour when your email still wasn’t done?  Now imagine eight hours, five days a week.  It takes so much patience, talent and ENERGY to handle so many small projects in a day.

Even the language of administrative work is striking in how gendered it is.  The word “administer” itself has connotations that you are administering to or for something – not producing. Similarly, ‘assistant’ or ‘support staff’ implies that you are merely helping someone else with their more important tasks.  It should sound familiar – helping and nurturing are among the most common traits our culture attributes to women.  In contrast, even as the lowest rung of teaching staff, my teaching title – “Instructor” – sounded much more authoritative, important, and some might say masculine.

In sum, the world of administrative work to me, so far, has interesting parallels with much of the work feminists have done in calling for the recognition and value of the caring labor of women – whether unpaid in the home, or as nurses, housekeepers, etc.    I regret having treated past administrative people in my life as if they were disposable – sometimes I never even knew their name.

Feminist issues surrounding work aren’t just about the Fair Pay Act or maternity leave.  We can also think about the broader structures of where women work and how people perceive the difficulty and importance of their work.  That exciting, beginning-of-semester rush most college kids (and some faculty) feel would not happen without a predominantly-female administrative staff – they order new books, print your fresh syllabus copies, organize catering for all those great free-food events (and no, it’s not really free, so they probably budgeted for it too!), plan orientations and open houses, and so much more.  They deserve more than just a card and flowers on Administrative Professionals Day.  They deserve a thoughtful analysis of how we treat and talk about administrative labor.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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