Girly Job

One of my frustrations, as I’m looking for work, is that the office is still a very sexist place to be. Only now they hide it.

All work is not created equal, nor are positions a likely starting point for career advancement. Ultimately this is why I’m probably about to put everything in my life on hold and rush as much computer certification as possible, because in terms of real work experience and certification, the sort of position I am currently most qualified for is to be an administrative assistant, what was formerly known as a secretary. And the problem with admin work, ultimately, is not that it’s unpleasant work, or even that the pay is too bad. The problem is that they really want you to be a girl.

I don’t know how to describe the admin field without sounding sexist myself, but it’s fairly evident in the job descriptions, particularly if the position is designed to support only one person. They don’t say it out right, but you get the distinct impression that the ideal candidate will probably be *pretty*, or perhaps even more than a little bit *perky*.

For example, a recent posting for admin assistant to the president of a private college:

* Maintain the President’s schedule…
* Schedule and organize meetings, luncheons, room reservations…
* Process requests for President’s input…
* **Order beverages for President’s Office…**
* Answer telephone for President…
* Handle confidential and non-routine information
* **Greet visitors to President’s Office and offer beverages**
* Order and maintain office supplies
* Filing for President’s Office
* **Maintain plants in President’s Office**

You don’t see it, but it’s there.

The tricky part is attempting to define exactly what it is that makes the job feminine without saying “oh that’s women’s work.” Because really, even from my not particularly egalitarian point of view, none of those tasks are particularly feminine in themselves. If I had a job of maintaining appropriate complimentary beverage supplies throughout the campus of a university, I would not feel as though my sex had been assaulted. If I were hired as a sort of campus gardener, in charge of the upkeep of all indoor plants, I would not feel put upon. But somehow, when those tasks are put together and tailored to fit a particular individual… the job is suddenly not as an administrator, nor as a kind of personal assistant. What they want is a wife.

It has to do, I think, with the all-encompassing and intensely personal nature of it. All-encompassing, intensely personal service, is part of the nature of marriage. The more personal it is, the more total it is, the less likely a person is going to be willing to do it for any money. But they might do it for free – provided the relationship was reciprocal and equally total and personal. These relationships have roles to fill, and it is impossible to avoid the sense that the executive is husband, the admin, wife.

One of the reasons why, when I had to go back to work before finishing my theology degree, that I pursued teaching, was that I was starting to notice that my opportunities for advancement in administrative work followed a path of increasing feminization. A receptionist earns more than an admin at the same level. Why? Because she’s pretty, and she orders coffee and bagels with just the right brand of cream cheese. She remembers what the new client’s favorite kind of cream cheese is. Can a man have that job? Sure, provided he can do the work and that he wants it. But he probably should still be pretty, and he still has to remember to order the right kind of cheese.

And this is the field that I find that I’m likely stuck in until I can get some sort of technical certification to pull myself out.

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