Why you should care

As more men take up secretarial jobs, the profile of what was once viewed as “pink-collar” employment is changing. 

At the start of his career, Sean Steel often found he was the only man in the room at corporate networking events. He was not a banker or a lawyer, but a personal assistant. The “pink and fluffy” marketing material hardly helped to attract his male peers. Nor did the goody bags stuffed with nail varnish and moisturizer. “It’s quite daunting when you are younger,” he says.

Nevertheless, he was determined to make his career a success. “I chose it. It’s not a stepping stone,” he says. After all, Steel, the son of an electrician, had set his heart on working in an office. His job requires accuracy and an eye for detail, and it suits his skills, which he describes as “organized and pragmatic.”

Historically, women have been in support roles. Workplace attitudes haven’t changed that much.

Rosie Keighley, brand manager at Trinity Mirror Digital Recruitment

Fourteen years later, the 33-year-old works in London as personal executive assistant to the country head at Willis Towers Watson, the financial services company, and his main tasks are managing diaries, travel arrangements and liaising with external clients.

While Steel is no longer always the only man in the room, he is still in the minority. According to the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics, women accounted for 94 percent of personal assistant and secretarial roles in the U.K. in 2017.

Despite efforts to achieve gender equality in the workplace, both candidates and employers resist men working in roles that since World War II have been dominated by women — and sometimes called “pink-collar” jobs.

But that may change. New gender-pay reporting rules put U.K. companies under pressure to close the gender pay gap. And recent gender-equality campaigns have focused on persuading women to work in traditionally male-dominated careers such as science and technology.

Stereotypes persist

Stereotypes about the PA role persist, says Rosie Keighley, brand manager at Trinity Mirror Digital Recruitment, which owns SecsintheCity, a job site for administrative assistants. Its very name sounds as if it has been chosen to appeal to women.

“Historically, women have been in support roles. Workplace attitudes haven’t changed that much,” she says. Craig Bryson, an executive assistant at recruiter Korn Ferry, agrees. In past roles, he has been treated as a novelty. “A lot of people would say, ‘Are you the male EA?’ It was like show-and-tell.” Others would assume he was a senior manager.

Some male PAs and EAs have experienced positive discrimination. One EA says he has heard male managers request male assistants because they were perceived to be “unflappable” — in other words, less emotional than women. Another says he is invited to drinks with male directors whereas his female counterparts are not.

The advantages they describe are known as the “glass escalator,” a term coined by sociologist Christine Williams in 1992, to refer to hidden advantages for men in pink-collar jobs — the flipside of the glass ceiling, in which women are blocked from reaching top positions.

According to the ONS, the median salary for women in this role is 26,934 pounds a year, assuming they work full-time; for men it is 27,809 pounds. Among full-timers, the gender pay gap is 0.2 percent in favor of men, while among part-timers it is 11 percent in favor of women, based on hourly wages. David Morel, founder of Tiger recruitment, says that senior EAs in the city of London can earn up to 80,000 pounds a year. Top private PAs in hedge funds and family offices can earn up to 100,000 pounds.

Last year, Victoria Darragh, founder of the Executive and Personal Assistants Association, the professional body of which Steel is deputy chair, started a campaign to get more men into administrative assistant roles, under the slogan “Not Just a Girl’s Job.”

She says she has encountered employers, especially in the private sector, who laugh at the idea of a man doing the job, and remove male CVs out of the pile. “Does this make for an equal society? If this situation were reversed for women, society would be up in arms. I want to make the profession gender-neutral.”

“My campaign is about men, and it’s not a hot topic. I recognize and support the #MeToo movement, but we need to look at female professions and make them more gender-equal.”

Bad language

Research commissioned by the jobs site Totaljobs found language can skew applications by gender. Advertisements looking for PAs to provide “support” and “understanding” may deter men from applying.

However, Darragh insists that language has improved since she started her career, almost 20 years ago at the age of 16, when advertisements sounded almost “like dating ads” demanding a candidate with a “bubbly personality.” Nevertheless, she points to a recent advertisement. It specified that a Mayfair investment firm wanted a “good personality — ability to deal with the male banter and be sociable but not distracting.”

Technology has replaced some of the basic tasks of old-fashioned secretaries, such as dictation. According to the ONS, there were 287,000 personal assistants in 2001 and 195,000 in 2017 (a 32 percent fall), although this may be because the role has changed and expanded.

Morel says today’s PA roles offer greater opportunities, which helps to attract men, he says. The PA role is “getting bluer every year.” “There are more … graduates following a career as an EA than we have ever seen previously. Technology is being embraced but hasn’t affected the volume of PA workers at this stage, and nor do I think it will.”

Assistants can gain experience in the C-suite. “CEOs in the tech business tend to be traveling a lot, and might ask a PA or EA to hold a meeting or represent me in a meeting. That’s a high-level business-assistant responsibility.”

Jessica Williams, founder of Sidekicks, a recruitment agency, says attitudes vary according to industry. Mayfair private banks tend to be more conservative. “A younger company, especially a tech startup, might be more open [to male PAs].” Overall, she says it is rare for an employer to say they would not consider a man.

Social media has helped, she says. Hashtags such as #palife or #assistantlife make the roles more visible.

From time to time Bryson is asked if he has ambitions to become a manager. He does not. “I know how everything works in a company. I like to get in behind the scenes and make everything go smoothly. I enjoy it.”

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By Emma Jacobs

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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