In a section of my dissertation, I dove into office gender politics of in the late 1940s, in order to explore just what Arthur Miller’s original audiences would have thought about the wire recorder that appears in Death of a Salesman.
In the play, Willy Loman’s boss Howard thinks of the wire recorder as a domestic plaything, but at the time it was marketed as more reliable for taking dictation than human employees (who sometimes took breaks or called in sick). The machines were loud and prone to snags, and executives preferred the prestige that came with having a personal assistant.
When I started working as a contract writer for an engineering school when I was about 21, right after I got my BA, my boss would hand-write his correspondence on a legal pad, and his executive assistant/receptionist would type up a draft. He would mark up the pages, she would retype them, and so on, until he was satisfied and signed the letter, which she would then put in an envelope and mail.
There were also huge filing cabinets of clippings and biographies. He would give her names of people whose files he wanted, she would bring them to his desk. When he was finished, he would put the files in an “out” tray, and she would refile them. Very early on, Rhonda explained the filing system to me, which I understood as a cue that she expected me to pull my own files myself. But while we were talking, Mark came out of his office and showed me where to put used files when I was finished with them so that they could be refiled. (Clearly he didn’t want the new guy misfiling anything.)
The workflow was very traditional, and very gendered. (In the world of Barbtleby the Scrivener, all the office-work was done by men. Typewriters and telephones opened up the workplace to women, a dynamic that is covered in contemporary plays from the 1920s like Elmer Rice’s The Subway and Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, and also the 1967 movie and 2002 stage musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, which is set in the 1920s.)
My recurring contracts gradually turned into a 40-hour/wk gig. I was around enough that I guess Mark noticed something he liked about my own solo workflow, which relied heavily on the chunky monochrome LCD laptop that I brought with me, into the office every day, squeezed into my briefcase.
On the Friday afternoon before he left for a 2-week business trip, he asked me to show him how to type up a letter on his brand-new laptop. I had been picking up a few bucks teaching basic word processing skills to engineering students, so I had handouts all ready. After about 15 minutes he said, “Okay, I think I get the idea. Can I take your handouts?” and left on his trip.
Two weeks later, he was back in the office. After our usual Monday morning all-staff meeting (ugh, but it was really good for productivity) he called me into his office and said, “Usually it takes Rhonda and me the whole week to send out thank-you letters to everyone I talked to on my trip. This time, as soon as I left each appointment, I sat down right there in the outer office, opened up my laptop, and typed out a thank-you note while my memory was still fresh. I polished the letters up back at the hotel or while waiting at the airport. Just now, I handed Rhonda a floppy disk with all my letters, ready for her to print.”
A little later, I saw Rhonda go into his office with a stack of papers. Then I saw him put on his hat and coat, with all the leisurely deliberation of a man who was planning to enjoy a nice, long, thoughtful and productive walk.
This new workflow meant Mark could spend more time on revenue-generating activity. Rhonda soon had a new job description as our full-time in-house event planner — something she was good at and enjoyed. To take her place at the reception desk, she hired a young woman fresh out of community college.
One day the boss asked me to write down everything I did in the office. He added two things to my list, and used it as the job description for a national search for a new salaried full-time position. I was one of about five people on the shortlist when the University of Toronto significantly upped their support package, so I accepted their offer and started my PhD there. (To be honest, if I had wanted to do those two other things my boss added to the list, I would already have been doing them.)
As I look back, I’m very pleased that my boss asked me for 15min of my expertise, which started a chain of events that led to one promotion and two full-time hires — one of which might have been me, had I stuck around.
Even as a 22yo in 1991, I had worked in enough offices to suspect that the rise of computers meant the days of personal assistants were numbered.
Here’s a current Wall Street Journal item that addresses a similar theme from a more somber angle — what happens when there’s no place in an organization for the women who’ve spent their careers as executive assistants:
More than 1.6 million secretarial and administrative-assistant jobs have vanished since 2000, according to federal data, an almost 40% decline, comparable to that in manufacturing. The losses haven’t garnered much notice. Unlike a plant closing that leaves thousands of Americans unemployed in one go, jobs in a traditionally female sector have evaporated in dribs and drabs.
At the pinnacle of the sector were the executive assistants, a 95% female workforce, according to labor-market research firm Emsi, that could make as much as six figures. —The Vanishing Executive Assistant