Anyone working in the administrative field knows that the job of the traditional secretary has evolved substantially to include much more than typing, filing and pouring coffee. But even as admins take on more and more managerial skills and bosses type their own emails, many report that old stereotype still lives on in the workplace.
"Years ago, you were that piece of furniture that sat outside the boss's office and didn't have a brain," says Lynda Boulay, CPS/CAP, an executive assistant at the St. Paul-based Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology. "Now a lot of people are still afraid to use the skills that we bring to the table, because we are still being stereotyped as ‘just a secretary.'"
How can you overcome this sentiment? Follow these tips from two admins who've been there.
Show Your Strengths
While the media promotes its share of "dumb" secretaries, some of pop culture's most famous admins have been strong, brainy women who managed their bosses -- think 9 to 5 and The Devil Wears Prada. Likewise, the best way to overcome people's prejudices is to take on extra responsibilities and excel at them, Boulay says.
"You have to rewrite your resume," she says. "Once you've proven yourself, then you'll be accepted as being able to manage projects."
Whether you encounter stereotypes has less to do with what industry you're in than your boss's mind-set, Boulay says. While working at the same company, she had two different bosses -- one who valued and used the full spectrum of her skills and another who micromanaged her every task.
Take the Lead
When Heather Myers started a new job as a project administrator for a Maryland contractor who was building military housing, she says she just assumed that, as with her previous employers, she would be empowered to make project-management decisions. Instead, her new boss just kept sending her to the copier.
"Although my boss was only 43, she comes from a world where ‘you do what I tell you to do, because you're not capable of making these decisions yourself,'" Myers says.
In such situations, Myers recommends going to your boss and being frank -- but not rude -- about your abilities and how using them more fully could support company goals. Many supervisors may be happy to let you take on more responsibility.
Myers ended up being terminated but says she's happy to have the chance to find another job with an employer who will appreciate all the skills she brings to the table. If your boss seems likely to stay close-minded but you can't afford to take a chance right now, you may wish to discreetly start a job search.
One Small Step
Despite these types of problems, both Boulay and Myers say that one part of the secretarial stereotype seems mostly to have disappeared: That of the pretty young thing who can't type but was hired to provide eye candy for the boss, AKA the buxom blonde filing her nails at the front desk.
However, just in case you face a boss or coworker who makes you uncomfortable, the International Association of Administrative Professionals' "Complete Office Handbook" suggests you should be familiar with your company's sexual harassment policy. If confronted with unwelcome behavior, you should follow your employer's established guidelines for addressing the incident, and if the problem is not satisfactorily resolved internally, file a formal complaint with your state's department of labor or human resources. A final recourse is to consult a lawyer.
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