Real Careers: Getting Strategic About Dismantling Stereotypes

Over recent weeks, and with the help of my international panel and readers participating in the related Weekend Polls,  we’ve undertaken an environmental scan of our career as others perceive it. Now, as we wrap up this series, it’s time to reflect on gender balance, and on positive aspects of the career that may not be broadly recognised. We’re also focusing on what admin. professionals can do individually and collectively to help reshape perceptions of the role.

Gender Balance in the Admin. Profession

Particularly since we’re confronted with a perception by many that this is a woman’s career, let’s start with my panelists’ thoughts on encouraging greater gender balance in the admin. profession.

James Sobczak: I lament the fact that I have to continue to explain that my profession is “not just a woman’s job,” and that it is my career by choice. While I consider myself to be part of the vanguard for a change in perception where the profession, and my presence in it, is concerned, at times I feel lonely in this regard, and I wish that the perception change were a little further along. Frankly, I wish that the balance was always there.

This is my career by choice

Matthew Want: I think it is a wonderful idea. Many more men are working as assistants. I can see that, over the coming years, both men and women will have more of an equal play within the industry.

Declan Halton-Woodward: I think it is very important. It will help drive up standards, awareness and compensation packages, and that has to be a good thing. The more males we get into the role, the more it will be seen as a profession and career choice.

I don’t care what you are – If you can do the job well, I welcome working with you

Craig Bryson: During the Second World War, men were assistants and women were secretaries. As the men were called up to fight, the secretaries became the assistants. This has not changed since. I think we need to address this and bring this profession into the 21st century.

Bianca Constance:  I am thoroughly delighted to see more men enter into the administrative profession.  It was, after all, a male dominated profession until World War II when, out of necessity, it turned into a female dominated profession. Personally, I don’t care what you are – animal, vegetable or mineral. If you can do the job well, I welcome working with you.


A career of opportunities

I asked panelists to reflect on positive aspects of the administrative role that they find are largely under-recognised by people not involved in such a career.

Craig Bryson:  People do not realise that there is a huge community that has started to come together in the past five years. We have closed groups on social media, which offer so much support – personal and professional – to one another.

A huge international community of admin. professionals is coming together

Bianca Constance: The best admin-executive relationships are the ones in which both parties understand the other’s strengths as well as their weaknesses. As in any business partnership, a certain amount of autonomy makes the relationship work and allows the actual work to be done much more efficiently. The executive’s peers must understand that his/her admin is his/her “representative” and speaks with his/her voice.  Again, more education on the part of the executives is required before this becomes more widely accepted.

Educate executives; build awareness that admin. professionals are representatives of their executives and speak with their voice

Craig Harris: I really don’t believe people understand how varied the role is, its not just pen pushing. There are so many areas that you get involved in by being an EA. Every day is different, which is great.

You have great variety, and access to people and people across the organisation; you get to learn about all aspects of the business

Declan Halton-Woodward:  I think the variety is the best part of the role. No two days are the same. One day you could be filing away reports or letters and the next you are helping organise a huge event. You also get to work with  many different people across all departments in the business, which other roles don’t. This gives you great opportunities to learn about all aspects of a business. There are certainly exciting and positive aspects; I get to travel a little in my current role and that is a great benefit.

The best admin. pros are master generalists as well as diplomats, ambassadors, emissaries

James Sobczak: The best of admin pros are utilising elevated brain work every day; they are master generalists, not terrific at one thing, but very good at everything. They are diplomats, ambassadors, emissaries for their offices. They have exciting days that never repeat themselves. My employers have, in the past, fully underwritten my attending my association’s annual meeting and have supported my taking part and have encouraged me to go. I have interacted with University Trustees, the University President, high-level Alumni and Donors, and VIPs of varying celebrity.

Exposure to influential people and innovative ideas

Jennifer Robson: Leadership … communication … project management, professional and business ethics, and change/culture management

Matthew Want: I remember when I first started in this role and told my friends, they laughed at me and said I would just be doing typing etc. As soon as I told them what I actually did, they were shocked and amazed, they never judged me or the role since.

Attractive compensation packages, opportunities for travel, and opportunities for advancement

Readers had a lot to say about this in responding to my latest Weekend Poll. You also commented on the broad exposure you have to colleagues and ideas. You spoke of regular contact with powerful, dynamic people – and noted opportunities for your own career advancement. Readers also reflected that this career affords attractive compensation packages, opportunities for travel, and opportunities for advancement. You spoke of your own power, and capacity to influence people and decisions.


How you as an individual can correct misperceptions and dismantle inappropriate stereotypes

I posed this question to my panelists and, in a recent Weekend Poll, to readers. Here are some ideas.

Louise Whitehead: Work within your organisations, talk to your HR teams and bosses, make them aware of everything we can do and the breadth of our abilities and skill sets.

Project manage your career; no one else will

Join a professional body – such as EPAA  – that will support you in your career path and help you access training and networking opportunities. Believe fully in yourself and in your own worth as a professional.

Comport yourself as you wish to be perceived: as a professional

Matthew Want: Correct everyone who has these misconceptions. Unless people are made aware of what we do, people will go on  believing these misperceptions.

Make your bosses and HR teams aware of what you do, and the breadth of your abilities and skill sets

James Sobczak: Work like there is no stereotype, and as though you are a professional in a profession of one and as such are not bound by convention, perception, or societal thinking. Embrace your calling and bring as fortified and high-level a skill set as possible to the work that you do.

Work like there is no stereotype

Jennifer Robson: Be brave by being confident and having purpose and speaking up when appropriate. Provide input, put oneself forward to step out of one’s comfort zone and step up and ask for additional tasks/responsibilities. We as admin. professionals  project manage many tasks, and you need to have the confidence in yourself to project manage your career – as no one else will.

Professional networks and associations are great for legitimizing the career; get involved

Declan Halton-Woodward: I think we need to portray to non-admin professionals what our role entails, and also we need to ensure that our standards do not drop. There are more and more professional networks and associations lately and these are great for legitimizing the career and they are doing great work in this regard, we need to support them by joining them, advertising them and getting involved.

I would also say we should be taking upon ourselves to ask for more responsibilities and duties; as we get involved with a greater variety of things, it will help drive out any stereotypes.

A goal: open, honest communication between administrative professionals and those they support

Bianca Constance: Open and honest communication between administrative professionals and the individuals they support is the best defense against inappropriate and/or dated stereotypes. I do believe that, as the older generation of executives retire out of the workplace, there will be fewer instances of “Girl Friday” attitudes toward administrative professionals.

That said, we must also understand that work attitudes, misperceptions and inappropriate/dated stereotypes may still very strongly exist in non-North American workplaces. I have not been asked to “fetch a cup of coffee” for my executive in more years than I can remember, but most of my executives have been female.  I imagine that my colleagues in Europe, Asia and Africa have a much different view on this.

Use social media to educate people about the role

Craig Bryson: Start at the schools, and use social media as a medium to educate people as to what we are about.

Bring as fortified and high-level a skill set as possible to the work that you do

Other readers, responding to my Weekend Poll, stressed the need to comport ourselves as professionals.  Panelists and readers alike encouraged individuals to take ownership of the role and of professional development development. Tackle your job description and ensure that it reflects the work you do, in clear business terms. Express yourself with confidence, and network.


How our professional networks and associations can shape thinking

We’re also looking at the significant influence these bodies have. As just one example, the UK’s EPAA (the Executive and Personal Assistants Association) and its campaigns are helping to dismantle perceptions that this career is solely for women.  It strikes me that, the more we share ideas and practices across geographic borders, the more we can help one another. For example, a couple of the suggestions you’ll see below are already in place in some regions and countries, but not in others.

Include images of male admin. professionals in associations’ and networks’ promotional materials

Craig Bryson: Campaign, attend schools and teach the younger generation about this profession. Have universities create a degree for those who would like to study.

Promote better trained admins, more enlightened executives and more coherent job titles/descriptions

Bianca Constance: This will require continued education, not just on the part of administrative professionals but also their executives.  Personally, I would like to see all the various executive education programs require all first-year attendees to attend a 90-minute session on the benefits of cultivating a strong business relationship with their administrative professional.

I feel that it will also require buy-in from SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) to write better job titles and job descriptions for administrative professionals that all firms can utilise.  This three-pronged approach (better trained admins, more enlightened executives and more coherent job titles/descriptions) will go a long way to correcting the misperceptions and dismantling the inappropriate and dated stereotypes.

Declan Halton-Woodward: They could actually provide support to employers in advertising jobs and continuing professional development in a gender-neutral way. A note from Shelagh: Two of the North American professional associations to which I belong do list career opportunities on behalf of employers, and embed links to the specific postings. Other associations circulate word of opportunities through their listservs.

Increase the visibility of the admin. professional role

James Sobczak: Show more photographs of male admin pros in your literature, membership materials, and web presence, whether web sites or social media.

Matthew Want: Prepare to make the role of an administrative professional more seen, heard and more of an option as a career for both men and women

Louise Whitehead:  EPAA has launched the #notjustagirlsjob campaign designed to tackle this issue head on within the PA industry and the wider business world.


Some closing thoughts

Be confident; act with purpose; put yourself forward; speak up when appropriate

Craig Bryson: A lot of admin staff are treated badly.  This causes stress to everyday life. They are too afraid to discuss it, for fear of losing their jobs. Keeping this all bottled up inside is not healthy for the individual or for the work environment; it affects the quality of work.

Matthew Want: EPAA, along with Executive Secretary Magazine, launched the #notjustagirlsjob campaign in January 2017. If you know of any male administrative professionals around the world or would like some more information on this, please let me know.

James Sobczak:  I love what I do, and I love that I can support myself and my wife and children in doing it.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, I love the theatricality of my job, and I love that this profession plays to strengths from my past professional lives.  I don’t have to do this; I GET to do this, and I get paid for it.  In this, I am a very successful man.


Want to catch up on the full series? Here are the links.
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