Jessica Williams, Managing Director of Sidekicks London, says that the secretarial industry “harbours one of the last bastions of ‘acceptable’ sexism.”
“She’ll probably be a graduate. I need someone intelligent. School doesn’t really matter but she must speak well – no accents. I’m presuming she’ll look the part?” – is a request Williams received when asked to find a personal assistant.
Setting up a secretarial recruitment company in 2015, Williams says that clients assume that support workers, such as receptionists/PAs/secretaries are always female.
A comment she frequently hears from clients is “No, I definitely wouldn’t consider a male PA.”
However, she says: “This isn’t always because hiring managers are discriminating against male candidates. Often candidates think these roles are woman dominated and, in turn, the available candidate pool reflects that.”
Writing in The Guardian, she says that it’s the requests on how a secretary should look that irks her, with clients asking for a “presentable” candidate, setting out the uniform guidelines “usually a blouse, skirt, almost always heels” to specifying how a female receptionist ought to wear her hair.
She says: “Internal job descriptions will communicate the need for a receptionist to have a ‘neutral’ accent. For neutral read middle-class, ideally non-regional. In the world of the secretarial agency, these ‘hidden extras’, additional to the main requirements, are called ‘adhering to house style’. We call it discrimination,” she says.
“So what do we do if a client asks for ‘a blonde’? By far the strongest tool at our disposal is the power of ‘why?’ We ask ‘why?’ and it works every time, without fail. The problem with responding to casual misogyny with anger is that it’s become the expected reaction.”
“There is no reason, in 2016, why women should feel they need to look a certain way in order to secure a job, or why talented male support workers should find it so difficult to get a job. The first step to change can, in my mind be really simple: we just need to stop being afraid to ask ‘Why?’”