Jessica Williams, speaks to The Guardian about how she calls out ‘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?”
What, I wonder, do you think when you read those words? Who am I looking for? What do I do? Perhaps I work for a dating agency? In fact, I work in recruitment, and on this occasion I had been asked to find a personal assistant.
I believe that the secretarial industry harbours one of the last bastions of “acceptable” sexism. A lot of agencies like to pretend this doesn’t exist any more; it does. Companies celebrated for their inclusive hiring policies and quotas to ensure female representation at management level also employ an overwhelmingly female battalion of PAs, secretaries and receptionists. 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.
But there is definitely a problem when an employer expects their new hire to look a certain way or assumes that everyone working in support is female. “No, I definitely wouldn’t consider a male PA” – that comment is ubiquitous.
One person told me that, in his household, the “secretary and nanny are women – the chauffeur and butler are men” because “that’s how it’s always been”. When first meeting clients, it’s interesting how many of them refer to their prospective new hire as “she” before they have met a single candidate.
Some companies dress it up (if you’ll pardon the pun). They will ask their agency to ensure that candidates sent to them are “presentable”. This can mean many different things, from the wearing of a uniform (usually a blouse, skirt, almost always heels) to how a female receptionist ought to wear her hair.
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.
I had worked in administration for a decade before I set up my secretarial recruitment company, Sidekicks, in 2015. To be honest, I used to get irritated by women who bemoaned the difficulties of being female in the workplace. “Why can’t people just get on with it?”; “Why not work to create change, rather than moaning about it?”, I often thought.
I spent much of my early career brushing off everyday sexism and took it for granted. I prided myself on smiling in the face of sexist remarks. I taught myself to meet misogyny with pity and distain rather than anger.
However, 2015 was the year I finally got cross about it all. In fact, I became searingly angry. I moved from being a secretary to recruiting secretaries for other people, and it was then that I couldn’t ignore the realities of our industry.
It’s all well and good to decide not to make a fuss about things that upset you. But it’s another thing entirely to be responsible for the safety and wellbeing of others, and to then consciously brush those concerns under the carpet. It nagged at my conscience, and I was compelled to do something about it.
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. Anger is easily batted away with a host of practised responses, such as “it’s political correctness gone mad” or “relax – you’re really uptight”.
Asking “why?” in a genuinely puzzled way has the most extraordinary effect – try it. It stops the conversation in its tracks, turns the statement on its head and immediately forces that person to logically justify their statement (which, of course, they cannot do.)
With that one word we force clients to question whether their prejudices are out of date. Finally, they begin to grasp just how embarrassing and unprofessional those prejudices are.
My team and I also work to effect change in practical ways. We don’t include photos, dates of birth, gender or ethnicity on any of our CVs.
While I was temping as a young woman I had some upsetting experiences. Once I was sent to temp for a man whose total lack of morality meant that he shouldn’t have been left alone with a woman.
The agency that sent me there didn’t make any effort to vet him. It’s nowhere near as bad now, but it still happens. A client might ring an agency asking for a temp to come to their hotel room, for example – often for very legitimate reasons (visiting business people or celebrities) – but not always.
Sidekicks is launching a temp desk in January. How do I make sure that we can keep our candidates safe? Alongside obvious measures (identity verification, credit checking), we meet every single client in person, and go to view their office. I have two younger sisters – so, in my mind, I would “sister check” every client I met. Would I feel comfortable sending one of my sisters to work for this person? If my internal radar said no, I wouldn’t send the candidate.
I founded my company in response to a clear need for a recruiter that genuinely understands the urgent need for a shift in attitude towards support workers. And one that grasps the magnitude of the work that is done by this often unseen administrative underclass.
My workforce is comprised of eight women, some of whom are employed on a permanent basis, some of whom work flexibly in order to fit their career around their commitments to their children. Our business has a strong internal code and it’s not for PR reasons, it’s because we are committed to being an ethical recruiter – that’s what our industry so badly needs.
If we are to genuinely change attitudes towards administrative workers and challenge harmful assumptions within our industry, we need to be brave and work together. 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?”
You can also read the article here The Guardian