Secretaries: professionals or temptresses?

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When Monica Mhembere (not real name) first told her family and friends that she wanted to be a secretary almost 10 years ago, her ambition attracted all sorts of answers.

“My friends thought I had lost my mind,” recalls the 30-year-old. “They had this idea that once you became a secretary, you would automatically get involved in an extra-marital affair with your boss.”

But her experience, she says, has proven them wrong.
“I think there is a lot of misunderstanding and stereotyping,” she adds. “Now I am happily married, yet I am content in my job as a personal assistant.”

Mhembere, who works as personal assistant to the managing director at a Harare company, belongs to a younger generation of secretaries often perceived as temptresses bent on wrecking their employers’ marriages.

Many people have a misconception that the secretary’s contract has unwritten, but clearly understood provisions, that the job responsibilities extend to the boss’ bedroom.

“Your contract as a secretary is not some kind of a marriage certificate on the side,” laughs Mhembere. “There are professional boundaries that my boss and I recognise and respect. I should not be considered a threat to his wife.”

The terms “secretary” and “personal assistant” often conjure up mental images of a seductive young woman clad in a mini-skirt, perched on high heels and willing to do pander to her boss’ every whim. Thus, society has branded them marriage wreckers.

Wikipedia defines a secretary as an administrative assistant whose work consists of supporting management, including executives, using variety of project management, communication and organisation skills.

Mhembere believes that without her, her boss would not be able to function because in a way, she is his manager, responsible for organising his diary and work schedules on a daily basis.

Other secretaries who spoke to NewsDay said it took courage for them to choose the profession because it has been stigmatised and associated with negative connotations for a long time.

“My father was actually shocked when I decided to do secretarial studies. He thought it was a job for promiscuous women. But I was ready to prove him wrong,” said Nomsa Chikwanda, a secretary at a local trucking company. “I have been a secretary for seven years now and am happily married.”

It has also been established that in some instances, secretaries had tendencies to seduce — or to accept sexual advances from — their bosses to secure favours and “ensure” their positions in the company.

This has seen some employers opting for older women who are less, if at all, tempting.

Another secretary at a government institution said government departments, especially ministers’ offices, often settled for older and mature women as they were able to handle the pressure that comes with the job.

“We are made to swear by the Official Secrets Act because sometimes we attend crucial meetings where some policies won’t be ready for the public to consume. Mature individuals who are able to keep confidential information are required,” says the secretary.

Another mature secretary, Susan Machingauta (53), says the job becomes relatively easy when one gets older.

“I have been a secretary for more than 28 years and I have seen it all in the industry. I have worked with different people with different characters.

Some men think that women who hold inferior positions to them should be used for whatever they deem necessary and in other instances, it’s the secretary who seduces the boss — it depends on the individual,” she says.

“When one gets older, one gets acquainted with the job. In fact, one’s duties would be at one’s finger-tips and the problem of men soliciting for sex in exchange for favours becomes relatively low compared to younger secretaries.”

Younger secretaries said because of their age, some bosses try to make sexual advances to them, making it difficult for them to resist.

“It’s a stereotype that we wreck other women’s marriages. Sometimes we are caught between a rock and a hard place. We are made to face marauding bosses’ every day and we have to keep our jobs. This makes our life difficult,” said another secretary who identified herself as Virginia.

The profession is no longer a female-dominated field as many men have taken up the job.

A lecturer in secretarial studies at the Christian College of Southern Africa says the roles of secretaries have evolved over the years making it imperative for every company to have one.

“Gone are the days when secretaries would run personal errands for the boss like collecting his children from school.

Secretaries in some organisations are now called office managers. Some colleges have included courses such as business management, public relations, accounting and customer care, among others, to show that the profession has evolved
“Behind every successful business person there is an efficient secretary.

Secretaries are organisers and with the advent of word processing, duties such as filing and taking notes have been significantly reduced. Secretaries’ roles now include managing budgets and doing bookkeeping, maintaining websites and making travel arrangements for the organisation.

“Secretaries might manage all the administrative details of running high-level conferences or arrange the catering for a typical lunch meeting,” said the lecturer.
The lecturer said every job has its pitfalls and the secretaries are equipped for that during their studies.

“Every job has its pitfalls and one needs to take precautionary measures and has to maintain integrity. Sometimes people give in to pressure, but not all people should be painted with the same brush, it depends on the individual,” he said.