Personal secretaries used to be all officious and focussed on filing documents. Today, with changing roles, most of them have become their boss' Women Fridays
When Pushpa Sharma (70) went to work 40-odd years ago, she wore a sari, did her hair in a long plait, and carried a tiffin box in a bag. She was a stenographer, and there were no jeans / tees, long skirts / blouses, heady perfumes, loose hair and clicking heels.
It took Pushpa a six-month typing / shorthand course after junior college to land her first job. She answered a basic phone, took dictation from bosses and organised documents in a filing cabinet. Outdoor work was done by a ‘male senior'. Some years and a job later, her work increased to keeping records of ‘personnel and administration matters', and she composed everyday correspondence. But, stayed back beyond 5 p.m. only when needed. Saturdays were ‘half-days'.
Wonder what Sumathi ‘Personal Secretary' to three bosses, will think of this story. A post-degree diploma in Secretarial Course brought her to this 9.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. job, where hours stretch when visitors drop in or meetings go on. But, three bosses? “No problem,” she shrugs. “All three directors understand, and align the work. I prioritise it.” Work could be anything from ‘handling calls / mails and organising meetings to making travel-related arrangements. It's mainly co-ordinating things'.
Where Pushpa accomplished her ‘whatever' with paper, pencil and a typewriter, Sumathi presides over a gadget kingdom of computer / laptop, printer, fax, photocopier, scanner, LCD Projector, and, of course, the mobile phone.
“Technology is the biggest difference in this long-standing women's job,” says Mohana Narayanan, dubbed ‘holy terror' by one of her bosses. “We have reminder alarms, spellcheck, Net banking, voicemail…”
The difference spans other spheres too. Pushpa's bosses, all of them male, remained formal, and treated her with old-world courtesy. They called her ‘Miss Sharma', and their conversation never crossed ‘official borders'.
As for Sumathi, she finds having women for bosses a big advantage. “I can share anything with them. The comfort that there's a person to listen to you makes a huge difference. You cannot communicate with a male boss as freely.”
Over the years, the job profile has changed too. A stenographer simply obeyed, without much contribution, says Sumathi. A PS takes care of all the administrative aspects of her boss' office, doing her bit for the day-to-day business. Things such as time-management, interaction with clients / other departments once considered managerial functions are hers. Laughs Mohana: “Don't forget postage, accounts, tea-making, bank transactions, and boss' personal files and calendar” She was promoted to client servicing but continues to be PS too.
They may have different views — ‘a 24 / 7 job'; ‘A PS is looked at with respect'; ‘Ups and downs are inevitable' — but they see their secretary years with considerable affection. “I was able to run the entire office systematically,” says Mohana. “It gave me a tremendous sense of power and satisfaction.” Says Sumathi: “We go home smiling that the small things we do make someone's life easy.”
It's a truly special feeling. You know every little quirk of the boss, and yet manage an excellent working relationship. “I worked for the nicest human beings. I shared a good relationship with all my bosses (save one!) and was in touch with them after they left,” says Mohana, pointing to the personal rapport that no technology can replace.
THE MANY HATS…
Should handle the computer and the Internet
Be flexible to take up a variety of jobs
Must be ready to travel