Just a Secretary

A few months ago I was on lunch and found myself at Shaw’s so I could grab a salad and a bag of chips. I’m at the checkout when the young-20-something male bagger noticed my work name badge and asked what I do for work. “I’m a secretary.” So begins what I’m sure he meant to be a cordial interaction.

“Ooooh, so you’re a secretary huh?” he says with a creepy smile and smugness.

“Yes, I work up the road at a medical practice.” I say to him trying to show as little interest for this conversation as possible without being rude.

“So like, what? You bring the doctors their coffee?” He says, laughing and looking around to see if anyone thinks he is as funny as he thinks he is. Usually in years past I would have quipped with something like “No I just answer the phones.” and then laugh at myself with him. This time however, I felt that sting, and heard the degrading connotation and it fueled a need for a response that would rendered him embarrassed, speechless, or maybe even angry.

I looked him right in the eye, and pleasantly proclaimed, “No, actually the doctor buys me coffee, and I manage his schedule, and his patient’s insurance claims so that he gets paid. I also work 10 hour days and make sure that we have all the supplies needed to run the practice, as well as answering phones. Oh, and I don’t need a bag for those.” I then curtly smiled, took my receipt and walked away feeling somewhat proud of standing up for my position and worth.

that feeling lasted a few seconds because then the questions start rolling in my mind: Is that what people think a secretary does? Bring people coffee? (as a side note, coffee is not a joke or something to take lightly, so if there is someone bringing/serving you coffee, they are an important person and deserve your respect!) Maybe the title he was looking for was a “waitress.”  That brings up a whole different issue of political correctness, which I will save for another post at a later date. Quickly though, I’m technically SUPPOSED to be called an “Administrative Professional” and Waitress/Waiter should be “Wait Staff” or “Server”, and the bagger that assumed I was a waitress should be called a “Customer Service Associate.” (side note: I used to be a bagger when I was in high school. It’s not an easy job and it is more than bagging groceries, so I am in no way, downplaying the importance/need of his job.)

Was I threatening him in some way that he felt the need to try and belittle me in front of others to feel bigger, better, faster, stronger? Did he think that he was God’s gift to women in that green polo and apron, and that I would be flattered by his interest in my lowly career? Did he truly just not understand that a secretary isn’t a personal servant? I don’t know, and I only slightly care, because I get that response a lot when I tell people, especially men, that I’m a secretary. (I tried telling people that I was an administrative assistant for a while, but they would just laugh and say “So you’re a secretary?” [eye-roll]).

Do I KNOW now that I’m more than just a secretary? Yes. My actual title with my company is Secretary Supervisor Senior. I know the job I do is important to my staff and to our patients. I understand the demand for someone who can answer phones, book appointments, and deal with a belligerent patient who doesn’t understand why their insurance isn’t covering the cost of their services. Do I wear a pencil skirt and heels? You bet.  Do I supervise others with compassion, and order Office-Max like a boss, and file faxes in a perfected folder system? Of course. Do others see it this way? Rarely. Because “I’m just a secretary.”

I used to be guilty of saying that phrase when I first started as a secretary with out supervisor skills. I don’t know if it was my own confidence lacking, society’s view on women in the work place, or what I let others tell me I was subconsciously, but I referred to myself as “just the secretary” when people asked me about what I did. Sometimes if I was on the phone with a patient and they would ask me a clinical question, I would respond with “I wouldn’t know that, I’m just the secretary.” I never found any harm in this and I never thought twice about this until one day my Practice Manager was visiting and overheard me say this. After I hung up with the patient, she poked her head around my desk partition and gave me a very stern look. I could feel myself shrink, knowing I was about to be “talked to” about something… but then she said something that I will always remember, and I credit it as a turning point in how I view my own and other’s worth and value.

“You are not JUST a secretary! So you don’t have medical knowledge?  That means you’re NOT a doctor but you ARE a secretary, and that is JUST as important.”

coming from a professional, powerful, confident, woman, her words really spoke to me. It made me think about what that phrase really conveyed to others and how I let them view me and how I viewed myself before. I was basically saying, “Heather, lets be serious… you’re a secretary, you do the most cliched women’s-job there is, you sit around answering phones, taking messages, and filing papers all day, big deal? No one cares. You’re not a nurse, or a teacher, or a business woman… you’re just a secretary.”

Now I know that I’m more than my job title. I’m more than what society thinks I should be, I decide what I do, and I choose to be a secretary because I love my job. I get to help people everyday and those people respect me and I respect them. I’m lucky to have a great office to work in.

I’ve decided to “take back” the word “secretary.”  I decided to name my blog “I’m Just a Secretary” because it reminds me of what state of mind I came from, and maybe others will identify with it and read something that changes their minds about the way we think about others and ourselves.

We are all not JUST anything. You ARE. I AM. And that is important.

But what do I know? I’m Just a Secretary!

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