Listening to (and Appreciating) the Voices on the Front Lines
In 1979, the Women Employed Institute released a national study of clerical workers in the United States titled “The Women of the Office: The Economic Status of Clerical Workers.” The research noted that clerical workers, mostly female and underpaid, are in many ways an invisible workforce. The study began with a quote from one of those clerical workers that summarized their feelings:
“The other day, a client came onto the floor where I’m a receptionist, looked around, then looked directly at me and asked, ‘Isn’t anyone here?’”
Almost 20 years later, another research study (Hurd and McElwain, 1988) observed a clear pattern of mistreatment of clericals in higher education in their interviews, stating that they “often complain of lack of dignity, lack of respect, or being treated like second-class citizens. These feelings are often crystallized as women’s issues, with attention drawn to pay inequity, lack of upward occupational mobility, and problems with day care.” Fast-forward almost another 20 years to 2016 when website Deadspin, investigating work conditions of non-faculty university employees, requested stories from non-academic college workers and received this representative note from an administrative assistant:
“The Dean of the college I work for hasn’t said ‘hi’ to me in the 3 years he has been there (unless of course others are present, even then he still limits himself).
Needless to say, many of us don’t feel welcome or respected as we work here.“
With all due respect to the Phillip Morris Company and their Virginia Slims brand, we clearly have not come a long way, baby. Since that study in the late 1970s, our generations have progressed from the millennials to the centennials, from Gen Y to Gen Z. In the clerical worker world, we have evolved from typewriters, mimeograph machines, and IBM punchcards to desktop computing, digital imaging, and Google. Expectations and qualifications have changed, but the tagline for the treatment of clerical workers in higher education remains the same: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
It is often stated that departmental secretaries in all divisions of a university are critical to the success of an institution, living on the front lines of the enterprise; they interact with students, faculty, and staff as a first point of contact on a daily basis. On any given day, they could be helping a senior who needs permission to enroll in a course, organizing a meeting of faculty on a new curriculum proposal, providing parents of prospective enrollees with more information about the department, informing an adjunct faculty member about the ins and outs of the department and the school, counseling a freshman on their first semester on campus, and monitoring the department’s budget for the chairperson by accessing the university’s computer systems with—please close your ears, IT department—their chair’s password. OK, maybe in this age of security issues we have learned not to share our passwords, but I’m guessing we all know at least one chairperson (or higher-up administrator) who has done this in the past (and might be still doing it).
Being that first line of defense enables department secretaries to often be the informers, implementers, and assessors of policy decisions that they had nothing to do with; they are rarely involved in the discussion or decision-making process and are left to deal with the aftermath which these decisions cause. So why are they NOT included in the conversation? Universities espouse the values of collaboration and consensus building, but how far does that inclusion go? Are your department secretaries on critical committees like strategic planning, budgeting, or master planning? Do they attend meetings or are they just notified of the outcomes after the fact? Would you include them on an academic policy committee? A student’s first encounter to a policy change could be that very employee; shouldn’t they understand the rationale behind the change so that there is buy-in from that front-line worker as they explain it to a student? If they are not part of the discussion, they are not part of the solution.
As academic leaders, we have a great opportunity to widen the circle of inclusiveness and listen to those department secretaries, whose opinions are often discounted for they are “only secretaries.” Their vantage point is a view we regularly do not see from our perch in the organizational chart, and they provide us with “first-class” insight that should not be dismissed as emanating from a “second-class citizen” of the institution. In fact, it should be celebrated and appreciated and rewarded. As a country, we celebrate it once a year: Administrative Professionals Day, this year on April 25. As institutions, we may have overall appreciation days geared to general populations such as faculty or staff, and we may even offer rewards such as plaques and certificates for those deemed best in class. But how often do you just say “thanks” for the input they have offered or a job well done. The beauty of an attitude of gratitude is that it doesn’t negatively affect your operating expenses and is not subject to budget cuts or decreases in appropriation. In a time when salary raises are the exception and not the rule, this reward has no cost to the giver but could be priceless to the receiver. The message to that clerical worker becomes loud and clear, as if it was said 20 or 40 years ago: “You are here, you are welcome, and you are respected.” And most importantly, you are heard and you are appreciated.
“The Women of the Office: The Economic Status of Clerical Workers.” Women Employed Institute, 1979.
Hurd, Richard W., and Adrienne M. McElwain. “Organizing Clerical Workers:
Determinants of Success.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 41 (April 1988), pp.360-73.
Nolan, Hamilton. “Working at a University Is No Picnic.” theconcourses.deadspin.com https://theconcourse.deadspin.com/working-at-a-university-is-no-picnic-1788186616 (Accessed October 25, 2016).
Richard L. Riccardi is senior associate provost and dean of libraries at Rider University. Contact him at email@example.com.