Secretary and Scientist

This is my perspective on #WomenRising, with respect to female roles in the workplace. I will examine two such roles. One is a typical traditional role, that of office secretary, typically working in support of one or more men. We can think of receptionists, or clerk/typists, or executive secretaries as examples of this role.

The other is a nontraditional role, albeit one that has been followed by pioneering women in the past, and is now followed by women who wish to pursue more challenging (and rewarding) goals. I will focus on scientists for this role, because that is my profession and what I know best. But physicians, lawyers and other professions follow similar logic and story line, and the choices are not meant to limit the discussion in any way. I will say more on these points below.

Let’s compare the skill sets of jobs in each role. In the case of secretaries, the job involves a wide array of skills, including many more than are normally credited in typical job descriptions – or in the minds of most people when they think about what secretaries do. For example, a receptionist will answer phone calls or greet visitors to a company, and route the caller to an executive or to further information relevant to the call. But in both cases, a great deal of non-routine decision making and organizational skill are required to make proper routing decisions, to match the needs of the caller to the options and organizational resources available.

Similarly, a clerk/typist will spend much of the working day either typing from dictation or notes, or doing ‘routine’ tasks related to organizing calendars, meetings, ledgers and accounts, or other related essentials of a workplace. But in each of those cases, a great variety of skills are required to analyze/proofread the material being typed, and to interpret items being scheduled or entered for accounting purposes. Seamless management of disparate types of information is required in all cases, along with a great deal of organizational and practical skill. Mistakes are generally costly to the enterprise, and precision thinking and judgment are critical requirements for all tasks.

All of these skills, and many more, are critically required for an executive secretary. This woman typically works with a male executive who, in contrast, may often lack those very qualities and skills in his own set of management capacities. In other words, the executive secretary quite often does much of the work for which the executive takes most or all of the credit, while also providing all of the organizing skills needed to keep the executive functions running smoothly. For examples, we can think of movies like Working Girl, in which Melanie Griffith essentially took over and ran the company while Sigourney Weaver (cast as an atypically female executive) and Harrison Ford took or received credit for her brilliant decisions.

In my own case, as the (literally) absent-minded Professor who ‘ran’ a neuroscience research lab, I could never have survived without my longtime lab manager/technician, Gin. In every practical sense, she ran the lab. She also did much of the experimental work, developed many of the methods and protocols, and kept track of all lab inventory, supplies and official paperwork. She wrote most of the applications for institutional approvals, and related forms that are daily requirements for all active, funded labs. In addition, she trained and kept tabs on all the graduate students and their thesis projects – and made sure everything needed for their work was on hand, and the lab was functioning smoothly.

When introduced by Gin to someone at a social gathering, I invariably said that she was actually my boss, but that she sometimes let me pretend that I was really her boss. That always drew a chuckle, but she and I both knew that it was the simple truth. She kept the lab going through thick and thin for many years, and all of my career success as a Principal Investigator would have been impossible without her.

Gin was not a graduate student in my lab, but she certainly could have been, and she and I discussed that option many times. Many female technician/lab managers in other labs did go on to graduate school/PhD programs, or went to medical school. In nearly all of those cases, they were extremely successful as scientists, or as physicians in their subsequent careers. And their examples serve as the key point of this discussion.

Let me put this critical point in a slightly different way. In my career experience, a woman who is a good technician/lab manager – or yes, a good secretary – with ambitions to go higher on the career ladder, in search of more rewarding challenges, is generally entirely capable of doing so. Period.

And it is my very strong opinion based on extensive direct experience, that any talented woman – with appropriate drive and work ethic to succeed – should not be limited in any way by ‘traditional’ thinking about gender, or ‘appropriate’ roles for women in the workplace. There is no reason whatever, in my judgment, for women to shy away from pursuing any career to which they aspire. They are very likely to do extremely well in their chosen careers. And they will not be lacking in any way, in the essential or the exceptional skills, to be outstanding in those careers. I have seen this again and again in my life and career. And I strongly urge all women and girls to aspire and to seek rewards, at any professional level that they may wish to pursue.

#WomenRising is today’s reality in my world, and it should be even more so in the future.

Written and Submitted:

James S. McCasland, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus
Department of Cell and Dev. Biology
SUNY Upstate Medical University
Syracuse, NY

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