A mystery in corporate India: The curious case of the vanishing secretary
January 29, 2019
These days, it’s harder to hire a secretary than an engineer.
Prasad Deshmukh found this out the hard way. As director at a tech services and recruitment company, he was entrusted with finding a secretary to the India head of an entertainment firm, last year. He expected the post would be filled in a week. It took two months. “There just weren’t enough candidates,” Deshmukh recalls. “The good ones knew their worth. The company didn’t want to spend much. It was classic expectation mismatch.”
Deshmukh says this mismatch is playing out in workplaces across India, which seems odd. Most office-goers now use tech to do what a secretary would. We schedule meetings on WhatsApp groups. We sync calendars via email. We set reminders on smartphones; save notes in the cloud; log updates on Slack and probably haven’t sent a fax since 2001. Google Assistant will soon be on a billion devices. We are all our own secretaries now. Surely actual secretaries must be clamouring for work? Instead, it’s the employers doing the clamouring.
“For secretaries, there’s now more demand than supply; no two ways about it,” says Roshan Khambatta, director of placements at Davar’s, an institute that has run secretarial programmes since 1969. Her pile of want ads is huge — well-known fitness companies, luxury real-estate developers, bioengineering firms, a hotel chain, a glass manufacturer are all looking for assistants.
The jobs now come with perks. One Davar’s student, updating his corporate training, assists a construction MD and has company accommodation in Mumbai’s posh Imperial Towers. Another, an assistant to a textile CEO, arrives for one-on-one shorthand classes in a chauffeured car. “I’ve placed secretaries at salaries of Rs 1 lakh a month,” Khambatta says. But she fills barely four positions a month, 10 tops.
The two most popular versions of shorthand, Gregg (top) and Pitman (above), use phonetic notation and dominated a secretary’s working life. Both samples here describe what shorthand is: “Writing at the speed of speech”. It’s created a paradox in the Indian workplace. As companies grow, they need assistants. But as assistants grow, they now jump to managerial positions. “The better the candidate gets at the job, the more likely they are to leave it, creating a vacancy,” says Khambatta.
In the popular imagination, the post is already an anachronism. Mario de Miranda’s polka-dot-dressed Miss Fonseca prints sell as nostalgic memorabilia. Toymaker Mattel’s Secretary Barbie is a limited-edition item aimed at adult collectors. But the last generation of career secretaries is now retiring, creating more vacancies still.
Maureen D’Sa retired in 2014 after more than 35 years as a secretary, 20 of those at Kellogg’s India. She recalls starting out when “there was no computer, no photocopier – you used carbon paper and typed everything, hitting each key extra hard so the letters slammed all the way to the 10th sheet.” Data had to be formatted into columns manually. There was no Backspace, SpellCheck or Undo. And the core skill for the job was a shorthand speed of 80 words a minute.
The world needed secretaries to keep offices running, ushering thousands of middle-class women into the workplace and creating the two-income household. Khambatta completed her secretarial course in 1971, with 200 women in her batch. Siloo Chinigar, Davar’s current director of secretarial studies, taught “four batches of 350 students each” in the mid-’80s.
Office life, already easing up with photocopiers and word-processors, changed dramatically with computers and the internet as the millennium turned. The economy yielded more ambitious career options. And since the 2010s, start-ups have introduced a culture of small teams, self-reliant executives and more casual correspondence. Today’s batches Davar’s have shrunk to 10 students on weekdays and 25 on weekends.
“Secretaries are passé or relevant only to organisations with traditional and legacy systems,” says Devashish Sharma, founding member at Delhi-based recruiting company PeopleStrong, who handles strategic accounts and alliances. And because, unlike engineers or marketers, they don’t bring in revenue, they’re seen as a cost. Few want a stenographer, fewer want to be one.
“A secretary is someone who uses her brains, says Khambatta. “She has enough brains to look elsewhere now.”
Corporate firms today rely on administrative assistants, personal assistants and executive assistants – overlapping titles that reflect a worker’s education, industry skills and responsibilities. “The EA is a strategic post,” says Deshmukh. “You’re not taking minutes of the meeting; you’re compiling reports from within the company and creating analytics. So assistants will likely have MBAs and industry skills.”
These are “typically people who see the job as training to take on the boss’s role eventually,” says Vimala D’Souza, who joined generators company Bharat Bijlee as a stenographer in 1984 and is now the company’s senior executive for human resources. She is also president of the Indian Association of Secretaries and Administrative Professionals, a 48-year-old non-profit for women in the field. “There are fewer and fewer people who retire as secretaries,” she says.
Towards the end of her career, D’Sa was orienting Kellogg’s expat staff and taking on HR and payroll responsibilities in addition to assisting the MD. “I was proud of my job,” she says.
At Davar’s, Khambatta says alumni complain that Indian companies (typically family-owned businesses that have scaled up) often treat assistants like interns or peons. It’s another reason the school’s EA and PA batches have shrunk.
“Many companies want assistants in their 20s, but with 10 years of experience,” Khambatta says. “Many outright want single, unmarried pretty women. One industrialist said ‘I want my secretary to be remembered’. I said to myself, ‘You should want yourself to be remembered!’ A stockbroker who’d refurbished his office sought a secretary, ‘who matched the décor’ never mind that he was puny, bald and didn’t match his own interiors.”
D’Souza says that more EAs and Pas are men. “Companies prefer them for jobs that have late hours,” she says. But Chinigar says her classes are still 80% women.
The reason companies are still clamouring for secretaries is simple. When everyone has Google Assistant, it’s the people that make the difference, no matter what their job title.
Many MBA schools don’t teach students how to be persuasive with a client and resolute with a colleague. There are few modules on time management, language skills and polishing up one’s correspondence. At Davar’s, one in 10 students is now a mid-level executive taking lessons in corporate etiquette and office management.
“They realise that without a sense of how to run an organisation, their domain expertise can only take them so far up the ladder,” Chinigar says.
D’Souza sees assistants as the gatekeepers to their boss’s domain, “screening visitors, thinking like the boss, managing their office and taking decisions when they’re away”. Sharma adds that the role “provides tremendous exposure to closely understand business insights and operational nuances”. It also brings “exclusive mentorship from highly experienced brains,” helping assistants eventually become successful leaders.
Deshmukh, like other recruiters, knows there will be more assistant positions in the future. “The trend of delegating your job to someone else, so you’re free to take on bigger roles, is growing,” he says. It explains why some assistants have assistants of their own – they’re already doing their boss’s job.
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