Menial Tasks

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I just read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (the SMH: my favourite Australian on-line read). It’s yet another one about senior female professionals being asked to do things that are below their pay-grade: doctors taking lunch orders in this case.

secretaryIt reminded me of a talk that my boss (the late Sam Wright, a good colleague and friend, much missed) gave to the staff he managed about 45 years ago. Let me explain the situation. All the men in the organisation were professionals and all the women were secretaries. So any woman was automatically junior to any man, and the women (or ‘girls’ as we called them then) organised a roster among themselves to ensure that everyone – men and girls alike – got tea twice a day and the cups were washed up.

It worked pretty well. But then one day the organisation – the British Federation of Master Printers as it was called then – hired a woman in a professional role. What to do?!

Sam grasped the nettle, called a meeting of staff and told us all that the new recruit was to be treated as a man. The girls were unhappy at first. She was a woman, right? So why shouldn’t she make the tea and wash up the cups like the rest of them? It was like the days of apartheid in South Africa, when Japanese were treated as honorary whites but Chinese weren’t.

But something in the SMH article jarred. Someone is quoted as saying “We’re talking about senior medical officers. Qualified doctors tasked with taking lunch orders and told to perform menial, secretarial tasks.” I looked up ‘menial’ in the Oxford English Dictionary and it defined it as “requiring little skill and lacking prestige.” I have never thought that secretarial duties require little skill, and the most skilled of the secretaries I’ve met were accorded much respect. Not prestige maybe, but certainly no-one would have labelled them ‘menial’.

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