Different strokes

Funny how typing-pool notions persist in a Web 2.0 world, says Sally Feldman

May 6, 2010

At the end of this month a happy chapter of my life will close: Chris, my long-serving secretary, is about to retire. And with her will go several years of barely acknowledged comradeship. She has warded off persistent parents and disgruntled students, juggled an impenetrably complicated diary, tactfully excused my presence at the most mind-numbingly dull meetings while making sure I attended the unavoidable ones, armed with the right set of papers. I, in turn, have not asked her to fetch my dry cleaning or do my shopping, and I have tried not to disappear without letting her know where to track me down. And, above all, I never, ever expected her to take dictation.

In this last respect, I suppose, I must have been a bit of a relief after my predecessor, the very eminent Professor Brian Winston. Despite being the author of a highly regarded academic study of the impact of mass technology, he had the habit of speaking his correspondence into a scratchy and very ancient Dictaphone. Chris would then have to transcribe his excitable prose. She said it wasn't too bad really, except when he had a cough.

Brian's was an attitude typical of that generation of men who assume that a secretary is there to type your letters and that to do so yourself is a form of indignity. And it still persists. A young man I met recently, who had just been promoted to chief executive of a charity, actually dictates emails to his secretary, who then must type and send them. Presumably this pointless routine is for him a statement of his status. No matter that it's much faster to deal with emails immediately and personally. And that the whole point of new technology is to eliminate unnecessary work. The young master of the universe simply has to demonstrate his supremacy over the compliant female. It's an old, old story.

For the keyboard is both a potent symbol of female oppression and a tool of liberation. For women with limited employment opportunities, the arrival of the typewriter was a chance to enter the world of work and to achieve some independence. It didn't take long, though, before secretarial work was classified as low status with poor promotion prospects. Secretaries were the lackeys of their male bosses, very often fulfilling the role of office wife and sometimes that of office mistress, too.

Traditionally, typing has been so associated with women that men would regard it as demeaning even to know how to do it. When I first joined the BBC in the 1980s my request for a typewriter was greeted with horror. As a journalist, I couldn't even think without one. But, it was explained to me, the secretaries do the typing here. I came across several female producers who would never admit to being able to type, so fearful were they of being demoted.

Then, miraculously, came the word processor. Gone were the layers of carbons, when one mistake would mean retyping the whole document. Gone were the little pots of Tipp-Ex for disguising mistakes, however ineptly. And once those primitive creatures were replaced by real computers, an office revolution really did occur. Here, at last, was a gadget that men weren't ashamed to use. It was so much more electric drill than vacuum cleaner - so fast, so smart, so complex in its abilities that mastery of it conferred, rather than removed, masculine kudos.

Not all men have managed to make the transition, though. One senior editor at the BBC persists in refusing to use email. Instead of being taunted, he's indulged as one of the last eccentrics, his reluctance to enter the cyber age a symptom of his genius.

But it's an attitude that won't wash in the world of higher education. We have to battle with digitised student record systems, virtual noticeboards and libraries that can be accessed only through codes and passwords. Even more crucially, email and its cuddly social-networking relatives are the natural mode of communication for students. To refuse to use it is to refuse to engage with them. And that, it appears, is the position of the highly distinguished academic Terry Eagleton, recently retired from the University of Manchester. I'm sure he's now doing fine with myriad professorships across the academic world. But I still can't see how any university lecturer can do the job properly, and can respond to students, be available to them, mark their work and give assignments, without using a computer.

The more adventurous of my colleagues are excited at the potential of the new technologies. They're devising models for distance learning. They create Facebook communities to explore ideas; they encourage blogging and embrace Twitterers. Compared with these digital pioneers I'm still on the nursery slopes, and at a loss if I have to deal with anything more demanding than Word or Safari. Our office is used to an anguished cry of "CHRISSSS!" whenever I get lost in the farther reaches of Googlespace or forget how to make my mailshots merge.

But I hope that my reliance on her superior technical skills is an admission of my own inadequacies rather than an expression of power. At least I don't expect her to wear tight skirts (she prefers jeans) or to lean provocatively over the photocopier revealing the tops of her fishnet stockings. Unlike another very well-known professor - a notorious serial seducer of secretaries, no doubt erotically fired by their neatness and orderliness and crisp ways with the stationery cupboard. One night in bed, he found himself embarrassingly unable to perform.

Suddenly aware of what was missing, the perceptive young minion had an inspiration. "Would it help at all", she gently enquired, "if I went and sat behind my typewriter?"

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