Male Secretaries

The idea that men can be secretaries is very hard for some people to process. In the listening comprehension portion of our final exam, my students heard a story of Jose, a secretary who is so great at what he does that everybody at the company where he works is grateful to him and couldn’t function without him.

In their responses, even students whose listening comprehension skills are perfect, transformed Jose into a woman. Some renamed him into Josefa. Some allowed him to retain his name but used feminine pronouns and adjectives to describe him (adjectives have gender in Spanish.)

This would sound like a funny little teaching anecdote if it weren’t for the story about a real male secretary that my sister shared with me. He was a very efficient and responsible person who loved his job. Being a secretary was his calling and he took a great pride in it. However, it was next to impossible to place him in a position because of his gender. Companies were begging my sister as a recruiter to find them a skilled secretary with all the necessary qualifications but as soon as she suggested this man, they would reject him sight unseen saying, “A man? A male secretary? No, that’s just weird.” They probably thought his penis would get in the way of his typing or something. Or maybe they feared that his innate brutishness and aggression would prevent him from answering the phones politely and professionally.

11 thoughts on “Male Secretaries

  1. Well, at least there isn’t a presumption that he is a child molester (that’s a nod to the stigma attached to male baby sitters, and fathers that go to parks to play with their children).


  2. I know it’s based a true story, but I am glad that you don’t slide easily into gender conformity in the examples you give during language exams. I was always annoyed at the stereotypes that crept into the examples on my language tests, I.E, “Ms. Brown works as an office lady, give a short paragraph describing some of her job duties, including perks (like the handsome boss!)”, and, in one question, concerning a hetero dating couple who had lunch together every day at university, “If you were Hanako, describe what kind of lunch would you pack for your boyfriend.”


  3. They were probably worried not so much that his innate aggression would prevent him from answering phones properly but that only an effeminate homosexual man would want such a job and therefore that their own aggression would prevent him from answering the phones properly.


  4. You know what’s hilarious (not) about that anecdote? Secretary was originally a male-coded job. Just goes to show how stupid the gender coding thing is.


  5. Clarissa I think it’s a brain block for the kids that thought the secretary was a girl. You should try the riddle about a doctor on them (Don’t know if it would work in Spanish, though).

    I once worked in a medical office answering phones. I spoke to nurses all the time. Once I had a nurse who who wanted to speak to my coworker. He happened to be male. Names weren’t really necessary to pass the phone to her so I said something like “the nurse wants to speak with you about X’s results. He’s on hold.” My coworker had such a total brain block that she kept correcting me! I eventually gave up after about five such exchanges and figured she could figure out he was a man when he stated his name and heard his deep voice and his name.

    As for the kids who allowed him to retain his name but gave him feminine adjectives and pronouns, maybe they thought that modified the role and the role is always feminine in language?


  6. Your students continue to sound to me to be very unworldly and sheltered. This continues to astonish me and it makes me grateful that I grew up in a big, diverse city (even if I didn’t really like it much there — I think I had just been there too long). Anyway, as FD said above, a secretary was originally a male career, even after the idea of women actually leaving their home and working in an office had ceased to shock. Women were “file clerks” and “typists” and “receptionists” but a secretary was always a man. The reason given was that secretaries had to not only be at their boss’s beck and call 24/7, they had to know the ins and outs of the business and the intimate inner office secrets and so on, and the idea of a woman who was not married to the (always male) boss being in such a close relationship, even if it was a business one, was scandalous.


    1. This year, I’ve been teaching 1st year students mostly. When they come to college, they are all very close minded, conservative, and ignorant. By the time we are through with them, though, they change dramatically. Next year, I will be teaching our graduating seniors and the difference will be marked.


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