Tales We Tell Our Sisters: A Typists’ Lot (Women’s Voice 1980)



FOR THE last eight weeks I`ve been on a TOPS course. training to be a shorthand typist at Sight and Sound, a commercial college. lt’s a battery hen existence. You are taught by tapes. The only male presence in the place is that of a disembodied voice on your headphones giving shorthand theory, dictation, and spelling out the letters to type at ever increasing speeds.

We tend to fantasise about this voice. I reckon it belongs to James Parkes – one of the co-founders of Sight and Sound. who invented their audio- visual system of teaching after being given typing lessons as therapy when suffering shell shock from a torpedo attack!

I have learnt to type and take shorthand but not to contain my irritation at the attitude to women that the course conveys. lt could be intentional. Maybe the office world is full of petty sexism. The earliest example was plausible enough. One of the first phrases the voice in the machine dictated was: ‘Type the memo quickly, pet’. but it still irked. “Yes.” I thought. “type the memo, pet, you domesticated animal you. Type it quickly because time is precious.”

Anyway, the shorthand became more complex. We started to receive the gospel
according to Mr Sight and Sound – little aphorisms to translate into shorthand such as: ‘I never met a woman who was a good cook, who was divorced, unmarried or even widowed.” Well. now we know the secret of how to get our man. Maybe I should change to a catering course. Worse was to come. These were, after all.,only the pithy sayings of a man the war had treated badly. Then the secretarial training began. For some reason personal appearance figured largely in this: lessons were devoted to it. Little tips like ‘bathe regularly’ and ‘remember if you wear nail polish. make sure it matches your clothes.’

We liked this one: ‘Neatness: wear light natural make up and have conservatively styled clothing and hair do.`

We were shown cartoons to guide us towards the kind of looks we should cultivate in our new occupation. Of course Painted Dolly was the one to avoid. and Well Groomed Sue, obviously part of the Jaeger set (on her wages?) was the paragon of the three. But Plain Jane mystified us. What is wrong with short straight hair, no make up and glasses?

Mind you. some of the advice was so peculiar that a sort of game started: find the pettiest piece of advice.
Joint winners were:
*Interviews: our advice is not to cross your legs.
*Telephone calls: your tone of voice is important when making a call-SMILE!

We found out what happened to unsmiling, Plain Jane when she somehow did manage to get a job, by the way. One letter dictation complained of a secretary who was very status conscious and resented making her boss a cup of coffee. ‘She feels she is far too important to do such menial tasks! Well, she had to go. didn’t she?

Somehow. l don’t think l‘m going to make the grade either.

The course has helped me to build up a picture of the sort of person that l should have to be in the office world: a submissive, clean, well-dressed, well-spoken. smiling, not-too-sexy, not-too-drab tea-maker! My duties will be filing, typing (immaculately), taking dictation (have you ever thought about that word?), taking phone calls and receiving visitors – possibly telling them little white lies to protect the boss, keeping an engagement diary, reminding the boss of anything from an appointment to his wife’s birthday.

It reminds me of housework. in a way. You complete it one day. only to be assailed the next day by exactly the same tasks-you never actually get anywhere.

Being a secretary has been `women`s work’ for over fifty years. There are Company Secretaries who are mostly men but they are not quite the same thing. Similarly the work done by the County Clerk is not to be confused with most clerking jobs. _
Secretarial posts used to be a male bastion-from the time when clerics administered for the medieval church-to the middle of the nineteenth century. With the Industrial Revolution. the rapidly expanding world of industry and commerce lowered the barriers and let women enter the office-for all the usual reasons. a shortage of qualified men. and lower wage demands from women.

But women didn’t exactly take on the jobs previously done by men. The whole structure of office work was altered so that women were allotted the routine and subservient functions whilst men were ‘freed` for higher things-middle management and specializations which became professions like accountancy. personnel work. etc. and the gulf in terms of status and pay between these positions and the mainly female side is still growing.

One final scene: two of us were given a shorthand dictation test by a member of staff. lt started: ‘Some men are always in the news. Their faces smiling at us from newspapers and tv screens as they dash from one high-powered meeting to another. The interesting things is that all these men say, without any doubt, that they could not cope with their fast moving businesses and social lives without the help of one vital person – their…. SECRETARY _ _ .`

At this point the test was abandoned as we were both laughing so much _ _ _ but is it so funny?

Sarah Stone
Women’s Voice 40, May 1980


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