My own experiences related to classism are set in the administrative world of work. Frankie Valli once crooned, “If you go for your diploma, you can join the steno pool.” As I suspect many would agree, the administrative dimension of the work world is indeed a “pool,” where undercurrents of classism swirl quietly even when the waters on the surface are apparently calm. I want to share my anecdotes for administrative workers everywhere.
After graduating from university and struggling with inconsistent substitute teaching income, I needed to gain job experience and absolutely, I needed to support myself and my child. Did I think I was going to get a job as a professional feminist after graduation? Well no, not really. I always expected that would be a passion I would fulfill on personal time. So, I found income and stability in administrative work.
It was in my most recent Executive Assistant roles that my class-consciousness was jostled, agitated and ultimately, awakened. For outsiders to this work, I will share the following anecdotes about how class is relevant in this context. In the working life of an administrative person there are jarring daily reminders of what your “place” is, not to mention numerous, small tokens of exclusion.
1) Even if you are working “with” an Executive team, there is always the reinforcement that you are on the outside. You organize lunches, but you aren’t part of them. You schedule meetings, and if you attend them, you don’t participate or share your opinion.
2) Regardless of your skill level or your facility with interpersonal or written communication, you are viewed as “less” if you know less about what is going on. However, knowing what is going on is often beyond your control. Despite this, one executive I worked with “encouraged” me to be more vigilant about being well informed at all times, and cautioned that if I didn’t, it would be a “career stopper” for “us”!
3) Administrative workers are often scolded for behaviors that management and Executive freely engage in. For example, administrative staff who are mothers are shamed for the need to leave early to pick up a sick child, while ample time flexibility afforded to management and executive allow them to “dash out early” or “come in late” as needed. Another example is when an administrative person has a conversation with her colleague, she is chided for being “off task” or “gossiping” (even if the conversation is work related) while friendly banter about weekend activities or travel in the Boardroom during meetings is warmly embraced.
4) Hey, that ain’t my job… The most vivid examples of classism in my experience are tasks that administrative staff are asked to do that are blatantly demeaning or subversive. This is the juncture where classism was clearly elucidated for me. What did this look like for me personally, you ask? Here are a couple of shining examples among many that come to mind. There is the classic, “Will you get me a coffee/tea?” and on my return a patronizing “Thanks, you are a treasure” (while I’m thinking to myself “Here’s your tea and steep this…!”). I think the most ludicrous example I can recall is being asked to do is go out to the CEO’s car phone because she had dropped it on the floor of her car and couldn’t seem to find it. She sincerely thought she was being helpful when she offered to call her phone so that I would be able to hear it ringing when I was rooting around on the floor of her car.
The take home message inherent in these seemingly small, multiple indignities is that as an “admin person,” you are not counted or respected as a professional with valuable skills. I have always abided by the code, “Don’t dis’ the boss” and refrained from sharing my reactions with colleagues. After all, it can be embarrassing to admit that you were treated this way.
My experiences are that of a 45-year old Caucasian woman who is not wealthy, but able to meet her basic needs. I cannot by any means claim to know what it is like to have a racialized experience other than whiteness, or to have experienced discrimination based on age, health, religion, or sexual orientation. It never occurred to me that I even had my own story about classism, or to tell it until I became a graduate student in social work in mid-life. The world of social work has been a catalyst for understanding the relationship between class and other aspects of difference, and oppression.
I feel, and will always feel solidarity with administrative workers, most of whom are women. Although we are a diverse group, we are largely branded, implicitly or explicitly as “unskilled” workers, regardless of our level of life experience, training or education. What saddens me is thinking of my “admin people” peers who don’t have the strength to resist and think they deserve whatever comes their way in their administrative role. Perhaps I feel some of this sadness for myself, too, because I was once that person and continue to struggle not to be that person. Although I think my experiences of oppression are mild compared to those who have faced lives of discrimination involving classism and other simultaneous oppressions, I feel that, at least at some level, I can use my own experiences to be part of the solution.
Epilogue: I now work as an administrator/early childhood educator/researcher. I am thankful to report that I feel newly humanized and warmly respected in these roles.
Cari Gulbrandsen Is currently an administrator, early childhood educator and researcher. She is a PhD student in the Faculty of Social Work, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She is involved with the Calgary Womens Centre, a non-hierarchical feminist organization.