Adoption through foster care was once deemed unlawful and forbidden by the state of New York, thus forcing children who were in the custody of these families for years to endure the uncertainty of where they will sleep next. During her career at The New York Times, Edith Evans Asbury was responsible for shedding light […]
“It’ll be the year 3,888 before we make a buck,” sang the avant-garde musician, Laurie Anderson, in her 1989 tune “Beautiful Red Dress,” and let’s face it, she wasn’t entirely wrong. The year is now 2019 and the undeniable truth is that women everywhere are still fighting for equality after all these years – especially when it comes to workplace discrimination and their paychecks.
Despite research proving women earn approximately 80 cents on every dollar their male counterpart makes, it has been erroneously suggested that the gender wage gap is a myth and that women just so happen to work in lower-paying fields, such as secretarial and administrative assistant positions. But the woman-dominated field of administrative work has its own quarrels with the gender wage gap, and it all comes down to workplace equality and a woman’s lack thereof.
Since the 1950s, secretarial and administrative work has been one of the most common jobs to employ women. These key positions have been considered essential if an organization wants to run their business efficiently. Many administrative departments have been actively headed by hardworking women since the invention of the typewriter. Yet even in an occupation that has long been deemed a “woman’s job,” and which continues to be predominantly made up of these diligent dames, the 6% of males that hold the same title have higher salaries and fewer responsibilities.
According to a 2018 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men employed in the field of administrative work receive approximately $144 more per week than their women colleagues, earning a weekly median salary of $903, whereas the fierce females of the trade rake in roughly $753 a week. When calculated, that is a $7,800 income gap per year. So much for equal work, equal pay.
In reality, though, the fight for workplace equality is far from new; female secretaries have been struggling to gain workplace equality for decades.
In 1977, the late New York Times journalist Edith Evans Asbury reported on a rally held by women office workers on National Secretaries Day, a day that has since been promoted to Administrative Professionals Day.
In the article, Asbury draws on the words of then Councilwoman Carol Greitzer, who explained, “‘It is the typewriter that separates the boys from the girls’ when it comes to promotion and pay in offices.” Asbury enumerates the women’s roaring requests for fair treatment and, above all, their desire for, as protestor Patricia Fitzgerald put it, a “decent living wage, a job description that eliminates personal errands, [and] the end of discrimination against women.” A whopping 32 years later, women office workers are still declaring the existence of the gender biases and seeking the same reasonable requests.
Alessandra Nieves, a legal administrative assistant for a small Long Island law firm, knows all too well of the inequities associated with her occupation. She has been working for the firm for over 12 years and has never received, nor been offered, a promotion, and has only recently received a pay raise.
“About six years working here, I asked for a raise,” Nieves says. “They politely said ‘maybe’. Never happened. Then two years ago the executive legal assistant quit, and I asked to take her position because I have seniority. They laughed me out the door and hired a young girl the next day,” Nieves recalls. “I should have quit then, but I’m a single mother of three. I need the money. That’s when they decided to give me a raise.”
Apart from Nieves daily work duties, such as preparing legal documents, providing assistance to clients via telephone and e-mail, and performing accurate law-based research, she is also expected to pick up coffee every morning and order lunch in the afternoon. “Every day, I come into work with four large coffees, hand out three, sit at my desk and pray for a few minutes,” she says. “Because, truthfully, it’s a very stressful job for very mediocre pay and absolutely no respect.”
Reminiscing on her first year of employment at the firm, Nieves recalls an employee who was abruptly fired for what she called a “slap in the face to women everywhere.” “I couldn’t believe it. This girl had been here a few months, and she was constantly stating her opinion and telling everyone what she thought. It’s a law firm, that kind of attitude should be appreciated!” Nieves shouts. “Anyway, one day she got into it with [one of her superiors] and told him that she was ‘not his goddamn servant’ after he asked her to pick up lunch. A few days later she got fired for something completely unrelated.”
“I’m absolutely positive it had something to do with the argument they had,” Nieves says. “But they’re lawyers, so they found a legal way to fire her.” Nieves claims she is haunted by that occurrence, which is why she continues to do menial daily tasks, like ordering lunch and picking up coffee, for fear of losing her job.
Unpaid coffee runs and lunch orders are an all too familiar tale for the women in the administrative field. However, these mundane, uncompensated burdens are rarely fulfilled by the small amount of men in the profession, and, naturally, are not even asked of them. David Guiffre, a former administrative assistant for a popular insurance company, claims that he had never been asked by anyone in his office, including management, to perform any such task.
“Nobody ever asked me to pick them up anything—not once—and I worked in that office for four years,” Guiffre says. “I was advised to throw money into my boss’ yearly birthday collection, though. I never did that either, I’d just take him out to get a beer and, most of the time, he’d end up paying for mine.” Additionally, Guiffre says that his salary far exceeded that of his female colleagues, even as an entry level assistant straight out of college.
“We all went out one night to celebrate a retirement. The woman who was retiring shouted about how happy she was to be done working for minimum wage. It was a weird thing to shout, but I just sat there wondering why she said that because I was making almost $20 an hour and she’d spent most of her life working here,” Guiffre says. “The following Monday, Matt [Guiffre’s manager] called me into the office and asked that I keep my personal income on the hush-hush. Then he went on to commend me for being a college graduate and that’s when I realized I was making a lot more than these women.”
After four years of working as the only male administrative assistant in his office, Guiffre was offered a management position in 2014 at another location with the same insurance company. He denied the offer. “I didn’t feel like being another statistic in the age of stigmatizing women,” Guiffre says. “Those women deserved more. Much more.” With a bachelor’s degree in biology, Guiffre went on to get a job as a chemist, leaving behind his days as an office worker.
While secretary and administrative assistant jobs often do not require any additional education beyond a high school diploma, there are many companies who do require applicants to hold an associate’s degree in order to qualify for the position. For 22-year-old Nicole Veltri, an associate’s degree was one of the prerequisites on her application to become a part-time administrative assistant for a Suffolk County veterinarian hospital.
“When I was filling out the application, I was actually surprised to see that college credits were a requirement. I didn’t know you needed that,” she claimed. “Luckily, I had one, but now, I get why they wanted it. You really need to be educated and have efficient time management skills to do this kind of work. I don’t think that if I wasn’t a student first, I would’ve been able to handle it.”
Women not being “educated enough” is merely another flawed concept that weighs heavy on the gender wage gap, allowing the gap to persist. In fact, to cite women’s education, or lack thereof, as the reason why they are paid less strains credulity and flies in the face of the evidence.
In a 2019 article published in The New York Times, Maya Salam attempts to debunk the myths linked to the pay gap. Salam consulted The Times’ gender editor, Jessica Bennett to dispel the common misconception regarding education as factor in wage inequality. Bennett goes on to explain that “more women than men have earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees since the 1980s,” and additionally, women “have also earned more doctoral degrees” in the last 10 years. Thus, it can be safely deduced that women do not get paid less due to a lack of education.
Yet, even with Veltri’s education, her male coworker at the animal hospital whom she befriended, earns $1 more per hour. “It’s only a dollar, but it adds up in the end. And it’s pretty unfair,” she says. “I work just as hard, if not harder.”
Veltri brought the pay disparity to her manager’s attention and has yet to see an increase in her bi-weekly salary. “I like my job. I don’t want to seem excessive or annoying,” Veltri says. “But I would bet my entire paycheck that if I asked him to go in there and say something about it, the outcome would be different.”
When it comes down to it, the field of administrative work is only one of thousands plagued by the seemingly irrepressible gender pay gap. In spite of women’s perseverance to end inequality, the unjustifiable relationship between systemic gender discrimination and the pervasive wage gap continues to exist; and while the gap is incrementally closing, narrowing less than 1 percent per year, it is currently nowhere near equitable. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “if change continues at the same slow pace as it has done for the past fifty years, it will take 40 years—or until 2059—for women to finally reach pay parity.”
Nevertheless, women will keep fighting for change as they have done for the last century. And guess what? They’re going to win.