We rarely see DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) in action for us as a profession explains Simone White
DEI. There are not many of us who see these three letters who are unaware of the words that sit behind the acronym. Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) are not new concepts, but increasingly over the past few years, organisations have been actively embedding Equity (the ‘E’), following the realisation that equal opportunities are insufficient in providing equal outcomes if the starting points of individuals are not the same.
For many years we have seen a legitimate push for organisations to have gender-diverse boards, to have people of colour in leadership positions and to ensure that employees are not discriminated against due to physical or neurodiverse differences.
As administrative professionals, we support these initiatives in our firms. We actively encourage our colleagues to take part in open dialogue that can help support their development and provide them with the recognition that they deserve.
With all the focus and attention on DEI, all of us should have a sense of belonging, that we are being seen and heard for the contribution we as individuals bring. Yet surveys of the administrative profession tell a different story.
The Assistant Bias
For administrative professionals, no matter our race, gender or ability, DEI is something that happens around us or to ‘parts’ of us – but rarely do we see DEI in action for us as a profession.
How does this lack of action manifest itself? In our profession, we see many examples of a lack of inclusion – some so ingrained that they are viewed as ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’:
- Team events where everyone is invited but the administrative team
- Team meetings where the team Assistant does not attend or, if in attendance, they are seen but not heard
- Training and development opportunities with no targeted sessions for administrative professionals
- Lack of defined career paths or progression structures – progress often being linked to the individual or the team one supports rather than an individual’s experience, skillset or impact
When we dig deeper into our profession, we see how this lack of visibility results in exclusion for administrative professionals even where structures do exist to increase inclusion:
- Diversity initiatives that aim to balance the gender and racial splits across roles but do not look at the administrative population – I do not recall any reports (outside of those written by our profession) that speak to the lack of gender diversity within our population or the lack of racial diversity in C-suite administrative roles.
- Women’s networks that provide training for their female population but have no targeted sessions for administrative professionals – who are predominately female
- Gender pay gap discussions where the only mention of administration is to validate why the pay gap between male and female salaries is so large, as so many women sit in the lower pay scales in this profession
The Impact of Not Being Visible
DEI is needed more than ever in administration because for too long, we have been overlooked as a homogenous group, all providing the same thing with no differentiation at an individual level. We need only look at the US Bureau of Labor Statistics to see how we are viewed by most – one single category to cover all administrative professionals.
Historically, every time there is a negative change in economic circumstances, administrative professionals are the first to be mass culled. Why? Two reasons are apparent:
- We are intrinsically linked solely to the individuals we support; when hard times hit, the decision is made that ‘individuals can support themselves’.
- Our roles are not deemed to be impactful – a ‘luxury’ rather than a necessity, with little if any bearing on the bottom line or foundational structure.
Our impact as a group must be considered at a strategic level. How we deliver and maintain organisational discipline, create inclusive cultures, manage client interactions and uphold company values and purpose is not understood. We do not have to go back far in history to realise that this is a reality that still exists – look at the impact of COVID-19 on many administrative workforces across public and private sectors.
The Need for Equity for Administrative Professionals
We must be cognizant to the bias that impacts us and challenge actions to ensure that we are included not only in DEI agendas but in strategic planning overall. It is only by being seen, heard and valued as a group that our profession will remain viable. Our starting position is not the same as many of our colleagues, and for those of us who have varying levels of intersectionality when it comes to DEI, it may feel like a mountain-like obstacle.
What can we do individually and collectively to change the narrative?
Start with You
We work in silos so often that we forget the power of a collective. We are an amazing group of individuals who provide an incredible amount of ROI (return on investment) to those we support and to our firms, but we rarely speak about our impact and often diminish the value we bring. If we ourselves do not see our own value, how can we expect others to see it? We need to work together to elevate our profession and understand our history as professionals – what the role was and how it has changed – so we can evolve our futures.
Be a Subject Matter Expert
We cannot be so focused on supporting others that we do not take the time to understand our roles and how they support individuals or organisations.
Be the expert and do not believe the mantra ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Administration means that we must ‘master’ many things that fall under our SME (Subject Matter Expertise). Event planning, office and stakeholder management, emotional intelligence, budgets, compliance, HR – the list goes on. You must view it as a skillset and not belittle its value. As with any expertise, we need to stay up to date. A worker is only as good as their tools. Make sure you have an up-to-date toolkit that is relevant for the needs of administration today.
Be Present and Speak Up
In terms of race, gender and ability, DEI is a focus right now because those affected have raised issues. We need to use our voices and highlight biases that impact our profession. This may seem like a tall order, but most of us are in spaces of privilege where we have the ears of our executives and teams. In the same way we use our voices on behalf of our colleagues, we need to do so on behalf of ourselves.
We need to seek the support of others to act as allies and advocates alongside us. We cannot do this alone. Inclusion alone does not change the narrative.
The Future Is Now
I have seen the impact of DEI in action so that I am visible as a female and increasingly as a person of colour – but as an administrative professional, my career of choice, and why I am hired, my sense of inclusion has not always been validated.
It has been by using my voice, connecting with peers and gaining allies and advocates that I have begun to see a change – but we need to continue.
My employer is launching a Learning & Career Development Framework to support administrative professionals further in their individual careers, which I know is not something that is available everywhere. This change has come about because a group of administrative professionals were present, understood their impact and articulated it.
Margaret Mead once said, ‘Never underestimate the ability of a small group of committed individuals to change the world – indeed it is the only thing that ever has.’
As administrative professionals, no matter our individual need for DEI, we require it as a group to not only survive but to thrive in our roles and organisations.
We must work together to change the narrative that surrounds us – indeed, if we get this right, we may just change the world!
Your article is spot on!
I had a former colleague in an R&D environment, who was passionate about her job, executive & team. She was with the company a long time, had current skills and really was the lifeblood of the office operationally and strategically. She planned an outing for the team and their families with another administrator, which was a rousing success.
Afterwards, she called me nearly in tears saying “I always thought I was a member of the team, but now I know that I am just ‘the help’!” There was a fair amount of setup and cleanup needed at the outdoor venue and not one person who saw the two ladies struggling, offered to assist in any way. To compound that, there was not even an acknowledgement or “thank you” for the effort made. It saddened me, as I knew how instrumental she was to the team’s success. Shortly thereafter, she retired.
I’ve been lucky myself, thrice in my career to have managers who valued my contribution and viewed me as a partner. Allies are important – they model the behavior needed. They teach colleagues to respect all roles.
I agree also, that it is important for each Administrative Professional to be a brand ambassador for the career path. Setting a positive example speaks volumes about what we can do.
Thank you for calling this issue out.
Thank you for your feedback on my article. The experience of your friend is far from unusual.
For the most part I have found out that these behaviors are far from malicious or done with the intent to exclude, but are based on the view that we are there to execute for the business but not actively participate.
This view has impacted how we are managed, trained and developed. We need to be viewed not as a resource to be used, but rather as a source of specialist knowledge to support businesses and to have what we bring to the table valued.
This is what inclusion means – and this is why we need to keep advocating for DEI for administration.
Thank you Simone for speaking out on behalf of the thousands of Administrative Professionals who have not yet found their voice. We need to do this together as a profession. There are pockets of excellence where companies have started to wake up, such as your own.
While working at Shell in The Netherlands as a PA & Officer Manager, I was part of what was then called the Shell Women’s Network, one of the activities on offer was a series of mentoring circles, run annually on a broad range of topics from work life balance to leadership, open to all in the company, not just women. There were no function-specific circles however, so as I was active in the network, I was invited to create a mentoring circle for Assistants, this had never been done before, so it was a very exciting development and one that was heavily oversubscribed by those working in the Business Support Skill Pool. I created and led the Mentoring Circle, “The Secrets of a Successful Assistant”. Each Circle had five sessions run over a period of six months, with a different topic for each session, but all focused on personal growth and development. With around 10 assistants in each session, the programme ran for the last three years of my tenure at Shell. It was a small step and I hope it has continued.
Research done by the World Administrators Summit for the Global Skills Matrix showed that 73% of administrative professionals felt their organisation did not understand the role or the potential impact of using them properly, which is shocking to say the least. The World Administrators Alliance will soon be launching a campaign to increase awareness of the profession as a career of choice and to elevate the perception of the role to obtain the recognition it deserves.
Thank you for your advocacy and passion.
Chair – World Administrators Alliance
This article explains exactly why I’m trying to leave the profession: team events where everyone is invited but the admin, training and development opportunities with no targeted sessions for administrative professionals, lack of defined career paths or progression structures, women’s networks that provide training for their female population but have no targeted sessions for admins. Besides the work no longer ‘sparking joy’ for me, I’m tired of everyone else getting internally promoted and going to conferences and getting real mentorship and sponsorship – these programs are NEVER geared to the admins, when so many of our skills can transfer well out the admin field – project management, marketing, HR, possibly IT, employee engagement, etc. But very rarely are we given the opportunity to grow into something else outside the role; in most places you’re just ‘there’ but interns get the support to go on to becoming VPs. In my next role I plan to advocate for the admins in the company – did they have a desk full of swag waiting for them on their first day? They are invited to all the team Zoom happy hours, right? Do they have an ERG for them? What is the career path for admins here? This person has seamlessly overseen several events – maybe it’s time to get them a PMI certification or events manager certification?
I feel your frustration. Research done by the World Administrators Alliance among 3000 Administrative Professionals showed that 60% felt there was little or no opportunity for career progression, 58% felt underutilized and a massive 73% felt that their organisation didn’t understand the role or potential impact of using them properly. That when the Global Skills Matrix came into being. To find out more, visit http://www.globalskillsmatrix.com, or get in touch with me at Chair@WA-Alliance.com.
Your frustration literally jumps of the page and it is one that is felt by so many of our peers globally.
I have come to see that often the bias is not malicious, but rather from lack of understanding and often a blind spot. Raising awareness of blind-spots and biases like the ones mentioned can result in change.
That being said – change is never easy and due to the historical context of the role – many simply do not understand the value of administrative professionals beyond diary, travel and expenses and feel that anyone doing the role has no desire or ambition to do more.
If we think of DEI through the lens of gender disparity, we have come so far and yet we still have so far to go. It was women themselves who had to highlight the biases and the microaggressions that they faced to move the dial and the challenges still continue.
For us to be able to move the dial, we have to highlight the biases – because most, simply do not see them.
I love that in your next role you are planning to advocate for your profession, because it is this advocacy by all of us that can start a movement, rather than a single moment (or article) which is quickly forgotten.
Simone – I just want to thank you for this article. I’m doing some personal trauma work related to my childhood in a high-control religious group, and without your insights I doubt I would ever have connected these particular dots. This clarifies SO MANY THINGS for me. Thank you, with all my heart.
Thank you for taking the time to read the article and providing feedback.
I am so pleased it helped you to unpack events you have gone through in the past.
I hope its action points will help you going forward.