3 min read

'Just' an Assistant

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Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve not been honest about your job?

It’s not that I’ve lied about my job. It’s just that no one seems to understand what it is that I ‘do’. I had my daughter’s birthday party last week, and I was speaking to a dad of one of the children there. He asked me “what do you do?” and for a brief moment I thought I should be honest. But I wasn’t.

“I’m just an assistant” to which I got that familiar nod. The one where I know exactly what they’re thinking – ‘oh, she makes the tea, answers the phone and manages a diary’. But they couldn’t be more wrong. I’ve not been entirely honest here - I’m an Executive Assistant. And there is a big difference between what I actually do versus what society thinks I do.

If I told you I was a pilot, you’d quite rightly presume that I fly planes. However that isn’t all a pilot does; there’s flight planning with air traffic control, report writing and data checking. Generalisations happen all the time, so it’s only natural they happen with the EA role too.

The Devil Wears Prada was the film that made me covet the stereotypical assistant role. This film depicts the assistant initially as a flappy, timid newbie who doesn’t fit in. This was me when I first started out. As the film continues, she develops into a confident, fully comprehensive assistant whose job becomes her entire life. This was also me just a few years ago, before I found my balance of loving what I do without it becoming all-encompassing. The stereotype here is the coffee-retrieving, phone-answering ‘puppy dog’ assistant who has no autonomy in her role, just at her bosses’ beck and call at all hours of the day. It’s also this sort of film that enables the public to make a sweeping generalisation of what an assistant does.

To truly articulate my role, I cannot simply reference The Devil Wears Prada although I’m sure for some this may be partly/wholly accurate depictions of their roles! Nor can I summarise it in a few words. My peers in the assistant world want to re-write the narrative. Typically the only people familiar with this role come from large Corporations, so we need to educate the rest of society to understand our roles without prejudice. Because an EA is the strategic business partner; the soundboard for our founders/execs. We are the lynch pins of the companies we work for; ensuring the wheels are well oiled whilst taming the constant chaos. So, you see why I narrow it down to ‘just an assistant’ if someone asks, which is not indicative of the breadth of my role.

What has started to bother me in recent years though, is why I would say ‘just’ an assistant. ‘Just’ is a powerful word – it’s a command to ignore all other possibilities. Psychology Today says “It’s fake objectivity, as though you’re just calling a spade a spade rather than voicing an opinion. It’s a gambit to stop debate, to get people to adopt your opinion and be done with it.”

However, myself and my peers need to continue to work hard to break down the stereotype and become more than “just an assistant”. Because despite actually doing the ‘stereotypical jobs’ an assistant does, clearly there is so much more depth to the role. And that’s up to us as assistants to assert our positions and shout about what we do because our jobs are so integral to the smooth running of a business – why on earth wouldn’t you want someone to know what an awesome and significant job you’re doing?

So, rather than diluting my role or calling it something that it’s not, the next time someone asks me I will tell them with pride – “I am an Executive Assistant”. And when they inevitably ask “what’s that then?” should they be interested(!) I will confidently and succinctly summarise what my purpose is within a business.

Now is the time to start breaking the stereotypes; showcasing the value the role brings to a business, and how proud I am to be an EA. And for the record, I do still make the tea!