Perhaps one of the most coveted positions for a woman to hold is represented by the somewhat vague term "private secretary." The beginner who has just finished her training at a business college, and even the girl without any real training, both inform the inquirer that they are going to be "private secretaries." Just what this post means they have, as a rule, no knowledge, but it sounds better than "shorthand writer and typist," or "clerk."
It is true such a post can be among the best to be held by women, but it is not so easy as it appears to fill the position satisfactorily, either as secretary to a professional man or to the head of a firm. A certain type of woman, too, is required-one possessing patience, love of detail, willingness to carry out apparently small and trivial duties, the gift of knowing when to speak and when to be silent, and, above all, with a good share of tact and a reliable memory.
The training necessary for the position under consideration is the usual business training, with, if possible, a knowledge of one or two languages. In working with a medical man, Latin would certainly be a help, and, in all cases, the wider the general knowledge the better.
A Post in a Business House
Time spent in a well-managed commercial office, or with one of the large trading companies, is not by any means wasted, for the habits of system learnt there will help any woman when thrown on her own resources.
The girl who holds the position of stenographer to the principal of a firm is practically in the capacity of private secretary, although she may not be termed that, and will quite possibly escape a good deal of the routine work falling to the share of the other clerks. In some cases she may only rank as the senior clerk as to rate of pay, but in many instances her salary does not come under the rule regulating those of the general staff, and she is paid just what her employer may feel she is worth to him and he can afford to pay, or he may prefer to pay her at the regular rate, and at Christmas, or when she is leaving for her summer holiday, make a substantial addition to her yearly income by presenting her with a cheque for any amount he may think suitable. The former plan is, perhaps, the more satisfactory to the worker, though a lump sum, represented by a crisp five or ten-pound note, is never unwelcome, and is more readily laid aside for the rainy day.
The Value of Discretion
She has to deal with the most intimate and confidential matters relating to the business, and, therefore, has to exercise the greatest discretion. Orders to the staff are sometimes given through her, and it is not always the easiest or the most pleasant mission to carry a message which is, to say the least, unpopular to those to whom it is delivered. Should members of the staff talk over with her any happenings in the office out of the ordinary, she must be careful how such are reported, if they are reported at all, to the principal, but in many cases she is able to act as intermediary, and to see that both sides of a question are put forward fairly before judgment is passed.
Once a girl has gained the confidence of the man for whom she is working, and he knows how to make the most of her capabilities, leaving her to deal with certain small matters without reference in detail to him, the position can be one of. the greatest interest and pleasure.
The typical City man has, as a rule, little time to spare, and many men work in a state of disorder - as to their personal papers, etc. - that they would be glad to have remedied, if it could be effected without bothering after the details themselves. Here the secretary may prove herself. She will arrive at the office in good time, and if she is entrusted with the key of her chief's desk, will have it dusted, and see the office-boy does his duty as to the supply of blotting-paper, pens, and pencils, and that no loose papers are displaced or lost. Correspondence will be laid ready, opened or not, as the chief may prefer, and she will place with them any papers that are likely to be required for reference. Her work will, of course, vary with the nature of the business, but, as a rule, the more she identifies herself with the interests of her chief, the smoother will the wheels of work run. Appointments carefully booked, a reminder given of arrangements to be made, a quiet reference made to the business of a caller whose name is unfamiliar or forgotten - all these are points which help the man whose brain is working
Woman's Work hard, and who has to switch off from one thing to another with lightning rapidity.
Another duty which is almost certain to fall to the secretary is the interviewing of callers in the principal's absence. This needs care, as salient points in the conversation have to be reported, and the business generally carried out in such a way that when the caller and the principal' meet, or correspondence ensues, it may not be found that important details have been omitted. As time goes on, often quite important transactions may pass entirely through the hands of the private secretary.
Should the business of the firm entail travelling on the part of the principal, his secretary will probably have to look up the times of trains and their connections, to make all hotel arrangements, and sometimes to arrange the time to be apportioned to each town visited. Or, by way of variety, she may have to make all booking arrangements for a visit to a theatre or other entertainments that her employer may wish to make.
S-------, would you mind running up to Bond
Street or Oxford Street, and seeing if you can find this for my wife? Take as long as is necessary at lunch-time." "This" may mean anything from the selection of chiffons and ribbons to be sent on approval, or the actual buying of some specified article, to the ordering of a scout's outfit for the boy at home who is the secret pride of his parents.
Occasionally, too, the secretary may receive an invitation from her employer's wife, should he be married, and thus she will become acquainted with his family life. Such visits certainly tend to take away from the monotony of the daily task, but it goes without saying that they are regarded as confidential, and are not discussed in the office with other members of the staff.
Men, also, are proverbially careless, and will sit with an open window, in a dangerous draught, or do other equally foolish things, and the secretary will earn the thanks of the wife at home (if she does not receive them) if she can rectify quietly any oversights. If afternoon tea be served in the office she may be able to see that it is brought in punctually, and made properly, or, in the case of a threatened breakdown in health, will see that doctor's orders are obeyed as to the taking of medicine, etc.
The ideal private secretary, in fact, has to act as a buffer, and do everything possible to save unimportant matters troubling her principal, and, at the same time, be exceedingly careful not to give offence to others on the staff by appearing to prevent their access to him when required. Above everything, with all her watchfulness, she must not "fuss," for no man will long endure that, but most will appreciate a woman who can do her work well and quietly, and, so doing, provide some of the oil on which to run the wheels of the office.
There are some men of ungoverned temper with whom it is absolutely impossible for anyone, man or woman, to work on these lines. They are, unhappily, to be met with, and can only be endured for the sake of the employment they give. Then there is the suspicious man, who hates to think anyone but himself knows his business; also, the man in a big position who never learns how to control others, and insists on attending to every petty detail himself. Such are hopeless from the point of view of the private secretary.
Secretary to a Woman in a High Social Position
The position of secretary to a woman in a high social position or a lady of title is no sinecure, especially if she be known to be of a charitable disposition, with money at her command. Her secretary's duties are many and varied. In the first place, she will have to deal with the lady's personal correspondence, the sending out and acceptance of invitations, the arrangement of dates for giving entertainments, paying visits, and the manifold social duties that have a claim upon her. For this reason the post is usually filled by a girl of good social position, who, although poor, is well born, with right of entry into society, and prefers to be independent.
Another branch of her work, and- by no means the lightest, will probably be to deal with the hundreds of begging letters that are sure to reach her employer. These have to be sorted out, and any apparently deserving cases investigated, and the financial or other help given as directed. This entails an immense amount of work and responsibility, and sometimes the harassed secretary encounters abuse instead of thanks from the people she is endeavouring to help.
Such a position may not have the security of a post in a commercial firm, as it is held entirely at the will of the lady in question, and some are whimsical and capricious, but there is not the same contact with all sorts and conditions of men that would be certainly trying to some delicately nurtuned women who yet have to earn their living.
To sum up, it will be seen that a woman is almost entirely dependent on the character and disposition of her principal for the harmonious working of her business life, but the right kind of woman, clear-headed and quick, having obtained the post, generally finds herself appreciated. At the same time, anxious as she may be to serve her employer to the best of her ability, she must not allow herself to overstep the limits set by the unwritten laws governing business. Unhappi-ness to herself and a break up of the business relations are the inevitable result of so doing.