The F-word: Inside the Most Female Occupation In California

by Thea Lavin on November 30, 2004

Sitting, staring and answering telephones- these are the tasks customarily performed by workingwomen in California. A recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California revealed that women across the state are most commonly employed as $12 dollar an hour secretaries.

Two weeks ago, I joined the league of underpaid and
sedentary workingwomen. After finishing graduate
school last June, I postponed getting a job in hopes
of landing a killer writing gig at the publication of
my choice.

But by October, cans of tuna fish looked like luxuries
and I reluctantly flipped through the yellow pages in
search of temp agencies. Despite my sparkling nose
ring and lower arm tattoo, I managed to get a $12 an
hour secretary job deep in San Francisco’s fiscal
downtown at a corporate insurance agency.

Since obtaining the most common female job in
California, I have learned two things. 1. $12 an hour
is in no way a living wage. 2. Sitting at a desk five
days a week is inhumane and inspires acts of
desperation.

True to the statistics, all of the other secretarial
employees in my office are women. My supervisor,
Bonnie, is a fifty something black woman with an
affinity for swear words and anything by Prince. She
too entered the workforce out of necessity as a low
paid temp, a fact that immediately garnered my
admiration and respect.

I first met Bonnie under fluorescent lighting at 7:30
a.m.. She wakes up at 5 a.m., earlier than everyone
else, and opens the office by 7. Most days, her 8 year
old son trails behind her before heading to school.
The morning I arrived, both Bonnie and her son were
nodding in unison to Marvin Gaye on the radio and
sorting photocopies. “You’re here,” she said, in place
of a greeting. “I’ll show you your desk and then we’ll
do the mail.”

Almost all of the secretarial work that Bonnie and I
do is performed sitting down. For nine hours, our legs
anesthetize as we open mail, enter data and answer the
phones. This is the hardest part of secretarial work-
performing repetitive tasks while your body stiffens.
As we sit opposite each other and sliced open incoming
envelopes, I sometimes imagine gooey bed sores
flowering on the back of my thigh.

One my first day, two pale insurance brokers meandered
by while we worked. Both were men in their late 20s,
bemoaning the end of their recent beach vacations.
“You spend 50 percent of your life at work,” said the
shorter one, gazing bleakly at a copy machine.

I almost felt sorry listening to them, until I
remembered the five digits that brokers make. In 1998,
working women earned 52.1% less than men, partially
because the average hourly pay for women has only
risen $5 above the mid 70s average of $12 an hour.

Stuck in secretarial hell, some of the women I met
remain behind the desk until marriage gets them out.
“I don’t have any money,” quipped administrative
assistant, Erin. “But now I get to spend my fiance’s
money and when I have kids I am out of here.”

Erin, a thirty year old blond from Chicago, is engaged
to an investment banker who promises to bring her to
Palm Springs for their wedding ceremony. As she
extolled the economic benefits of marriage, I started
to envy her like an inmate facing life in prison.

I, too, have a not-so-feminist fantasy of reliance
that emerges during periods of financial insecurity
and stress. In it, a tennis bracelet drips from my
wrist as I shift through the upscale home where I am
the residing sugar baby. Out of sight are my required
offspring, shiny and silent like department store
dummies. Hidden even farther away is my wealthy
husband, an anonymous sponsor who keeps me clean,
cushioned and well stocked.

A few simple facts make my fantasy ludicrous. For
starters, I’m gay. Also, I don’t really want complete
solace from working. What I want, and perhaps many
other low paid secretaries, administrative assistants
and receptionists want as well, is reform in the way
we work. Four days instead of five. Higher wages and
open air. Variety instead of monotony.

At least that’s my view from inside the most female
occupation in California.

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