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Not for women only

By Terry Joseph
April 29, 2005

Among the widely-believed but woefully under-researched myths with which we live is the concept of "the glass-ceiling", a transparent but impenetrable obstruction, restraining career advancement for women purely on the basis of gender bias.

Routinely cited as victims of such prejudice are secretaries, their ambitions limited by chauvinistic male authority to transcribing notes, organising administrative menials, inventing avoidance techniques and, in the hackneyed stereotype, making coffee; never getting the break when senior positions become available.

This being Secretaries' Week, a niche celebration of the female contribution to the world of work that began on Sunday with supportive statements from President Max Richards and other male authority figures; today offers a wonderful opportunity to re-examine claims of sexual discrimination against women in this field.

This is not to pretend women always enjoyed equal opportunities. After all, before 1927 women could not vote and still weren't allowed to stand for Legislative Council positions except their earnings matched an entry-level designed by men and even with universal suffrage in 1945, income remained a determinant for another 11 years, until self-government reasoned it away.

Interestingly, in politics, arguably the most challenging of career choices, women have made significant strides. An enduring example was Isabel Teshea, vice chairperson of the People's National Movement from 1956, then Parliamentary Secretary in Local Government, Minister of Health and later Housing and finally Education and Culture, before successive ambassadorial appointments to Ethiopia, Zambia, Senegal and Guyana.

During the intervening years, women parliamentarians, far too numerous to exhaustively list, helped rule our country, among them powerbrokers like Marilyn Gordon, Muriel Donawa-Mc Davidson, Pamela Nicholson, Jennifer Johnson, Jearlean John, Gillian Lucky, Hazel Manning, Pennelope Beckles and Camille Robinson-Regis.

The senior-league roll-call includes this country's first female Attorney General, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who also acted as Prime Minister, her counterpart Glenda Morean-Phillips, since 2003 Ambassador to the UK/Euro bloc and Culture Minister Dr Daphne Phillips-Gaskin, who also did a stint as acting Prime Minister.

Regulars enjoying a grip on the sword and sceptre include the formidable Joan Yuille-Williams, who has also been deputy PNM political leader, Senate President Dr Linda Baboolal (who chaired the PNM and has acted as President of the Republic) and Christine Kangaloo, Senate Vice-President, twice in the position of supreme authority over Parliament's Upper House.

And while even such numbers pale against the sheer quantity of men charged with ultimate responsibility for shaping our fate over the same period, it ranks as clear evidence that women hold no monopoly as victims of prejudice which deems aptitude and intellect secondary to gender considerations.

In fact, many men have experienced the crushing setback of reverse discrimination when seeking jobs. Count among them this writer who, more than 40 years ago, felt the burden of being male when, although graduating with marks infinitely superior to those of any of my secretarial school classmates, I was refused every available job requiring such skills.

This is my story: In 1962, the Education Ministry introduced to the secretarial programme offered at John Donaldson Technical Institute, a "high-tech" version of traditional Pitman's shorthand called Palantype. Fresh out of high school, I gained admission to the two-year evening course, which included office administration and typewriting.

The Palantype element required a machine costing $100 (specially-cut paper and ink sold separately) which, for my folks at that time, presented a major hurdle. Given those overheads, on many days I was forced to walk from Success Village to school at Wrightson Road, toting the heavy cast-iron machine and books.

Hope of getting a job upon completion of the programme was not wishful thinking. We were constantly reminded of our pioneering pursuit, particularly by instructors Mrs Ruth White and Mrs Fay Bhaggan. Education Minister Donald Pierre addressed the class of '63, reassuring "every student" of guaranteed employment; including prestigious jobs as Hansard or High Court reporters. After final exams, which I topped with exemplary speeds in typewriting and Palantype and best grades in office practice and procedure, the other 44 students, all women, most already employed, enjoyed improvements in their remuneration as secretaries or ascended to become note-takers in the courts and Parliament.

After submitting scores of applications, I managed to secure pitifully few interviews and in one demeaning episode was greeted with the remark: "We thought 'Terry' might have been a woman." I remained on the breadline for several years, albeit infinitely better qualified than any of my female classmates, all of whom were quickly employed. So to those women who succeeded then and since, many of whom have gone on to become administrative professionals and better, Happy Secretaries Week from a guy you inadvertently spoke about so many times during those private powder-room discussions and public seminars on gender-based discrimination.

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