All posts by Catherine Butler

As External Services Officer in EDA, I manage and implement the School’s PR, marketing and communications strategy, develop student experience initiatives, foster new business development, enterprise opportunities and industrial collaboration, and strengthen and enhance alumni engagement.

Creating job titles that mean something

Hello-My-Job-Title-Is

In relation to job titles, feedback from our colleagues at the Liquid Café (Excellence Through Partnerships) event in November 2014 included:

“The term “Clerical” is very outdated and job titles should reflect this”

“We need clear definition of job titles and job roles”

Colleagues in administrative roles are of the opinion that some job titles shape stereotypical impressions or contribute to old fashioned notions of subservience and reinforce the historical hierarchy prevalent within some university environments.

This is where we need to work more in partnership with managers who write job descriptions and with our resourcing colleagues in HR.  Firstly, it is important to ensure gender-fair language to ensure that job descriptions are not inadvertently linked to either masculine or feminine characteristics.   Over the past few years, there has been a lot of articles and studies about the glass ceiling, about the struggles women face at the top, yet there has been barely a murmur about the gender imbalances at the bottom of the corporate ladder.   Perhaps we should consider eradicating the title of ‘Assistant’ in some instances, and replacing it with ‘Coordinator’, ‘Advisor’, or ‘Officer’.  At the end of the day, assistants often do so much more than purely ‘assist’, anyway, and by removing the subservient connotation that the word ‘Assistant’ can imply, we might also remove the bias many men have toward these roles. Likewise, the term ‘Clerical” smacks of the 1930’s/50’s and it is a time a new job title was defined for colleagues performing a front line student advisory service.

To this end, and as part of our project “Who do we think we are – the professionalization of administrative staff”, we have asked our peers in the Sciences Faculty to let us know what they really think about their job titles; what they prefer, and what they dislike.  We have even asked colleagues to think of brand new job titles which they feel adequately describes the function they perform, that in an ideal world, they would use.  All the results we receive will be relayed to our colleagues in HR in order to better inform them of employees thoughts on this issue.  Indeed, there does seem to be a case for letting employees choose their own job titles as demonstrated at the Make-A-Wish-Foundation  Here employees who created their own job titles were left feeling positive by the experience and felt that their new titles provided self-verification and helped them express more of their own identity and personality.

Let’s start creating job titles that actually mean something and reflect the professionalism of the roles that we perform and the value we bring.

 

What’s in a name (or job title)?

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Invariably, when you walk into a social gathering and realise you will have to introduce yourself to others, your mind races, thinking ‘What should I say?’, since job titles form an important source of social standing and personal identify.  What most people want to know, indeed, they will often press you to find out, is what you do for a living?  What is your job title?

In today’s society, we have become significantly defined by our job titles, and we often define ourselves by our titles.  Job titles serve a number of roles; communicating your authority on a subject to people, letting people know what you do in your job, in a short-hand way.

This is what a job title does; it gives people you meet, and your customers and clients, a clear idea of where you work, what you do and at what level you do it at.  It should give you credibility in your field.  It’s something you use as a springboard on your career ladder.  A good job title can acknowledge the value the company sees in your efforts and earn you respect from your peers and customers.  It can indicate importance or “reward” employees in lieu of a salary increase.

You want a job title that not only accurately describes the work you’re employed to do, but also a title that reflects your pay ranking and seniority within the organisation.  Job titles can be used as a measure by those who hire and recruit – they are a sort of yardstick.   Recruiters gauge career progression by job titles (job titles are indicators of that progression as long as they are accompanied by job description and achievements that back up the title). In many cases, having a strong job title is your catapult to your next job.

Job titles also have emotions and expectations attached, as individuals have a need to feel intelligent, influential and important.  Finally, job titles can empower employees, and they may even prompt positive behaviours, such as taking more initiative or displaying greater leadership.  For all of these reasons, enhancing job titles can be extremely motivating to employees.  For example, using the term “Manager” in a title implies that you manage resources, manage clients/customers, their accounts or manage projects.

Having titles that are clear, common, well respected, and well understood is very important.  Having titles that are regularly reviewed is also important.  Sometimes, the title is even more important that the salary.

On being an Administrative Professional

It is clear that the secretary/clerical function has become more professional in recent years and has made work more interesting, allowing staff to have their own outcomes.  However, with this, a few unpleasant side issues have arisen.  Work place stress has occurred; resources don’t always match the increase in student numbers.  There is increased stress, increased expectations, unrealistic deadlines, lunch breaks are often forgone to play catch up, there are more demanding students, a perceived lack of promotion opportunities, and email has made work become urgent and insistent, and most of all, unseen to others.

When discussing the value of those involved in secretarial/clerical and administrative work, it is interesting to note that in the States and other countries, a nationwide event called “Administrative Professionals Day” is observed annually to recognise the work of secretaries, administrators, receptionists and other administrative support professionals. Originating in 1952 (and originally called National Secretary’s Day), it seems worthy to report that a secretary is still the top job for women in the States – this was true in 1950 and was still true in 2010.  The trend shows no sign of abating.

Job titles have evolved over time for a variety of reasons. Some companies have infused creativity into their job titles as a way to elevate otherwise generic-sounding positions. Others have doled out inventive titles in lieu of promotions or pay raises. Common practice these days is for companies to steer clear of gender-specific job titles, or ones that have politically incorrect undertones, to avoid any chance of discrimination and to show that gender is irrelevant to the performance of the job.  Order a sandwich at Subway, and you’ll be assisted by one of their “sandwich artists.”  When perusing the Apple store for a computer or iPad, be sure to ask a “genius” for help.

Within modern day HE establishments, equality issues enjoy high visibility but sadly, historical stereotypes do still prevail in relation to clerical and administrative positions – e.g. sexism, professional snobbery and intellectual elitism.  Furthermore, the government looks at gender disparity among academics yet the secretary/clerical/administrative workers sits alongside the likes of technicians, domestic staff and a whole tranche of university staff who can sometimes be overlooked.

So there you go – call us secretaries, clerical workers, assistants, administrative officers – whatever.  We can do it all.  Whatever you call us, we, as higher education administrative professionals, will keep the offices running, whilst technology and budgets and corporatisation continually shape and influence our roles.   Remember too, we are more likely to be of the female variety.  It doesn’t mean that we aren’t capable of doing anything else – it just means we’re better at it – perhaps better at the more detail oriented stuff, which is a necessity in our line of work with students paying hefty fees for a quality service and experience.

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The evolving and multifarious role of the administrative professional

These days, Higher Education clerical and administrative staff are expected to be equipped with multifarious skills and competences and the role of professional administrative staff is seen as pivotal to the success of an organisation.  Many tasks require a high level of professionalism and education, and some require commercial or political acumen.

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Within universities, secretaries, clerical workers and administrators have had to acquire specialist skills and knowledge.  We have had to learn on the job, using advanced computer systems and communications.  We have taught ourselves to become experts on university funding, teaching and research initiatives.  The corporatisation of universities has had a profound impact on the way HE institutions operate and our roles have been affected. Our roles have changed to those of higher education professionals and we daily respond to changes, pursue complex tasks, deliver innovative solutions, facilitate learning and development, drive the student experience and effect outcomes.

When universities were established in the 60’s, secretarial/clerical workers’ jobs were much more about paper pushing.  Nowadays, we are much more multi-skilled and we do all the functions ourselves.  The expertise of this body of staff is crucial to the core of the university’s structure and I believe that the professional administrative service is integral to the strategic success of the University of Kent.

Talking to colleagues, here are some anecdotes about how work has changed:

“Our work is often project-based, or we work as a team member on other projects”

“On a daily basis, I am asked to think outside the box, solve problems and come up with new solutions

“Nowadays, I’m always thinking about the bigger picture”

“I manage my own work”

“I make autonomous decisions effecting the way things are done within the university”

It is often the female, clerical and administration team who are the experts at the “soft skills” and the “specialist skills” – counselling the students, greeting visitors, doing the ground work for projects, managing student admissions, balancing the finances, writing the press releases, overseeing course administration, brokering student employment initiatives – all skills which can easily go unnoticed.

It begs the question, if one of these skills was performed by a man, would it have a grand title and be better paid?  We often associate the word “manager” with one who controls.  Feminine administrative functions are perceived as nurturing – feeding, nourishing, supporting, and furthering the development of.  Nurturing is usually quietly done, with much of the work invisible – and this clearly aligns with the perception that clerical and administrative functions can easily go unnoticed and be undervalued.

The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Part 2

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For generations of women, secretarial, clerical and administrative skills were valued as essential skills that would be advantageous in the job market and help your career.  The major shift has taken place in relation to class and gender.  Originally, and prior to the 1930’s, nearly all secretaries were men and the role of secretary was deemed in high regard as an executive servant of the government. Clerical work was a male dominated field in which males worked closely with their superiors and were often apprenticed to them; their superior’s success was their success, and they could look forward to a position of management in their later years.  After WWII, when the men returned, secretarial and clerical work was seen as “feminized” and clerks were renamed “secretaries” and “typists”.  Both the pay and the prestige for these jobs took a significant hit!

Through the 1980’s/90’s, many secretarial roles were rebranded as administrative assistants and more men started to apply for such jobs, though in tiny numbers.  Technology evolved – word processing made writing and editing documents much simpler and with the arrival of computers, “typing” became “keyboarding”. Fast forward to 2015, and here you will find that most organisations have ditched the term “secretary” in favour of clerical worker, or administrative assistant/officer, or office professional, to encompass a more executive role.

Universities have adopted the term ‘professional services’ to distinguish staff not having direct academic responsibilities, with the term “administrator” being reserved for staff undertaking clerical or secretarial functions. Currently within Higher Education, there is much debate about the value of junior level clerical and administrative staff, who often consider themselves underpaid, overlooked and invisible.

Yet in the digital age, the roles of clerical and junior administrative HE workers have evolved far more than any job title change suggests.  We’ve experienced massive changes (see Part One of my blog),  including the growth of information technology, changes in the delivery of higher education and the development of a commercial and enterprise culture in Higher Education.  Academic staff have begun to delegate more tasks to clerical/administrative staff and such staff are increasingly playing a role in training and teaching students both informally and formally.   Today’s university administrative worker is responsible for a greater array of complex tasks than any predecessor!

 

The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Part 1

My university is celebrating 50 years in the business (1965 – 2015) and as such, I thought it would be a timely opportunity to showcase just how much the secretarial/clerical and administrative function has changed in the last 5 decades.  During that time, I’ve not only studied here, but through both varied, temporary and permanent posts, I have contributed over 18 years of secretarial, clerical and more latterly, senior administrative expertise to the institution.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

During my tenure, I’ve witnessed massive transformations in Higher Education, including changes to funding, increased student numbers, governance, increased corporatisation and commercialisation and the adoption of managerial models which has affected staff at all layers.

If you look at the workforce that I’m talking about, you will not fail to notice that we are a predominately feminised workforce and this can partly go some way in explaining our lack of visibility and some of the problems encountered along the way by us (e.g. a belief that we are not interested in academic endeavours or systems.  Unfortunately, some outdated stereotypes also exist (see my blog ‘Just an administrator‘)  but at least in the 21st century, we are able to challenge some of the long-held masculine views/behaviours on the definitions of female administration roles (i.e. being administrative and being female – i.e. not male and not academic!)

Many universities in the UK were established in the 1960’s and along with them, the roles of the university secretary and clerical/administrative worker were borne.  Such roles were referred to as “non-academic”, yet the mere use of the word “non” conjures up negative associations and leads to the labelling and definition of a whole section of the work force in describing what we “are not”, rather than what “we are”.   Back then, the university secretary/clerical worker was very much expected to operate in a subservient, supportive role to the academic community.  Role holders were expected to be seen and not heard, much like the women and children from the Victorian era.  Essentially their role was to look after the academic, type correspondence and make the tea.  Secretarial/clerical staff performed tasks such as typing, often supporting just one academic.  There were no student recruitment, marketing or international offices.  Finance and personnel departments were very small and invisible to the academic community.

Indeed, the role of the secretary/administrative assistant has enjoyed something of a renaissance lately in popular culture – take for example the characters of Joan Holloway and Peggy Olsen, the competent secretaries at the fictional advertising agency in Mad Men set in the 1960’s in the States.  Both rise up through the ranks to become meaningful employees – one to become a partner in the agency, one to become an advertising professional (on a perceived equal footing with the male characters).  Likewise, think of the term “Secretary of State” where the word secretary defines a senior official of the federal government of the USA!

Interestingly enough, the word secretary is a unisex word and isn’t defined by gender, although it is stereotyped to be female by association.   The title of secretary was originally used by military leaders, heads of state, and even popes to refer to their most trusted confidants – to the ones they could trust and rely on without reservation.  Secretaries were set apart from others and known to be favoured by their respective leaders. Later, secretaries were used in the same sense by professional and business leaders.

If we look at the history and significance of the word “secretary”, it can be traced to being used in Middle English as early as the sixth century and comes from the ancient Latin word secretumi,  meaning keeper of secrets!

Next month, part 2 of this blog will examine the evolving professional role of secretaries  in the 1930’s, 50’s, 80’s and 90’s through to the digital age.

What makes us ‘professional’ university administrators?

Professionalism is something you see, hear and experience and is comprised of a set of behaviours.  A professional always aims to give the best they can.

As university administrators, we seek to maintain high professional standards.  We could do an “acceptable” job – but we always try to do an “exceptional” job.

But have we ever stopped to consider what makes us professional?  We asked this question to our colleagues in the Professional Administration Centre in the School of Engineering and Digital Arts and came up with several ideas as follows:  Our approach to service – we put our customers and users first (students & academic colleagues).  We are qualified (graduates or with graduate level professional qualifications).  We have numerous competences and skills and are good at what we do.  We strive for greater performance and for continued professional development and we belong to the professional organisation for University administrators (AUA), who provide us with a toolkit and resources to help improve our professional behaviours and deal with the ever changing complexities of Higher Education.

Students use our services, as administration staff,  as their first port of call. The blurring of lines between professional services staff and teaching staff has meant that in recent years, we have taken on more of the traditional duties of the “academic” and there is a constant need for us to provide a greater level of service outside of traditional teaching and research functions.

Twenty first  century university  administration staff sees administrators adding enormous value to, and impact on, the whole student experience, to the extent that front-line teaching, research,  enterprise and all external and commercial activities are greatly enhanced by the kind of day to day roles that we  provide.  We respond to customers’ needs, pursue complex tasks, deliver innovative solutions, drive the student experience, facilitate learning and development, effect outcomes and respond to change.  As professional university administrators, we provide high quality professional services, we have developed an appreciation of academic culture, are sensitive to the needs of a variety of diverse clients, accept responsibility for our actions and share expertise and good practice.  As such, the crucial role we play is integral to the strategic success of the University of Kent

In the light of the University of Kent’s 50th anniversary, it seems like a timely opportunity to showcase how the administrative function has changed in the last 50 years.  We should be celebrating the professional value we bring to the organisation and indeed, our own professional identity.

Just an administrator?

If you work as an administrator (particularly Grade 7 and below), within university administration, how do you define yourself, when asked by others “What do you do for a living?”

To a large extent, we define ourselves by our job, and so how would you answer the question just posed?  Many of us have a standard answer to the effect of “I work at the University of Kent”, but more often than not, this is usually met with the reply “Oh, are you an academic?” to which we meekly reply “No, I’m just an administrator”.

Sometimes, (deliberately or not), the emphasis of our intonation falls on the word “just” almost as if we are apologising for our profession and slightly embarrassed by it.

Labels at work are important.  Take for example, the term “non-academic”.  Should we be defined by what we are not?  The term, “the admin team” can sometimes convey a sense of dumbing down and even the term “support staff” has an upstairs/downstairs flavour about it.  Anyway, are we not all partners in this together, and don’t we all support students in the customer focussed environment in which we work nowadays?

Shouldn’t we be proud of being a university administrator? After all, the Nolan Committee  referenced in the University of Kent’s Annual Review 2013 defines that university administrators/managers should aspire to the seven principles of public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.  These are qualities that we uphold everyday in our working lives and are all elements of being a true professional and of displaying professionalism.

What do we contribute that is so important as university administrators and why do we think it’s essential to be viewed as professionals? Well, a key function of our roles is to serve the public interest and to properly manage public funds.  We serve the needs of a variety of stakeholders including:  students, their parents, students’ eventual employers, our colleagues who also work in Higher Education, commercial clients and suppliers, and the government.  This is a broad remit of responsibility and certainly not something to be ashamed of.  Students see administration staff as their first port of call and we often “fill in the gaps”, supporting the students when academics are unavailable and being asked the questions that students are often afraid to ask academics.  You could say we do the “glue” work that goes on behind the scenes – and that it is done best when not noticed.

However, not being noticed can sometimes lead to anonymity,  invisibility and a feeling of being undervalued (remember how we introduce ourselves to others!)  But by playing down our function, we are in fact contributing to old stereotypes and falling foul to professional snobbery.  In fact, this message can apply to all positions across the university. We all have a very important and relevant role to play and to actively celebrate and promote our unique contributions can only be a good thing