https://www.bonnielowkramen.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/dreamstime_s_176218470.jpg 533 800 Bonnie Low-Kramen /wp-content/uploads/2020/08/bonnie-low-logo.png Bonnie Low-Kramen2021-02-10 12:28:352022-01-12 13:37:11“EAs Need Better Press.” Agreed. Solving the EA PR Problem Once and For All
By Bonnie Low-Kramen | February 15, 2021
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Alice Walker
It’s frustrating and I think it really is more than time to fix what’s broken. I am talking about the perception problem for assistants.
For 25 years, I worked as the Executive Personal Assistant to Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis. From the beginning of our time working together when I was in my late 20s, I always felt respected by Olympia. This was not as much the case though, by the people outside our immediate orbit. I recall being dismissed as “just the assistant,” and underestimated as not being smart or influential, simply because of my title. That was a mistake. A big one. I won’t ever forget that Olympia did not take kindly to those who disrespected me and she did not stay quiet about it.
To change perception, we need the strong support of others outside the profession.
I learned that these dismissive demeanors and disrespectful behaviors had to do with the disparate perceptions about what assistants actually do. Olympia and I both knew, without a doubt, that she could not have the life she envisioned without me doing the work I did. She wrote exactly that in the Foreword to “Be the Ultimate Assistant.” That is true for assistants all over the world, so why is this reality such a big secret?
The answer is rooted in history and demographics. The modern assistant profession began during WWII when women were brought into the workforce in great numbers because men were fighting the war. In 2021, the profession is still 95-98% female. Therein lies a big piece of the problem. But still…the perception began more than 70 years ago!
In general, females are socialized to not tout their achievements and accomplishments. Therefore, downplaying their value does not make for good PR or image building. In my experience, women are aware of this and yet, it feels very hard to do in regular practice. This would explain, at least in part, why there is confusion and misunderstanding about the role. If the situation is to change, then EAs need to participate in the assertion about what assistants do and the responsibilities they now hold.
In 2021, it is widely known that assistants are the backbones of companies and the right arms to their managers. They do whatever it takes to get the job done, even if it means taking work home and staying up all night to hit a deadline. They often don’t take all their vacation time because of their indispensability. And, when assistants do go on that vacation, most work at least some of the time because their work is that important and plus, they don’t have proper backup.
If all that is true, it begs questions. Why then are assistants historically undervalued, underutilized, and underpaid? Oh, and bullied by managers and peers?
A male colleague who gets it recently said quite matter-of-factly, “EAs need better press.” Yes, they do.
In addition to better press, assistants need to know their worth from the inside. They also need allies in the form of recruiters, HR professionals, managers, and educators. The educators not only include trainers like me, but also the professors in business schools who are training the leaders of the future.
The pandemic has simply shone a brighter light on the perception problem that was strongly apparent in the pre-pandemic world. In our current environment, the issue has gotten more complicated because of the invisibility factor of working from home. Out of sight, out of mind? Not so fast.
As a speaker and trainer, I have had the privilege of knowing assistants and leaders all over the world. Until March, 2020 brought travel to a screeching halt, I had worked in 14 countries and 38 states.
What I see everywhere is that this image problem has two parts that profoundly influence each other.
The first part is about how you see yourself. The second part is about how our leaders, our peers, our colleagues, and the outside world see you.
If the saying is true that perception is reality, then we all have serious work to do to break ideas that began more than 70 years ago.
What are actions that you can take today to shift the perception of the EA role and fix the PR problem?
- Create your own accurate and detailed job description that highlights your achievements and skills. If it needs to be five pages, so be it. This document that is fact-based, data-driven and without emotion is at the heart of changing perception.
- Do the research on your salary. Ask HR for a Pay Evaluation. Have a serious conversation about the future of your career growth at the company. Given a choice, advocate for salary versus hourly compensation. Take control and Be the CEO of You, Inc.
- Be present in your manager’s email signature. Include a line that gives your name and title and contact information. This sends a powerful message to the recipients of your executive’s emails. And, if your title does not accurately reflect what you do, officially request a change. Titles matter. They matter a lot.
- Know your allies. Ask them to write letters of support for your portfolio. Keep their emails telling you how amazing you are and thanking you for your hard work.
- Make excellence super cool and rewarded. Celebrate the achievements of your peers publicly and privately. Participate in awards in your company and your community.
- Commit to ongoing training to keep sharpening your saw. Ask for an annual training budget and make your case for why a particular training program is useful for your role. Calculate the ROI in terms of saved time and resources which equal money. For example, if getting your Excel certification will save your manager one hour of time per week, calculate how much money that saves the company. That dollar figure will more than cover the cost of certification. Do you need to make the Business Case for training? Click here.
- Be proactive. Ask to sit in on meetings and volunteer for projects that will stretch you, including managing others. Don’t wait to be asked. Be ready to say why you want to do these things. Assistants are volunteering to help with onboarding, disaster planning, reentry to the office, and succession planning, to name just a few projects.
- Read what your managers are reading to stay up to speed. Don’t hesitate to offer an idea if you have a good one!
- Don’t allow your lack of a college degree stop you from applying for a job that you know you can handle. Let your skills do the talking. Women self-limit themselves. Haven’t we had enough of that?
- Be visible. Find ways to toot the horns of others and they will do it for you. This is a challenge for women, but my best advice is to begin. It’s not bragging if it’s true! Fight the imposter syndrome at every turn.
There are so many changes happening in our workplace right now. There’s no reason we cannot choose to change the perception of the EA role as another one of these changes. We need a new story that is accurate.
I am less frustrated now because I think that perhaps this is the absolute perfect time to change the perception in the ways it needs to change. We can rewrite our story. What do you think?
I am Bonnie Low-Kramen, TEDx speaker, author of “Be the Ultimate Assistant” and trainer of Executive Assistants all over the world. In May, 2019, I was featured in a Forbes online cover story. As part of the research for my second book about the workplace to be published in 2022, I have had over 1,000 conversations with assistants, leaders, HR professionals, recruiters, and business school professors. I have worked in 14 countries and 38 states and would love to work with you towards building your ultimate workplace. Click here to set up a time to speak with me about your training needs which can be delivered virtually or in person.