“Girl Friday” and the Non-Equitable Workplace

By Missoula PowerHouse, Sarah Korn.

I was recently job searching, and had what was supposed to be a phone screening with a recruiter for a coordinator position at a large, regional organization. The position itself seemed like a great fit as well as a fantastic learning opportunity, providing support for the organization’s major gift officer. I sat down at my kitchen table with a list of carefully thought out questions about the position and waited for the recruiter to call.

Right off the bat though, the recruiter said, “you don’t fulfill our minimum number of years of administrative experience requirement.”

Okay…so they aren’t going to hire me. Got it.

She continued, “we’re looking for someone who is willing to be more of a Girl Friday for the office.”

Being born after 1940, I had to look up the term, but the tone of her voice said it all. “Girl Friday” is a pretty old idiom for a reliable, loyal, female office assistant or secretary, which on the surface isn’t problematic. Over the years, however, it’s turned into an offhand descriptor for a female employee who is expected to overextend herself for her office and co-workers without any credit–a Labrador Retriever, of sorts. I can’t say for sure I know their reasonings, but from our tiny interaction I can only assume that they found my resume to be a little too ambitious for what they were looking for.

I believe that in my few years out of college, I’ve had lots of quality experience in a short period of time and been mentored by many incredible, influential women. I am well aware of my strengths as well as my weaknesses. I was just surprised that their focus for a coordinator-level position in their fundraising department was someone whose primary expectation would be to order pens and toner ink when stock was low, which was not on my personal list of identified weaknesses.

Don’t get me wrong–these kinds of positions are valuable and there are strikingly intelligent administrative professionals who do this kind of work every day. I also believe that office housework shouldn’t fall on just one person; we should all work as a team to ensure that everything runs smoothly, even when the work isn’t glamorous, like unjamming the copier and taking out the trash. The best administrative professionals, in my mind, possess important personal traits such as grit, organization, and ability to think quickly on their feet. I just couldn’t understand that with all my other qualifications, in a four minute phone screening, they had already determined that I was incapable of being this “Girl Friday” that they were looking for.

How about we talk about what I can bring to the position, please?

Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter talks about how women disproportionately do the bulk of office housework, moreso than men in the exact same position. There’s an assumption that women are supposed to be more helpful and communal in the office, whereas men are supposed to be the most driven, making strategic moves and solving hard problems. As Sheryl Sandberg says, “the person taking diligent notes in the meeting almost never makes the killer point.”

I thought about the gendered way the recruiter referred to the position and felt frustrated and defeated. I wonder if the conversation would have gone differently had I been male. Rather than valuing traits such as drive, flexibility, and problem-solving, this organization clearly intended on stifling them in favor of HR metrics to reduce the candidate pool, and strangely, waste both of our time on the phone. I wish large organizations and corporations would rethink their hiring practices and the language that they use to create a more equitable workplace–it’s clear we still have a long way to go.

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