A Savvy Secretary, Says One Who Should Know, Runs Smoke Rings Around Her Boss

updated 11/19/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/19/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

As Mary Bridget Carroll sees it, secretaries are like basements. They support everything above them, yet they're the least glamorous and visible part of the corporate house. As she explains in her new book, Overworked and Underpaid (Fawcett Columbine, $6.95), secretaries needn't content themselves with anonymity and sacrifice. Carroll's own résumé illustrates the point. After majoring in occupational therapy at Mount Aloysius Junior College in Cresson, Pa., Carroll began as a receptionist and learned to type on the job. By 1978 she had become secretary to San ford Weill, then chairman of the Shearson Hayden Stone investment company. But when she told her boss she wanted to be a broker, he said, "You'll never make as much as you do working for me." Replied Carroll, "Watch me." She went to night school and when she passed the necessary federal exam in March 1981, Shearson made her a broker in its Greenwich, Conn. office. Last year, she says, she made $75,000—three times what Weill had paid. Carroll, who is single and lives in Riverside, Conn., shared her tips for secretarial striving with reporter Margaret Mahar.

What are some of the small things that increase a secretary's value?

Don't pass up an opportunity to learn how to use new office equipment. But be careful not to become too good at any one machine or you'll spend the rest of your career hearing people say things like, "Call Bridget, she knows how to add the oversize paper." If your boss travels, it's a good idea to learn to use the Official Airline Guide—a comprehensive guide listing all airline travel routes. Become a notary public. It's simple and you'll be surprised how often it comes in handy. Become adept at recognizing people's names and voices—nothing makes a caller feel more comfortable. But also learn to identify those your boss doesn't want to talk to.

What's the right way to ask for a raise?

Keep a list of what you've accomplished—especially anything you've done to save the company money. Don't be coy, and don't complain about your present low salary. If you meet resistance, tactfully remind your boss that paying you more might increase his status in the organization: "You're an important person in this company and, for that reason, I'd expect the firm would be willing to pay your secretary a higher salary."

How do you use your job as a stepping stone to promotion?

If your boss gives you a memo for his superior, take it to that person yourself. It's one of the few ways that you can become known by the top bananas. Read the trade magazines or professional journals. You'll be surprised how differently people will react to you when you can talk about the business and know the lingo. And read what you type. It's a good way to learn, and it may give you a chance to offer your boss some of your own ideas.

Should you cover for the boss when he makes a mistake?

Not if it's something that is unethical and will put you in a bad light. A diplomatic way to beg off is to say: "You're doing something that could come back to haunt you. I'm protecting you, as well as myself, by saying 'no.' "

Should you align yourself with a rising executive and stick with him or her?

You can learn by moving up the ladder with someone. But by depending on someone else, you won't develop the single most important character trait for success—self-reliance. It's often best to work for one boss-on-the-rise for just a few years. If you're lucky, he'll give you responsibility and credit.

Will a woman executive be as likely to help you advance?

I honestly have to say that some women who have had to work very hard to get where they are will be reluctant to share power and credit. But many are sympathetic to the ambitions of younger women. I think women who treat their secretaries badly are even worse than the men. Male bosses who look down on secretaries were just born stupid. Women who act that way had to learn it from men.

How are male secretaries regarded?

I've met male secretaries who have worked for both men and women. Generally, they find more reverse chauvinism among the women. A woman who is insecure assumes that men are always going to be ahead of women. So when she sees the rare man in a secretarial job, she assumes he must really be a dummy.

What do you do if your boss is incorrigible and you hate the job?

I realize this is unconventional advice, but you're going to get a chip on your shoulder if you stay. You'll get a bad recommendation. Trying to interview on your lunch hour is uncomfortable. I say quit and take a temporary job. Because of the shortage of good secretaries, a job is always available. Men take risks, women don't. But we should—it's how men succeed.

You say secretaries used to be respected more than they are today. What caused the change?

In the fight to win the war against sex discrimination, the officers of the women's movement trampled on some of the infantry. Only "career women" were valued. "Housewife" and "secretary" became dirty words. Then along came bubblehead characters like Miss Buxley in the comic strip Beetle Bailey and Loni Anderson's Jennifer in WKRP in Cincinnati on television. And then titles like "administrative assistant" became popular because women were ashamed or afraid to admit to others—or to themselves—that they were "just secretaries."

What would most help improve the image of the secretary?

Absolutely nothing can improve the image faster than a higher salary. More men in the profession would help, too. Less than 1 percent are men, but if being a secretary became a socially acceptable occupation for men, it would change attitudes just as it did when men became teachers.

How can a boss get the most out of a good secretary?

Whenever possible, let your secretary sit in on meetings. A secretary who knows what's going on can be more effective. When you're going to be out of town, tell clients to direct questions to your secretary. Most of the time, she has the answers or can find them.

After 14 years as a secretary to male bosses, are you cynical about men?

No, men have inspired me. When I've seen men move up who shouldn't have, I've thought if that nerd can do it, so can I.

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