In November 1981 I took a job as PR Assistant with a well-known Swiss firm. This was an executive position, albeit on the lower rungs. The man I replaced left to go into journalism; he probably knew already what I was about to find out and got out while the going was good. They obviously thought that they could save money by employing a woman, presumably at a lower salary, and by not giving me my own secretary: I shared my boss’s PA. He was a highly intelligent man with a wry sense of humour, good at delegating, and the atmosphere in the department was very congenial.
It appeared to be a cushy number: although I had to be there early (by 8 am), I dozed on the hour-long journey into Zurich, and once in my very smart office (supplied with potted plants and artwork of my choice when I moved in) I sat at my desk with an invigorating cup of coffee and the quality newspapers of the day. A gentle awakening that suited my metabolism very well.
The point of the newspapers was to allow me to find any reference to the company, and to keep an eye on its public image, as well as following its performance on the stock exchange. This turned into a pleasant perusal of whatever items caught my attention when I realized after two days that somebody else was doing this arduous task a couple of hours prior to my arrival. Around 9 am I would take delivery from this anonymous angel of a packet full of cuttings which it was then my job to paste neatly onto sheets of A4 paper, photocopy several times, collate and distribute to the Big Bosses on the floor above my office. Privately, I thought of this as making scrapbooks, and marvelled at the salary I was being paid for such menial work. I’m sure the scrapbooks ended up in the bin by midday.
In spite of the unequal pay scales, the company was quite generous to me, and since computers were just beginning to replace typewriters at the time, I was sent off to do a course in word-processing at the end of my first week, with the promise of my own dedicated computer to follow as a replacement for my golf-ball typewriter. Never having been a good typist (pick-and-peck is still my style) I was overjoyed at this: goodbye Tippex!
The second week I was given a few documents to translate, and then sent off to do a tour of a recycling plant and to visit some of the actual manufacturing sites so that I could have an idea of what the company was all about. I was also allowed to write a short article and participate in leading a staff training exercise at a posh hotel just outside Zurich. Back in my office the third week, I was entrusted with organising a trilingual press conference. This was exactly my cup of tea, being familiar with this kind of thing from my previous job.
How lovely to have a word-processor to prepare the documentation, and be able to put into practice all the little tricks and gimmicks I had just learnt! The printer was a state-of-the-art monster, with a daisy-wheel (anyone remember those?) and encased in a thick felt cover to reduce the decibels when it was operating. I was also actively engaged in the conference itself, another enjoyable aspect of my job, as I liked meeting and interacting with people.
However, the main news item sprung on the journalists was that owing to a sudden slump, 400 jobs were going to be cut. I learnt the term “natural wastage” and felt sorry for the other employees who would be affected by redundancy. Following the two-day absence for the press conference in my fourth week, I returned to find the offices very tastefully adorned for Advent, with a huge decorated tree in the main foyer and Christmas music playing softly in the background. In contrast, the mood was not so bright. Each department had its “Gruppenstab” or staff group, and numbers were being reduced. Heads of department were told how many employees they were allowed to retain, and it was up to them to decide which jobs to cut. The PR staff was to be halved. My position vanished.
“We don’t want to lose you,” I was reassured. “We’ll find you another job at the same salary.” This was Switzerland, remember? And 1981. Swiss women had been granted the vote just ten years earlier, and it was to be another ten before the last canton accepted women’s suffrage. It transpired that in the whole of this vast company, I was the only woman on the executive scale! My salary at the bottom of that scale was equivalent to the top of the secretarial scale, covering all the other women employees, so I was offered the job of PA to the Vice-President of Technology with effect from January 1982.
What was I to do during December? Well, as one of the chosen few to have done a word-processing course, I was deemed to be an expert. Nobody called my bluff. The company was intending to provide all its secretaries with word-processors instead of typewriters, so I was made responsible for testing all the various brands and word-processing programs available at the time, and recommending whichever I thought best. I was removed to a new office, and supplied with various brands of computer and programs. They were actually all much of a muchness and still in the teething stage, but in the end I made my decision and recommended IBM.
I had a ten-day break over Christmas and New Year, and then returned in January to take up my post with the VP Techno. This was a self-important little man, who held a PhD and visited an obscure American university once a year to deliver an hour-long lecture. On this basis, he insisted on being addressed as “Herr Professor”. I discovered that in the previous twelve months, he had had six different PA’s. I disliked him on sight.
On my first day as his PA, he fussed about the number of sugars and quantity of milk I was to put in his coffee (he couldn’t do that himself, I even had to stir it for him). I then spent the rest of the day going through his Christmas cards and sending New Year greetings to anyone he had overlooked, as well as connecting him by phone to those he considered important anywhere in the world. This networking was all in anticipation of the World Economic Forum in Davos, which he was due to attend in February. The next week, in addition to his private correspondence, I was also tasked with writing letters of application in English and French for his recently-graduated daughter, and translating her CV. Nothing at all to do with company business. He also wore elevator shoes.
Truly the most difficult thing for me was getting into a secretarial mindset: it struck me forcibly that secretaries and PA’s who had been with the same boss for a long time had a relationship very much like a marriage. They were faithful, loyal, submissive and utterly devoted, prepared to wipe the man’s nose if necessary. My puffed-up superior’s feet of clay were all too obvious to me, and I had scant respect for him. Moreover, instead of a word-processor, I once again had a fancy typewriter that was giving me headaches. On the train going home in the evening, I could feel a hard ball of rage and frustration in my solar plexus. I was still in my three-month probationary period, so after two weeks I gave in my notice and looked for another job.
All the same, I am very grateful to that company for all the benefits accrued in those three short months: not only the very steep learning curve as I discovered my limitations, but also the computer skills I gained, and the enjoyment the PR job gave me. I think that could have been the ideal job for me if it had lasted. Best of all, I got ten days’ vacation in the middle of it and for some reason they doubled the amount of money in my works pension fund! An experience I would not have wanted to miss. I also learnt to understand Swiss German!