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Women In Academia

Women in Academia: Administrative Assistants

In my attempt to learn as much as possible about the Higgs boson press conference last week, I stumbled across this guest blog post at Scientific American. In it, the author talks about how she sees her mother, an administrative assistant at Brown University, in the Higgs discovery. It’s an important reminder of all the crucial work administrative assistants do and how often their contributions get overlooked.

At my university, which I expect to be fairly representative demographically of most universities in the United States, or at least most large state universities in the United States, only 30% of tenure-track faculty are women. Other faculty (non-tenure track, etc.) have a higher percentage of women, but still below half. However, more than half of all staff at the university are women. These staff members are also much more likely to be people of color than faculty, with the one exception of Asian-Americans, who make up the same proportion of both groups. They are the invisible and unrecognized cogs that make the hyper-visible (and less visible) research and discoveries possible.

Administrative assistants face some infamy: some recent articles have pointed at increases in administrative costs as a driving factor behind the huge increase in college tuition. While I am not suggesting that none of the increased administrative costs are associated with waste and that there is absolutely no room for improvement, the critique sounds hollow when placed in the context of falling endowments and dramatic cuts to education budgets.

I’ve said time and time again that science and research cannot happen in a vacuum, and generally, I am talking about collaboration between individuals and communication with the public. But even then, I am ignoring the important contributions by all of the support staff at research institutions. From coordinating grant applications, to tracking expenses, to basically doing everything necessary for research to go smoothly, or, well, at least as smoothly as research can go, administrative assistants are the people who make it happen. Many of them are the unsung women in academia – the ones that make the rest possible.

I would say that I am surprised that such a valuable campus group is overlooked, but given the demographics – the large number of women and the relatively large proportion of people of color relative to faculty – there’s something very familiar about that invisibility. So if you have some time, take a moment read the article that is linked above. Maybe it will drive you to, like me, reflect upon the administrative assistants that have made your research, teaching, and life in academia move smoothly and stress-free.

9 replies on “Women in Academia: Administrative Assistants”

Our administrative staff at my University are amazing. Even though they are completely busy all the time, they take a minute to chat with me when I come in, they answer my stupid questions, they reassured me when I was reapplying for the PhD, they approve my travel funds, they give me behind the scenes info on textbooks and offices, and they really do care that we’re doing as well as we can. I had a non-ideal office situation this year and when I sent a timid email asking to be moved for fall, the woman in charge seemed to genuinely FEEL BAD for me that I hadn’t had a good experience–that’s like a lifeline in a sea of graduate school and teaching stress, let me tell you.

I would first like to thank you for recognizing admins. We are often overlooked. While I don’t work in academia, I do work in a finance office and I am constantly struggling to make people understand all that it takes to run an office. My contributions are consistently ignored or undervalued unless I shout it from the rooftops. So thank you to everyone who values admin work, and especially thank you to all the administrative staff out there, in every field, that keeps all offices, labs, schools, manufacturers, and nonprofits running!

As an undergrad at my tiny college, the departmental secretary was my bestie. We all loved her- she sorted out so many things for me over five years, she made sure everyone in our little thesis class had all their paperwork done on time, she made keys for me the one year I had an ‘office’, she continues to be the greatest. She was actually in the same graduating class as me (free tuition as a uni employee, what what) and got the BIGGEST cheer.

Lise the secretary > 10 less-than-helpful profs.

As one of these admin staffers in academia, I thank you. We’re also often a group that’s overlooked in discussions of planning on a bigger scale. One of my colleagues (scientifically trained) has said that I have hard skills that I can rely on in a career shift, whereas they just have soft skills limited to a very niche area. I like to remind myself of that, as well, on the particularly stressful days.

My department would be completely non-functional if it weren’t for our administrative assistants. That, by the way, are all women. They help with every single aspect of the department. Scheduling (of professors, students, postdocs, visiting people, seminar series, classes, journal clubs, recruitment, etc.), management of department equipment and resources, ordering and returning all sorts of lab materials, ensuring we follow all sorts of regulations, making sure our grants and proposals follow agency standards and/or are good to go… they are vital and helpful and lovely!

Awww! As a university administrator this article leaves me warm and fuzzy inside – I’ll be sending it around the office, no doubt!

It’s funny my dad just got a position as a part-time lecturer at a local college and now I get to hear all his stories from that side of the coin. He’s always complaining about how slow everything is trying to get through the administrative channels and I just say to him, “Haven’t you listened to ANY of my work stories for the last five years?? Don’t worry – just don’t piss off the administrators and your requests will be taken care of. Just don’t. Piss. Them. Off.”

When I was an undergrad, I worked a few hours a week helping the Administrative Assistant at my school’s psych department. That woman was on top of it! I think I learned as much from her about efficiency and organization as I did from my professors about psychology. Most of the faculty was very good to her, but I could tell that some days were relatively thankless for her. Nevertheless, she always extended a smile, a welcome, and help to every student that walked in the door.

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