This is Part 3 of a gargantuan mind-dump about my time as a secretary in big pharma. Parts 1 and 2 if you missed them.
I was a languishing as a “dumb-head secretary,” as one of my co-workers called it, when my husband began pressuring me about doing more. He never said as much but I think he hated that I was a secretary, despite my writing aspirations. “You have no upward mobility,” he’d always say, and grill me about getting back into publishing although I hated it and would have been making half of what I made as an administrative assistant.
“What about my writing?” I’d ask. My YA novel had just come out. I had gotten a couple of stories published in literary magazines; a few agents had expressed interest in a new novel and asked to see it.
“You’re not making any money with it,” he’d reply.
I’d have to become a bestselling author; that was the only way to solve this. But the agents who liked my writing didn’t like my book enough. I tried writing another one, and the same thing happened: close but no cigar.
I felt that I had no choice but to apply for coordinator positions. A coordinator was technically an administrative assistant, but not really a secretary. Coordinators didn’t answer phones or schedule meetings. They worked on simple projects and helped managers with their projects. A coordinator was like Megan on Mad Men when she was first starting out (and before she bagged the boss).
I managed to score an interview, and when my boss caught wind (turned out he knew the guy I was interviewing with), he said, “I thought you didn’t want to do that! You can do that here.” It was true, I had told him I was happy doing what I was doing, but I didn’t think he’d go as far as to let me become a coordinator on my own team. It was slow-going at first, but within a year, I got a promotion.
Being a marketing coordinator was definitely more stressful than being an admin, but it wasn’t too bad. I hated going to so many meetings, but my projects were straight-forward. A catalog of marketing materials for a sales meeting, coordinating marketing materials for said sales meetings, finishing up projects for managers who had suddenly quit, rewriting terrible copy for a training program, organizing giant PowerPoint presentations made up of three smaller presentations from three different teams (which I did late one night after almost all the other managers had left, and it was just me, one manager, and my boss, the boss of everyone, which earned me considerable brownie points). Being a coordinator was cleaning up after people’s messes, the way I cleaned up after sloppy and thoughtless managers who left behind in conference rooms half-eaten donuts, spilled coffee, and empty banana peels. I was good at it.
If I could have stayed coordinator for a long time, I would have. I still preferred the company of secretaries. All managers wanted to talk about was business. I wanted to talk about almost anything else. I helped fellow secretaries set up food. At a team building meeting at Chelsea Piers, I had no interest in the non-fun meeting portion, and gladly stole away with my assistant and partner-in-crime to wander around in the freezing cold.
But I couldn’t remain complacent for long. Pamela (not her name) was a secretary on another team who was also interested in moving up, but she had a different strategy. The way that I got projects was that I simply took them. I knew my co-workers wouldn’t volunteer for more work and would appreciate the help. The way Pamela tried to get projects was to ask her manager.
This manager, whom I’ll call Beth, didn’t know that I had taken over a particular orphaned project, and suggested that Pamela do it. Next thing the agency was calling me: “Are you no longer the contact on this?” I marched right over to Pamela.
“You know that’s my project, right?” I said.
“Beth said I could take it,” she said.
She and Beth were on a different team. Where did Beth get off assigning my team’s projects to her secretary without even checking with anyone on my team first? I marched over to Beth’s office.
Trying to be nice but not succeeding, I said, “Hi, you know that’s my project now, right?”
To her credit, she was horribly embarrassed and apologetic, and it turned out Beth’s interference and Pamela’s lameness were just what I needed. I couldn’t let this pissant little secretary steal my projects and possible promotion. I was better. I would show them. I worked harder, stayed later, volunteered for more work. I flew out to Denver and gave a presentation to some other coordinators. I swallowed not just the pill but the Kool-Aid.
I didn’t expect the big promotion, from support staff to staff, anytime soon. I didn’t mind. My official pay was in the low 50K, but I put in so much overtime, I was making over 60K. My husband was satisfied that I was on the path to bigger and better things. I was glad not to have to answer the phone anymore.
Imagine my surprise when just a year later, my boss brought me into his office to tell me the good news: I was now staff. I was getting a 50% raise – low 50K to 75K – and would have my own office and assistant. (Pamela, by the way, would never be promoted, and would eventually leave the company.)
Thrilled, I called my parents. They weren’t as dissatisfied as my husband about my secretarial position. What was important was that my company was stable and I had good benefits. But of course they wanted more for me. My dad answered. “I got a promotion,” I told him.
“That’s great,” he said. “Will you be earning a little more money too?”
“Yes, I got a little raise,” I said, then told him how much.
“Oh my God,” he said. The he laughed. “Oh my God.”
It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
My husband was happy too, but like everything in those days, our happiness was tainted. By then he had had an affair, and that month – it was January – his child with his mistress was due.
Upcoming: Part 4: Crossing the Divide and Part 5: Fear and Other Drugs