Phillip Christopher earns $18,000 a year as a secretary for a Washington-based public interest law firm. He takes dictation, does the typing and is prepared to get coffee if someone asks him.
"When I first started working here as a secretary about six years ago, some people became completely flustered when I answered the phone because I am a man," he recalled. "There'd be this long pause, and then they'd say, 'Who?'. Some people couldn't accept that I was the secretary, and demanded to talk to a woman."
His co-worker at the Washington-based Mental Health Law Project, Bob Moon, who is also a secretary, put it this way: "People get really weirded out when they talk to me. Since they can't believe I'm a secretary because I'm a man, they assume I'm a lawyer," he said.
Christopher, 45, and Moon, 25, are two of a growing number of men throughout the country who work as secretaries, a field that largely has been closed to them before. Although only one percent of the nation's 3.7 million secretaries are male, more than 7,000 men have entered the field in the past decade, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And many male secretaries are now working in professional and white-collar fields where bosses previously made sure the secretarial pool was exclusively female, according to people who have studied the trend.
"This is a growing phenomenon. Male secretaries are becoming a force to be reckoned with," said Linda Lanpkin, associate director of research for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
"Employers are receptive to hiring men as secretaries because no one wants to have a sexually segregated job category anymore," which can be challenged as a violation of federal equal employment standards, she said.
Male secretaries, once found largely in the military and railroad industries, are now found in legal offices, government agencies and sitting outside corporate boardrooms, Lampkin added.
The reasons for the change are both economic and social, according to Lampkin, who said a recent conference of her union's secretarial workers for the first time included dozens of men.
"Wages for secretaries have been increasing recently, which attracts men who might never have thought of the field before. And blue-collar jobs have also been declining in some areas, such as the railroads, which also makes men think of secretarial work. Finally the stigma that employers once had that any man in the job had to be gay is passing," she said.
Fred Bodemer, 55, has five children and one grandchild, and has worked for the past three months as an $11,000-a-year secretary in the Alexandria Office of Planning and Development. "I learned typing in high school, and I worked as a clerk and typist during some of my 23 years in the Army," said Bodemer, who retired as a master sergeant in 1959.
"I came back to secretarial work after spending some time in retailing. This is a good entry-level job," he said.
Greg King, 23, wanted a career in the diplomatic corps when he was not in college, but now works as a $15,000-a-year administrative assistant in the White House news summary office.
"In every job I've ever had I've always been the first male to fill it," King said recently. "I do things any secretqry would do, typing, collating and so forth, and some things a woman might have difficulty doing, like moving heavy equipment or furniture," he said.
King, who formerly worked as a secretary for a Washington consulting firm, said he was turned down for a secretary's job in a government agency because the male administrator didn't want a man answering the telephone. "That's what I heard through the grapevine," he said, refusing to name the agency.
At the same time, offices staffed entirely by women can integrate their work force by hiring a male secretary. "We are for equal chances for everyone. We didn't have a man working here, and we thought it would be pleasant to have a man in the office," said Virginia Winslett, an official with the Alexandria Commission on the Status of Women.
"Besides, the man we hired was the most competent secretary we interviewed," she said.
The man, Michael Busch, 25, said he took the $10,000-a-year job last year because he "wanted to help minorities, especially those in trouble. When people express surprise that I am here, working with the rape victim companion program, and the battered women's shelter (both city-run programs), I just tell them it's my job," he said.
Several years ago a temporary secretary supplied by a professional employment agency was threatened with arrest if he tried to take his place in the typing pool of an international agency based in Washington, the man said this week. "One of the administrators pointed inside the room to 12 women typists and said, 'You wouldn't be happy in there.' I asked her, 'Why not? Do you think they're going to attack me?"' He got no answer in reply.