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A peek inside the venerable Katie Gibbs School

In the early 1970s the Katharine Gibbs School of executive secretarial programs was accused of dragging women down. In some circles, it wasn't socially acceptable to be a secretary in those days. Secretaries were seen as exploited, and "Katie Gibbs" aided by funneling women into those types of jobs.

But attitudes have changed. The National Organization for Women has apologized to secretaries nationwide for labeling the profession as demeaning. Feminist leader Gloria Steinem has been speaking to organizations of office workers. And Gibbs, the "creme de la creme" of secretarial schools, is expanding.

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The Gibbs School, which was founded in New York in the early 1900s by Katharine Gibbs, has no hard feelings. Walking into the Boston branch of the school, one feels it would be hard to ruffle the feathers of this staid yet friendly institution. The classes are held in a comfortable but mildly formal converted home near the Boston Public Garden. Behind huge wooden doors young women (and a few young men) type, take dictation, polish their English skills, or talk about office strategies.

The formal classroom atmosphere is startling. The young women sit in neatly lined rows of desks, and they look intent and respectful. As a class bell rings , a teacher says "Notebooks and mouths closed. You're dismissed."

Throughout the country Katharine Gibbs is known as a bastion of tradition. It has an image of combining secretarial training with the primness of a finishing school, and the result is supposed to be devoted secretaries who skillfully perform their duties while looking like fashion plates.

That is, except on a recent day when this observer glances into a Gibbs classroom on a recent morning and sees well- groomed young women in overalls, blue jeans, and sneakers. As the students file quietly from one room to another , one student notices the puzzled look on the visitor's face.

"It's jeans day," she explains. "Twice a year we can wear jeans. We have to pay a quarter to do it."

Although Katharine Gibbs keeps up the veneer of tradition and propriety, the institution is changing to meet the times.

"We're adapting to the needs of women today," says Mary E. Sullivan, director of the Boston Katharine Gibbs School, who has worked in several of the Gibbs schools, which are in New York City; Norwalk, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; Montclair , N.J.; and on Long Island.

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There are two types of secretaries, reports Miss Sullivan -- professional and progressional. She sees a need for both kinds. A professional type is a secretary that loves her job.

"She works hand and glove with top management in daily work and decisionmaking. She could almost answer the telephone in lieu of her boss. She is an alter ego." These women love their jobs, but they don't desire to go further up in management. They don't care to lead.

The progressional secretary, on the other hand, wants to direct others and be responsible for accomplishing goals. She wants to move up the ranks.

"Years ago these women were quietly promoted," says Miss Sullivan. "But with the pressure of the women's movement and affirmative action, companies must now post job openings, and things are moving much more quickly."

She reports that Gibbs still has young women who think that marriage will sweep them off their feet to live happily ever after. But there has been a subtle change.

"Now we have young women who say they intend to work for the rest of their life."

This trend is also reinforced by a wave of women from the South, where more traditional ideas reign. In the past, Miss Sullivan says, women from that region married young and never worried about having to support care of themselves.

"We have an increasing number of students from North Carolina, Georgia, and such in our two-year program," says Miss Sullivan. "Their parents are beginning to believe their daughters should have the skills 'in case' something should happen."

In addition to programs for students without college education, Gibbs has an eight-week intensive session called Entree for college graduates who want skills to enter the business world. And Gibbs recently discovered another area of potential secretaries who are having a hard time finding jobs.

"We were not answering to the women in their 30s who were facing widowhood or divorce," says Miss Sullivan. Now Gibbs has Options, a secretarial program for these women.

Miss Sullivan doesn't hold any romantic notions about the role of a secretary. She is adamant that the attitude of an employer is key in making secretarial work accepted as a worthwhile career. During National Secretaries Week, which is this week, Miss Sullivan says secretaries do not want roses or a day off.

"More employers must learn and maintain that a secretary is a thinking human being," she says.

The phrase "Gibbs girls" is passe as far as the school is concerned.

"We are trying to get away from that," says Miss Sullivan. "Our students are young men and women. They are beyond the level of maturity and responsibility of a girl."

Although Katharine Gibbs has been largely a women's school, a few men have taken the course, and there are three in the Entree program in Boston right now.

"We are eager to see the men, because it will mean that salaries will go up."

Although the Gibbs school seems rather establishment and works closely with businesses, Miss Sullivan doesn't eschew talking about the accomplishments of more antiestablishment working women's organizations such as Boston's 9 to 5.

"I know why they got together," she says. "Where there is smoke, there is fire. Secretaries are not always treated as thinking humans."

Gibbs school doesn't encourage or oppose involvement in such organizations, but Miss Sullivan reports that students do talk about the women's movement and equal employment opportunity laws during some courses.

"We can't give students a sense of how involved they should be," says Miss Sullivan. "It's a personal choice. A woman shouldn't go into a job interview and have her first question be 'Do you have affirmative action?' But she could ask about job posting."


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