A Look Back at the Secretary Profession

Contributed to jobs.net by Kim Evans

Secretaries have played essential roles in the workforce for a very long time, but the profession is anything but unchanging. Performing numerous clerical and administrative functions in government and business environments for centuries on end, secretaries and administrative assistants have redefined their roles and responsibilities multiple times right alongside history itself – the good, the bad, and the ugly times included.

In honor of more than four million secretaries and administrative assistants currently employed in the U.S., let's take a look at some of the significant times in our history that have shaped and influenced the secretarial profession into what it is today.

black and white photo of secretary

5000 B.C. –

400 A.D.  Though it is unclear when precisely secretaries first came to be, evidence shows the presence of secretaries dating back to ancient Egyptian scribes, comprised of men entrusted with private and confidential matters – thus the word secretary, from the Latin word secretum, meaning "secret." These highly educated men chisel business transaction details and correspondence onto stone, so shorthand skills are essential.

1860  During the Middle Ages, secretarial work is mostly carried out by clergymen – the word clerk derives from the word cleric which means, "of or pertaining to the clergy." Clerical tasks expand into record keeping and bookkeeping. As the merchant class begins to rise, secretaries are in very high demand and they gain a higher status in society. During the Renaissance, clerical roles move away from the church, though men continue to dominate the profession.

1930  During the Civil War, 1,500 women are hired to fill clerical positions in the U.S. Treasury out of dire need. The country soon sees a period of rapid industrialization, and the need for paperwork and recording surges further. Desperate for a more efficient way of recording information, Christopher L. Sholes invents the first typewriter in 1867, which creates more opportunities for women in secretarial roles because their fingers are considered more dexterous. By 1930, women make up 95-percent of employed clerical workers due to their exceptional typing skills, high literacy rates, and willingness to work for lower wages.–

1980 Though there are more job openings than secretaries to fill them, more and more women aspire to become secretaries. Women attend business colleges and secretary schools to refine their clerical skills and attain higher professional credentials. As secretaries begin to take on various levels of responsibility, researchers in 1934 determine a need to distinguish between different clerical roles, namely secretary, clerk, typist, stenographer and personal assistant.

Women increasingly fill jobs in business environments dominated by men and, consequently, office dynamics change, especially with regards to gender roles. In an interview with NPR, Lynn Peril, secretary and author of Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office, describes the environment of these decades:

"There was this pop culture tradition. The term, office wife, really goes back to the 1920s... this evolution of the idea of the secretary as this hot-to-trot, pencil-pushing woman who's there to have an affair with the boss, meet a husband. And it's not a very positive image.$0 $0"So, by the '70s, when women are really starting to strike out for their rights in all sorts of ways, they asked to be called administrative assistant because administrative assistant actually means you're taking your job seriously. It's a way to say, 'I'm doing my work. I'm serious. I'm not a secretary.'"

The secretarial profession continues to gain momentum for women and is recognized as a vital role in offices. Responsibilities evolve beyond typing and into the operation of multi-line telephones and adding machines, organizing schedules and appointments, composing letters, and supporting bosses on an executive level.

Other noteworthy events occur:

1942: The National Secretaries Association (NSA) is formed by a group of secretaries who recognize that continuing education is essential for professional success.

1951: The NSA administers the first Certified Professional Secretaries Examination, thus establishing a standard of excellence for the profession.

1952: NSA president Mary Barrett, along with Dictaphone Corporation president C. King Woodbridge and businessman Harry F. Klemfuss, create Secretary's Day in honor of hardworking secretarial professionals in the office. The holiday gains national popularity and is celebrated each year during the fourth week of April.

1956: Noticing typos are difficult to erase on modern electric typewriters, secretary Bette Nesmith Graham founds the Mistake Out Company, selling bottles of white water-based paint she's invented to conceal her errors. Within a year Graham sells upward of 100 bottles per month.

1964: The Civil Rights Act outlaws discrimination against workers regarding their age, sex, ethnicity, race or religion.

1977: A federal appeals court rules in favor of a woman who had been fired for refusing her boss's sexual advances. The court claims the man had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

1979: Bette Nesmith Graham sells her company, which became known as Liquid Paper, to Gillette for $47.5 million.

1980-Today:  Over the past 30 years, secretarial jobs have spread into various roles and levels of responsibility, and administrative professions have been transformed due to a technology revolution. Here are some of the highlights:

1985: A proliferation of automated office technologies and equipment, including fax machines, word processors, spreadsheets, databases and desktop publishing, expands the secretary's skill set and value to an organization.

1995: The Internet transitions into a commercial enterprise and offices begin integrating web-based practices such as e-mail and web browsing. Microsoft releases an updated operating system, Windows 95, which integrates computer networking with administrative support services, and is quickly adopted by office professionals around the world.

1998: NSA changes its name to the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) to "encompass the large number of varied administrative job titles and recognize the advancing role of administrative support staff in business and government."

2000: National Secretary's Day and National Secretary's Week are renamed to Administrative Professional's Day and Administrative Professional's Week to "avoid embarrassment to those who believe that 'secretary' refers only to women or to unskilled workers."

2001: IAAP introduces the Certified Administrative Professional program as an advanced credential earned by recipients.

2003: Social media begins, giving administrative professionals a new potential area for growth in their office – online marketing. Blogging also rises in popularity, giving office staff more opportunities to assume more creative roles.

Today, about 96-percent of administrative professionals are women, although as office roles and business departments expand more men are entering the field. Professionals assume a wide range of roles in office environments with varying degrees of responsibility, and organizations hire office personnel based on the size of the company and the needs of the customers. Occupations include general office support roles like office assistant or office clerk, specific roles such as receptionist or customer service representative, and leadership roles including office manager and first-line supervisor.

The secretarial profession has come a long, long way. From a 180-degree change in gender dominance to technologies that have improved workflow and increased job opportunities, administrative office roles have remained an integral part of business operations, and all signs indicate the profession is here to stay.

Any secretaries and administrative assistants out there who love your job and would care to vouch for the importance of the role you play for your employer?

Please celebrate your profession with the rest of us and share stories about how your job has changed with the times.

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