Admin Before Mad Men:
A Brief History of the Administrative Assistant
Fifty years ago, the number one job for women in the U.S. was a secretary. Not surprising. In 2017, the number one job for women in the U.S. is still a secretary. The name changed long ago to administrative assistant, and the role dramatically broadened over the years. The importance of the position increased, with salary adjustments keeping step, making it a more viable career choice than ever before for both women and men.
According to the most recent U.S. Census information available, the most common job for women today remains the same as 50, even 60 years ago. There are more than four million people in the U.S. who work as secretaries and administrative assistants; ninety-six percent are women. With Administrative Assistant Week coming up at the end of April, I want to look at the long history of the administrative assistant and showcase where the job is today.
From the start of the industrial era through the ’50s, secretarial schools served as the working class equivalent of a lady’s finishing school, prepping thousands of young women for the newly industrialized work force. As America’s economy exploded, so did the position, remaining vital to the prosperity of organizations ever since. Back in the day, a secretary organized files and calendars, took dictation and conveyed accurate information from one individual to another. With the arrival of the personal computer, women’s rights and the Internet, steno pads went the way of the Rolodex. But administrative assistants proved to be a resilient group, not only powerfully rebranding themselves but also repositioning their skill sets to cover jobs as vast as software expert to corporate event planner.
Lynn Peril, an administrative assistant and author, has written about the changes in the office professional field. Prompted by the stereotypical portrayals of secretaries in the Mad Men TV series and curious about cultural shifts in general, Peril zeroed in on the ever-changing ideas about secretaries and how those thoughts impacted the actual position. She offers her findings in a comprehensive history of the secretary, Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making it in the Office. Peril follows the job from the ’20s, when women aspired to become a secretary, through the ’70s, when the term became somewhat of a dirty word, to today, when the role is more expansive than ever.
“Becoming a secretary was a way out of the steno pool, a step up. It was really something that women looked up to and towards,” says Peril. “Throughout the ’60s, we saw the evolution of the idea that the secretary was a hot-to-trot, pencil-pushing woman who was there to meet a husband,” and that stereotype drove the term out of favor. It wasn’t necessarily true but was worth a rebrand. The International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) helped market a new job title and new image in the ’70s and ’80s and continues as a world-wide advocacy group. Its annual survey continues to provide insight into the ever-changing job descriptions, titles and salaries of administrative professionals.
Peril doesn’t mind the term “secretary” but writes extensively about the shift to the term “administrative assistant”: “By the ’70s, when women were really starting to strike out for their rights in all sorts of ways, they asked to be called administrative assistant because that actually meant you were taking your job seriously. It’s a way to say I’m doing my work. I’m serious. I’m not a secretary.”
A recent IAAP office professionals survey reveals the evolution hasn’t stopped. Duties and roles continue to diversify, the educational requirement has increased with many organizations now requiring a four-year degree, and financial expertise is becoming a standard with office professionals increasingly managing some or all aspects of a firm’s financial reports.
Recognizing the importance of the office professional and the ever-evolving nature of the position, The SyN Learning Institute developed a comprehensive certification class to help organizations develop talent from within. Eight comprehensive modules or full-day classes cover topics such as leadership, professionalism, team building, management skills, business writing, communication skills, lifelong learning and interpersonal skills. The Office Professional Certificate of Excellence is available to those who complete five or more of the courses. Designed to prepare your essential office employees for new challenges and expanded roles, the program is backed by a money-back guarantee.
We are ready to partner with your key administrative professionals, ensuring they are ready to meet the real challenges of today and tomorrow. We are way beyond Mad Men.
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