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Where Have All the Secretaries Gone?

(Or, Welcome to the Age of the Executive Assistant!)

Once at the bottom of the office hierarchy—with no discernable career trajectory—secretaries have rebranded themselves as more than just message-takers with a knack for remembering the boss’ wife’s birthday. Welcome to the Age of The Executive Assistant!

Secretaries: Rebranded

The secretary has come a long way, baby!

Before the invention of the typewriter in the 1880s, secretaries were called clerks. It was a position held exclusively by men who spent their days poring over actuarial tables and crunching numbers.  

As more and more women became proficient typists, this niche became a “pink collar job” (i.e., a profession dominated by women). By the 1920s, the secretary position had become the entry point for women into the workforce. With women in this new role, the job description became more about support services (grabbing coffee, taking dictation, getting gifts for the boss’s wife) and less about work that affected the business’ bottom line. 

The secretary archetype has been around since the beginning of the time clock. Watch any movie from the 1920s on through the late ’80s and, if there’s an office and an executive involved, you’ll see her (always her)—competent, organized, impeccable, overlooked for promotions—making sure every phone call is politely answered, every meeting is scheduled, and every morning is coffee’d up. 

The Age of the Secretary reigned for several decades, spawning the archetype created and embraced by movie makers—the busty office hottie whose dictation was as flawless as her makeup. Dolly Parton’s character in the movie 9 to 5 is a great example of this archetype. The movie, as a whole, reflected the zeitgeist of the ’80s as it pertained to women in the workforce in general and the secretarial position in specific.  

As a product of second wave feminism, women began to see a different role for themselves in the workplace. Many rebelled against leaving home to become a professional only to end up becoming “homemakers” at the office. As women began demanding more respect, more responsibilities, more career opportunities, their roles began to expand into office and project management. And as their roles changed, so did their job titles—which is how the modern-day executive assistant was born!

Is there a difference between a secretary and an executive assistant?

The archetype is changing. In fact, a look at job titles today would have you believe that secretaries have disappeared from the officescape altogether. They haven’t, not entirely anyway. In more and more offices, they’ve been elevated, rebranded, and renamed. (Remember when flight attendants used to be called stewardesses? It’s like that.) Today, many companies employ executive/administrative assistants instead of secretaries.

It’s a trending career path, with an actual career trajectory attached. 

Unlike archetypal secretaries, today’s executive/administrative assistants are seen more as partners—indispensable to their bosses, certainly, but crucial to the office in general as well. Their roles require a deep understanding of what their employer does and how they can help reach their business goals. Today’s assistants are not just the grease that keeps the wheels moving, they’re an important part of the company’s success. Rebranding secretarial roles as executive/administrative assistants places emphasis on their professional work and the value they provide to their firm, legitimizing them as office support staff and as administrative professionals that can grow beyond their role and up the corporate ladder. If you think a career as an executive assistant sounds interesting, check out our blogpost, 6 Key Qualities of a Great Executive Assistant, to learn more!

Is “secretary” still a viable career?

It is. And it isn’t. Some offices still want a straight-up secretary sitting at the front desk—someone with a daily list of easy, routine tasks. It’s a support role and if you want a job where you just show up to work every day, complete your tasks, and then go home, you might like being a secretary. With just these skills, however, you will not have a career. Just a job. And that’s cool, too, if that’s the job you want.

Secretaries who want to build a career, with opportunities for advancement and higher pay, should seek to augment their skills to align more with those of an executive assistant.

Did you know?

The term “secretary” was derived from the Latin “secretus” and later the English “secret.” The job title received its name in honor of the secretary’s primary role—to handle sensitive tasks and information with the utmost discretion. 

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