In 1950, the top job for working women was “secretary.” Flash forward to 2010 and the age of feminist enlightenment, where the top job for working women was...wait for it...
Or “Administrative Assistant” or a similar euphemism.
We’re not talking about cabinet positions here, people. Of the four million people working in administrative positions in 2010, 96 percent of them were women. I think it’s safe to say that ladies pretty much have the lock on the secretarial market, folks, and to prove it, they earn more than...oh, wait. Women earned an average of $34,304 in those positions in 2010, while their male counterparts earned $39,641.
Look. Secretarial work is important. Critically so. Despite all those allegedly labor-saving devices out there in the world, you need people who can perform administrative tasks and they do require a special skill set, although not necessarily a college degree. I worked briefly as an administrative assistant and I was actually rather good at it, although it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue as a career, not least because of the poor pay.
But why on earth should the profession be so female-dominated? And why should it be viewed with such disdain? These two things are critically linked.
Way back in the dark ages, that is to say, prior to the Industrial Revolution, most secretaries were actually men. They managed correspondence, helped with the books, and performed a myriad of other tasks for their employers. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution came the realization of something that many bosses found absolutely delightful: They could hire women for these critical jobs, and they could pay them less than men.
That’s when women started taking over the secretarial ranks, to the point that we associate the job primarily with women; and we have a particularly 1950s association with the position, not least because that’s the one pop culture keeps cramming down our throats.
Associations focused on administrative professionals note that there’s actually been a resurgence of the term “secretary” in response to shows like “Mad Men” and their glorification of those heady days when the secretarial pool was teeming with coiffed women waiting for dudes to squeeze their bottoms.
Secretaries, through groups like 9to5, were among the many professional women who started fighting for pretty basic rights in the workplace. Equal pay. Written job descriptions. Reasonable working hours. Overtime compensation. A clear method for filing and tracking grievances. Those uppity women laid the groundwork for some important shifts in today’s workplace, but women still have a long way to go at work.
SECRETARIES KEEP IT ALL HUMMING
And not because secretary is the top profession for women, although that’s definitely telling. But because women still aren’t receiving equal pay, and they still aren’t getting an equal chance and equal treatment in the workplace. You are far more likely to see a woman at the desk in the front office than a man, and you’re more likely to encounter a man in the inner sanctum than a woman.
Generalist professions, like “secretary,” tend to include larger numbers of people than specialists, like, say, cardiologists. The fact that there are more women secretaries than cardiologists isn’t surprising, since the world needs more secretaries than cardiologists overall. What is telling is both that secretary is the top-ranking generalist profession for women, and that it’s so dominated by women; the fact that there are a scant number of men in the profession illustrates that it’s thought of as “women’s work.”
With corresponding low respect, and low pay.
As anyone who’s been part of any kind of organization for more than 30 seconds can tell you, secretaries are crucial. They determine whether things run like a well-oiled machine or a chaotic mess, and they can also make or break careers, hiring decisions and more.
Be rude to a secretary or clerk at your own peril; it can determine whether you see the person behind the fancy door, whether your job/college/grant application mysteriously vanishes or gets moved to the top of a stack, and whether your needs are quickly addressed and processed.
By making friends with secretaries, I’ve gotten things expedited, squared away, and preferentially treated -- all by treating the (mostly) women behind the front desk with courtesy, respect, and the occasional box of baked goods. And I’ve watched other people behave dismissively to secretaries, writing them off as small, unimportant people, despite the tremendous amount of power they actually wield, because they think of these jobs as worthless, since they’re occupied by women.
We all know that jobs conceived of as “women’s work” (nursing, teaching, mothering, interning/temping, being a secretary) are perceived as less important, and in some cases literally worthless -- the wages for housework movement, for example, was largely laughed off and dismissed by the establishment. And yet, all of these professions are actually vitally important.
The women who work in these roles are paid less than men who work in the same jobs, and the men who do work in these fields are heralded as unusual heroes with special job titles unlike their female counterparts. “Male nurses” are something to gawk at, while “nurse” is such a feminized job that no one even feels the need to note that a “female nurse” participated in a patient’s care.
Men working in administration tend to have fancier job titles to go with that higher pay and they’re treated as more serious gatekeepers and employees, valued team members rather than, you know, “the girl at the front desk.”
Work in the US is a gendered and carefully tiered hierarchy, just as life in general is, right down to the disdain for women's history. To my eye, secretaries should be getting a lot more respect than they do, and the reason they don’t is because it’s a girl job, rather than something serious and important like truck driving (the top job for men).
Without secretaries, the world would fall apart in a second. As usual, women are the glue silently keeping everything together, and, as usual, they get zero credit for it, but people are happy to mistreat them and underpay them, ensuring that women make up the vast majority of administrative workers.
(Note: Thanks to the ornithologists among us who helped me get my secretary birds straight! My apologies for the error and the long wait on a fix -- I was away from my desk.)