From Secretary to Administrative Assistant: How the Admin Role Has Evolved

Administrative Professionals

Note: In honor of Women’s History Month, I’m sharing this article from Abby QuillenNinety-six percent of admin professionals are women. The Infographic is from

Gone are the days when secretaries took dictation on Steno pads and transcribed correspondence on manual typewriters. Today’s administrative professionals rely on state-of-the-art technology to perform their day-to-day duties. In addition to organizing meetings, planning events, and creating and giving presentations, many perform tasks ranging from database and website maintenance to videoconferencing. And less than 15 percent of administrative staff still go by the title secretary: Most are called administrative assistants, executive assistants, office managers, or office supervisors.

Over the years, many people have predicted administrative support jobs would disappear because of technological conveniences such as online scheduling software and email. However, the career continues to go strong. There are about four million administrative professionals in the workplace, and that number is expected to grow over the next decade. Administrative professionals are in high demand and paid well in many areas of the country, including Silicon Valley.

Ninety-six percent of administration professionals are women. However, not that long ago secretaries were exclusively men. Keep reading to learn how and why the administrative assistant role has evolved and why it continues to be a crucial job.

Keepers of secrets

The word secretary comes from the Latin secretum, meaning secret. Because heads of state and high officials needed to trust their secretaries with confidential material, the job has traditionally been highly valued.

The first secretaries were probably ancient Egyptian scribes who chiseled the details of business transactions into stone around 400 A.D. They were some of the most educated men of their time because they knew how to read and write. During the Middle Ages, clergymen performed most secretarial duties, giving rise to the terms “clerk” and “clerical.” Non-clergy clerks emerged during the late Renaissance to serve the growing merchant class. Until the 1860s, all secretaries were men.

The need for administrative support boomed during the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century. Because of new manufacturing methods and expanded markets, businesses grew rapidly and paperwork proliferated as well.

In the 1860s, Christopher Latham Sholes changed the job forever by inventing a mechanical typing machine, which eventually became known as the typewriter. This machine played a pivotal role in women’s entrance into the paid labor force in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The first typewriters were manufactured by the sewing-machine division of the firearms company E. Remington and Sons, and they resembled sewing machines, with ornate floral décor and decals. The keys were originally in alphabetical order in two rows until Sholes introduced the QWERTY keyboard in 1875. It’s commonly believed that the new layout was designed to slow typists down to prevent keys from jamming. However, there’s evidence it was actually designed to make it easier for telegraph operators to translate Morse code. In any case, QWERTY keyboards have been with us ever since, despite several attempts to create more efficient letter arrangements.

Typewriters didn’t catch on at first. They cost about $100, which is roughly equivalent to $2,000 today, and they required a lot of maintenance. Furthermore, although typing was faster than handwriting, it was difficult to type quickly on the first typewriters, especially because early typists only used the first two fingers on each hand to strike letters. Moreover, when using an upstrike typewriter, which was the most common model in the 1880s and 1890s, users couldn’t see their work while typing.

Typewriters eventually improved and typewritten correspondence became the norm in business. Clerk-typists were needed to produce files, letters, and documents. However, the population of labor-age males took a devastating hit in the Civil War: 625,000 American men died on the battlefields between 1861 and 1865. Plus, male laborers were in large demand in the booming manufacturing, mining, and construction fields.

Rise of pink-collar professionals

With free compulsory public schooling in the 19th century, educated women became qualified to fill the surplus of clerical positions. However, they were expected to leave the workplace when they got married, and they were paid much less than men.

At first, women were hired to be copyists, who reproduced documents by hand. Then in the mid-1880s, they were hired as typists and stenographers who transcribed correspondence in shorthand. Typewriter companies began marketing their new machines as most suitable for women. “The typewriter is especially adapted to feminine fingers. They seem to be made for typewriting. The typewriting involves no hard labor and no more skill than playing the piano,” wrote John Harrison in the 1888 Manual of the Typewriter.

According to an 1885 article in Manufacturer and Builder, a journal documenting industrial progress, women were paid $12 to $15 a week in New York City for secretarial duties in 1885. That’s roughly equivalent to between $292 and $365 a week in today’s dollars. However, the pay was probably much lower in other areas.

Since about 1930, women have held between 95 and 96 percent of administrative support jobs. In 1950, secretary was the most common occupation for a woman, and that’s still true today. It has become increasingly customary for women to stay in the workforce after marrying and having children. Today, 68 percent of married mothers and 76 percent of single mothers have full-time jobs outside the home.

Administrative support professionals are more educated than ever before. In the 2013 International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) survey, 90 percent of respondents had some post-secondary education, and 45 percent had at least an associate’s degree.

New technology brought women into the secretarial field in the late 19th century, and managing new technology has been a large part of the job ever since. In the IAAP survey, 80 percent of respondents said they routinely use word processing, spreadsheet, email, and presentation software; nearly half also use virtual meeting and desktop publishing software. Moreover, the majority of respondents predicted their top challenge in the next five years would be “keeping up with changing technology.”

The tools of the trade are rapidly evolving, from keyboard data-entry to voice recognition, paper to paperless communication, and word processors to handheld devices. Entrepreneurial administrative assistants are now able to work from home on a freelance basis for various clients, which has led to massive growth in the virtual assistant industry. What future technological changes will bring for administrative assistants remains to be seen. However, if history is a guide, technology may make administrative professionals more necessary, not less.

From secretary to administrative assistant: How the admin role has evolved over timeA version of this post was first published on Infographic by Quill.

3 Life Lessons from Wonder Woman Gal Gadot

When the original Wonder Woman came out in 1975, there weren’t a lot well-recognized female superheroes in the world.

Flash-forward to today, and we can see them everywhere, on screen and off. I encounter wonder women in my life every day–my mother, best friend, colleagues, and with whom I leaders I work. For example, a colleague Tania Katan, co-created a female empowerment campaign#ItWasNeverADress, for software company Axosoft.

And, as it turns out, Gal Gadot, who plays the new Wonder Woman, is one in real life, too.

Here are three lessons professional women can glean from the actress:

1. It’s not about work-life balance; it is about management.

Gal shot the blockbuster in LA, while her family lives in Israel. She knew she couldn’t balance the time between work and family. After all, she cannot be in two places at once.

So, she did the next best thing–she mastered international conference calls, international travel, jet lag, and time zones. She shuttled herself back and forth to audition for the movie, meet about it, and then film it so that she could continue her career while being a mommy and wife.

2. Don’t wait for the baby.

I am asked by women all the time if they should put off starting a family so that it doesn’t stall their professional momentum. They try to time their pregnancies around their careers. But, Gal did it a different way. She went for both at the same time.

She was pregnant while filming the Wonder Woman movie and they green screened out her baby bump. She didn’t try to arrange her life or hold herself back; she knew she wanted to have a family and she went for it.

And, being Wonder Woman doesn’t mean being able to do it all by yourself. It means being part of a team. Gal has a husband that supports her in her goals and plays a substantial role at home. Ask for help, and take it if offered.

3. Leverage all your skills.

Who would have thought that being in the military would help an acting career?

Gal served for two years in the Israeli army, and her knowledge of weapons and physical strength helped her land her a part in Fast and Furious, and then in Wonder Woman where she does most of her own stunts.

Gal used her unique skill set and made it work for her.

So, look at all your past experiences or all the challenges you tackle in your life–even in your personal life–and use that to your advantage.

I can’t write an article about Wonder Women without a shout-out to the first, Lynda Carter. As a young girl, I looked up to her in the role and always liked her calm, yet commanding presence.

Lynda, if you’re reading this, you’ll always be my number one.


A version of this post was first published on Inc. 

Photo Credit: Kho/123RF