Global Leadership Blog
Administrative Professionals

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

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 Quill.com.

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 Quill.com. Infographic by Quill.
Melissa Lamson

About The Author

Melissa Lamson, Founder and President of Lamson Consulting, is an author, consultant, and speaker who accelerates the business expansion goals of today’s most successful companies by developing global mindset, refining leadership skills, and bridging cross cultural communication. More About Melissa Lamson

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