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A Blog About the History of the Secretary

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

Traditionally, secretarial roles were primarily occupied by men, and their importance was closely associated with their titles during the 15th and 16th centuries. Secretaries were responsible for managing company books, taking notes, and composing crucial business letters.


While new technologies often lead to the expectation that secretarial functions will become obsolete, this is rarely the case. Most tools still require human involvement, even if technology enhances efficiency.


The entry of the first female secretaries paved the way for women to join the workforce. A significant shift in company culture occurred during the 1880s with the invention of the writing machine, enabling women to take on clerical roles in male-dominated environments. Women did not necessarily need a full college education; they could receive professional training from secretarial schools.


During World War I, the role of secretary became more popular among women as men left their clerical work to serve in the war. The number of male secretaries further declined during World War II.


The advent of technology brought about a surge in paperwork. The industrial revolution created more business opportunities, resulting in increasingly unmanageable paperwork. Technologies such as typewriters, calculating machines, and telephones were introduced. Women were often considered better suited for these roles due to their domestic organisational skills, nimble fingers for typing, and welcoming demeanor.


Secretarial pools were established, and in 1942, the United States created the National Secretaries Association (now known as the International Association of Administrative Professionals - IAAP) to promote professionalism.


While the TV show "Mad Men," set in the 1950s, depicted the main secretary, Joan Harris, saying, "Now, try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology. It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use," it is important to note that the 1950s did not have Women's Equality Day.


The term "secretary" originates from the Latin word "secernere," meaning to distinguish or set apart. Secretaries were entrusted with overseeing official and confidential business for influential individuals.


Secretarial duties expanded exponentially in the mid-20th century, encompassing tasks such as handling telephone calls and visitors, project management, bookkeeping, scheduling, planning meetings, customer services, purchasing stationery, and maintaining storage, including online databases and directories.


Unfortunately, the word "secretary" often carries a negative connotation in our society. It is associated with overworked and underpaid women, which is why job titles like Administrative Assistant and Executive Assistant have gained popularity.


A strong administrative team or individuals are vital to the success and productivity of any office. Although often unsung heroes, their absence during vacations quickly highlights the importance of their roles.


However, women in administrative positions have faced disrespect, leading women's liberation groups to demand equal rights, pay, respect, and opportunities as early as the 1970s. Over half of the members of the National Secretaries Association at the time aspired to develop their skills and be promoted to managerial positions.


Surprisingly, not much has changed for women. The most common job for American women today, as reported by CNN, remains the same as it was in 1950: secretary. Between 2006 and 2010, 96% of the 4 million workers in the secretaries and administrative assistants category were female. Important progress still needs to be made to address issues of gender inequality, which should be a concern for everyone, regardless of gender, occupation, or rank.


An old fashioned dial phone

Facts Sourced From: SignEasy

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