My first office job carried the weighty job title office manager. I felt pretty happy being known as a “manager” of anything in a company that I respected. I was in charge of ordering and disseminating office supplies. I submitted pricing to our various retailers. I billed vendors for promotional expenses. I submitted orders for our customers. And while I did all that, I answered the phones, sorted the mail and did menial tasks for the executives of the company.
Early on in my position, one of my co-workers referred to me as the office secretary. At first, I can fully admit that my natural feminist inclination perked up. I was ready to be insulted that someone would characterize all my hard work as mere secretarial endeavors. And then the phone rang. And I answered it.
Recently, our sister-site The Gloss wondered if women should be offended that the term “secretary” is on the rise again, partially thanks to a certain 60s drama that everyone seems to be obsessed with. The author, Amanda Chatel, thinks that allowing this word to come back in vogue negates years of work on gender equality that have transferred the title of “secretary” into “administrative assistant.”
I understand where her point is and I realize the history of this loaded job title. For years, people associated the term “secretary” with a woman who fetched a man’s coffee and reminded him of his anniversary or child’s birthday. But as the job market and corporate culture has evolved, so has administrative work.
When I think of a secretary, I think of the amazing woman who works at my old elementary school. I always referred to her as the school secretary. She’s who called your mom for you if you were sick. She kept all the school files and attendance records. She answered the phones and coordinated lunch orders and bus routing. She was a secretary and she was female, but she was a hard-working professional who I really liked.
I think we’ve moved past the idea that a secretary is always female, even if women do still seem to dominate the administrative services. And I think that we’ve all accepted this person’s important role within the company. They are often the gatekeeper to busy executives. They tend to know more about everything going on than most managers. They coordinate and organize, inform and guard. No matter what you call them, the importance of intelligent and thoughtful administrative work is widely accepted.
I consider myself a feminist. I am extremely concerned with gender equality, both in the workplace and in the world in general. But I’m not sure that the term “secretary” hurts any of that. I don’t think that job title makes anyone less valued in their office.
There are plenty of gender issues still plaguing corporate culture today. There are lots of battles yet to be won when it comes to female executives, pay inequality and sexual harassment. If “secretary” is making a come-back, I just don’t know that it needs to rank on our list of priorities.
After all, if it’s good enough for Secretary Clinton, I think the title is good enough for me.
(Photo: Livin’ Vintage)