Why The #1 Job For Women Hasn’t Changed In 60 Years

urlIn 1950, secretary was the most common job for women. Guess what it was in 2010, according to the most recent census? The exact same thing. Today, 96% of secretaries and administrative assistants in the United States are women.

CNNMoney takes an interesting look at how secretarial work came to be so dominated by women, and how the job has stayed that way despite the fact that so many other once-segregated jobs (like bank teller and sales clerk) have evolved so much.

The Industrial Revolution meant not just manufacturing and machines, but tons of paperwork. When companies realized they could pay women lower wages to process all of that paperwork, the female secretary was born. Secretarial schools popped up to train these women, which made it possible for them to advance without acquiring a full college education. By the 1950s, secretary had become the most popular job for women, with 1.7 million women employed in the Census category “stenographers, typists or secretaries.”

“Every time a major new technology showed up, there were always predictions that this would spell the end of secretaries,” the spokesman for the International Association of Administrative Professionals tells CNNMoney. “You saw that with the development of electric typewriters, the personal computer, and the internet, but every time technology gets more efficient, the amount of business increases. You continue to need people who can use those tools.”

Just about the only thing that has really changed is the word itself: “Administrative assistant” is now the preferred term, although the term “secretary” made a slight comeback in 2011, possibly thanks to Mad Men nostalgia.

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    • Lastango

      I’ve met only one male secretary, and he was indolent and self-serving. So, based on a sample of one, I don’t want to have to deal with any more of them.
      From what I see, the nature of the sec/asst position has changed. Not that many managers have one to themselves anymore. These days, the sec/asst tends to do work for everyone in the department — particularly their travel arrangements, expense accounts, and materials for distribution. They also gather stats, keep spreadsheets updated, set up meetings and conference calls, track people down when you need to get in touch with them but can’t find them, and in general keep the ball rolling along. The good ones are proactive, solving problems on their own. The best ones can competently proofread (and at times draft) written materials before these go out the door, and make improvements to tone and content.

      • Lastango

        I should mention that there are a lot of other sub-skills which can be very valuable. For instance, some sec/asst can create a powerpoint, use Excel to generate graphs, and do on-line research. Most can’t do these things, or don’t do them well enough to contribute, but sometimes that’s the boss’s fault for not asking if the sec/asst is interested, not sending the person to training, or not hiring the right person in the first place.

        Sometimes, the manager unknowingly cuts the sec/asst out of the loop by not including them in meetings. A sec/asst who doesn’t really know what’s going on would find it difficult to do focused research or read through background reports to highlight relevant portions.

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