Why 'Secretary' Is Still The Top Job For Women

secretary top job women

By Annalyn Kurtz

NEW YORK -- What's the most common job for American women?

The same as it was in the 1950s: secretary.

About 4 million workers in the United States fell under the category of "secretaries and administrative assistants" between 2006 and 2010, and 96 percent of them were women, according to the U.S. Census.

How Secretary Became Women's Work
The rise of the secretary began with the Industrial Revolution, which created an enormous amount of paperwork. In the early 20th century, it became a female job as companies realized they could pay women lower wages to do the work.

Secretarial schools offered professional training, which made it possible for many women to enter the career without a full college education.

It wasn't until 1950 that it became the most popular job among women. Back then, 1.7 million women worked in a category the Census defined as "stenographers, typists or secretaries."

While the title has evolved since then, it remains the top female job.

"It was out with the stenographers, and in with the data processing people. But many women are still employed in that large category," said Cindia Cameron, organizing director at 9to5, National Association of Working Women. Cameron worked as a secretary before joining the organization in 1983.

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Why So Little Has Changed
First, generalists tend to dominate the list of most common jobs, regardless of gender. The top job for American men, for example, is truck driver.

As workers become more specialized, either with years of experience or education, their job titles tend to become more specific to their industry.

So why are so many secretaries still around?

"Every time a major new technology showed up, there were always predictions that this would spell the end of secretaries," said Ray Weikal, spokesman for the International Association of Administrative Professionals. "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."

Administrative assistant could very well continue to be the top job for women in 2020. The Labor Department projects the category will grow about 12% between 2010 and 2020, adding nearly 493,000 jobs during this decade.

More: Gender Pay Gap Persists: New Female Grads Earn $7,600 Less Than Men, Report Finds

How 'Secretary' Became A Dirty Word
The word "secretary," has been falling out of favor for decades, largely due to the feminist movement.

In the early 1970s, a group of secretaries at Harvard formed 9to5, a group with a mission to change the image and working conditions for women office workers. Their early demands included written job descriptions, overtime compensation, systematic procedures for filing a complaint, and regular salary reviews.

Sister organizations popped up in Chicago, San Francisco and New York and eventually, 9to5 turned into a national organization, with some affiliates joining unions.

Conventions and marches on National Secretaries Day included the slogan "Raises, not roses."

Along with those movements, workplaces started to rename the job "administrative assistant" or "office professional," to reflect the shifting perception of secretaries. The National Secretaries Association eventually changed its name to the International Association of Administrative Professionals.

"Increasingly women in the 1970s were demanding the opportunity to be treated as equals," Weikal said. "All of a sudden you have fewer secretaries and more executive assistants."

Even, after all that progress, the title "secretary" made a slight comeback in 2011, the first year in decades it had grown, according to an IAAP survey. The organization attributes it to the popularity of the show Mad Men and nostalgia for the 1960s.

"It's really hard to watch but it actually makes us think about how far we have come. Now you couldn't get away with half of the stuff men do in the show, and women fought really hard to change that," Cameron said. "It's a pretty hard time period to be nostalgic for, though."

More: The Real Reason Why Women Still Earn Less Than Men?

Fighting For Equal Pay
9to5's main mission has since expanded to focus on women in low-wage jobs in general. The organization pushes for fair pay measures, paid sick days and maternity leave.

Across all industries and occupations, full-time female workers earned 78 cents to every dollar a man earned in 2010.

In the category of administrative assistants, women outnumber men more than 20 to 1, but still earn less than their male counterparts -- about 87 cents to the dollar.

Full-time female secretaries and administrative assistants earned an average salary of $34,304 in 2010.

For men, it was $39,641.

"The good news is over the past 40 years, there are very few jobs in which women have not broken through," Cameron said. "The glass ceiling is cracking in all different directions, but the bad news is, there is still a sticky floor. Most women still work in traditionally female jobs, like administrative support."

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The reason why secretary is still the number one job for women is that women are still more likely that males to shy away from positions that are less sociable (science) and have higher responsibility and require higher amounts of education. As well, men don't get in this career often because to many gender stereotypes of all jobs still exist.

February 01 2013 at 1:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Wow still number one job for women is secretary and we have divorce and raising children by ourselves and more porn and low salaries and how far have we come. Yeah right.

February 01 2013 at 5:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to murphymomm123's comment

Thumbs up, murphymom..you are absolutely right!

February 01 2013 at 9:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Miss P

I am on disability now, but I spent 30 years starting as Office Worker, then Assistant Bookkeeper to Bookkeeper/Office Manager. I have also worked as a Secretary for a Vice President of a bank. I have worked with kids. I have found my talents to be in demand in many areas and I have explored a variety of working environments through temporary emploment agencies. I have had a wonderful working career and met very interesting people! Well, yes, the pay could have been better.

January 31 2013 at 6:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When I worked for Rockwell International over 22 years ago, no one had a secretary. I was a Ph.D. project manager and did not have one. The VP of engineering did not have one. No one had one. We had (very early model 8086 cpu) personal computers. We were responsible for creating, (typing, printing, publishing, distributing, etc.) our own reports, drawings, documents, etc. I am sure there are still jobs for secretaries out there, but they are becoming fewer and fewer.

January 31 2013 at 3:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dickn2000b's comment

I used to have to walk 8 miles to school, barefoot, in the snow.

January 31 2013 at 4:43 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I concur with my wife who believes that the top job for women is "mother."

January 31 2013 at 3:34 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to c.mertz's comment

Toughest job in the whole, wide world.....Mother/Housewife.

January 31 2013 at 4:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

The fact is that it is the secretaries who know most about how to make company administration run efficiently--they know who actually does what, who to really call, how to cut through red tape, etc. In reality, managers and executives could not do the job they get paid the big bucks for if their secretaries did not know how to do the mundane stuff that atually makes the compnay run. For example, if you need to get a new employee on the payroll, you don't ask an HR manager what to do--you go to a secretary/clerk to work your way through all the procedures and paperwork the managers (and government) have put in place.

January 31 2013 at 1:09 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

being a secretary was the title of the 1950's to luck into, and even harder to obtain. Most of us who knew shorthand, typed 80 wmp on a manual typewriter.. ended up working more clerical than secretarial... Secretary goes with CEO, and the lower heads of depts. If you Proved your worth working for a dept. head, or several of them, dress right, kiss the feet of the next up the line Head boss, you could move along, nicely and hoped to obtain the job with a CEO..Women with no children or had someone 24/7 to take care of them. while she worked, was more apt to move up the ladder of Secretary utopia.

January 31 2013 at 1:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I've been an executive assistant for over 20 years. Now all companies want is for you to be an expert at MS Office Suite. The problem is that not all EA jobs require you to be a master in Excel or PowerPoint. Every EA job is different. My job has always leaned toward office management, travel, Outlook expert, and just managing the very busy schedule of execs. To be good takes years of experience and knowing how to handle anything that comes up with confidence and tact. Judgement and being able to communicate with all levels of people in and out of the office is important. You can always learn software skills quickly, but unfortunately, that is all that seems to matter now. Pay has never been real high in my view because it is typically a women's job even though we are required to make important decisions, be adept at project management, office management, etc. I'm glad I only have 7 more years until retirement. I would not recommend this job to other women unless you work for the CEO of a private company and are respected and allowed to do many things. The company I work for now has no value on administrative assistants and pays them very low and gives them little value or respect. Such a shame for all we do.

January 31 2013 at 11:54 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to lillyrose2011's comment

I agree with you. Employers demand more from an EX but will not pay for their worth. Even with a college degree the proper compensation is lacking. I have been an EX for a little over 20 years. I am an expert in MS Office and have a BSc degree in Business Administration. I lost my job last year and I am unable to find a job that will pay me for my worth. There are temporary jobs that tem agencies are advertising for $11 to $13 an hour.

January 31 2013 at 3:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Having just retired from the workforce...actually, laid off at age 63 IS retirement.....after working about 45 years as a secretary/coordinator/admin asst/executive asst/ whatever, I can truly say that yes, I enjoyed most of my jobs and bosses and at least I was never taking work home with me! I could dress up, look great, get compliments, feel special because I always worked for a boss with a reputation, and the money was very good most of the time. But I saw many women abused and harrassed and underpaid and overworked and generally taken advantage of. Back in my day, a woman without college could get a good paying job, but not now. There is no substitute for having the credentials and flaunting them to your advantage, ladies!!!

January 31 2013 at 11:39 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to makeredhappy's comment

Absolutely in violation of all business ethics now-a-days.

January 31 2013 at 12:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You belong in the '60s.

February 01 2013 at 2:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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