One day this past week I was working at the computer and after juggling three phone calls in a row a client in our waiting area said “I wonder who had the first secretary.” It was an interesting thought. How far back does the use of office personnel go? While the answer to the question is interesting, the fun part of this was reminiscing about my own 35+ years in the clerical field and the changes that have occurred in that time.
Today the title of secretary is not commonly used. Administrative assistant, office manager, and executive assistant are some of the current positions held by office personnel. Regardless of title the basic duties have not changed but the way they are performed has through advances in technology, education, and gender roles in the workforce.
It is believed secretaries existed prior to the establishment of the Roman Empire. Referred to at the time as “scribes” the position was held by educated men. As time progressed members of nobility and those who were wealthy and powerful used secretaries to serve as advisors, take dictation, handle correspondence, keep a schedule of appointments, and maintain accounting records. By the late 1880s technology was advancing and office work required the ability to handle such modern conveniences as telephones, typewriters, and adding machines. It was during this time that women began to enter the work force and adapted well to handling of secretarial duties. There was no equalization of pay and women were paid at about half the wage that a man earned for the same work. This made women financially beneficial to the employer. For men the position had been a stepping stone to higher, more prominent positions. Women were not considered capable of handling higher ranking managerial positions and were unable to advance beyond the clerical position. The employment of women in clerical positions expanded from approximately 2.5% of the work force in 1870, around 53% by 1930 and almost 80% by 1980. Since 1980 there has been no change in the number of women holding administrative support (clerical) positions.
My first office job was as clerk-typist for the Michigan Chapter, NASW, a position I obtained shortly after high school. In the 35+ years since I have worked for a variety of firms and my official title has included secretary to the president, administrative assistant, office manager, and paralegal. The required education for doing clerical work has changed and what was previously taught at the high school level is either obsolete or requires a college education.
When in high school I took clerical classes including Gregg shorthand, advanced typing, and “secretarial block,” an all-inclusive class designed to advance our office skills. We learned to operate a variety of business machines including the 10-key adding machine, the stencil machine, and worked to build our shorthand and typing skills. Still a gender-based world, we were taught how to properly stand so as to appear attractive if taking dictation from a standing position. Another element of the class included following our instructor at a fast pace down the halls as she gave dictation, so that we could follow an executive who was too busy to sit behind a desk when dictating. I never encountered such an executive, but the training did make us accurate with our shorthand.
My training actually goes back to when I was in grade school and was one of 3-4 other female students selected to run the school office while the secretaries were at lunch, answering phones and running the ditto machine. If you are familiar with that piece of equipment, you know I am referring to the late 1960’s to early 1970’s. Shall I date myself? I learned to type in 8th grade on a manual typewriter, and when we moved to high school we were thrilled to be able to type on the electric IBM Selectric typewriter. Copies of correspondence were done by placing a piece of carbon paper between the letterhead and a piece of onion skin paper. Typewriter errors were corrected using correction tape or liquid paper.
My second office position in the early 1980s was for an importer, and my dictation was frequently transcribed onto a telex machine. A message was typed onto the machine using shortened words, eliminating vowels and other unnecessary letters to reduce the cost of transmission. The message was then sent overseas to suppliers and we would wait to receive a telex response, which printed out on paper for reading. The use of computers and email communication did not yet exist. By the time I was in my third office position the fax machine was a new device that required dialing a number on a regular telephone, then once the connection was made activating the fax machine and hanging up the telephone. We also had new “word-processing” typewriters on which you could read one line of text on a small narrow screen located on the body of the typewriter and make corrections before it printed onto your paper. We were thrilled to have such technologically advanced machines. Eventually one computer was purchased and put in a central location to be shared by all six clerical workers.
Workers entering the clerical field today think nothing of having their own computer, internet connection, communicating by email and having access to fax machines and copy machines. Most have never used a typewriter and have no idea what Gregg shorthand is. While I would never give up the modern conveniences of today, it is fun to remember the joy and excitement of each new technological advancement and the ease each has added to the clerical workload.