2012-04-25 / Editorials

Office Professionals: Business-Commerce Lifeblood

April 25 is Administrative Professionals Day, the day on which America recognizes and celebrates the work of secretaries, administrative assistants and other office professionals for their growing and diverse contributions to the workplace. According to the federal Department of Commerce Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2011, the latest figures available, across the United States, 21,384,330 people listed themselves as working in “Office and Administrative Support Occupations”, 1,531,560 of them in New York state.

The BLS statistics do not differentiate by gender, but it is reasonable to postulate that a goodly number of those employed in “Office and Administrative Support Occupations” are female. It was not always so. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, anyone with the job title “secretary” was more than likely to be male. In Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), John Rokesmith takes on the position of secretary to Nicodemus “Noddy” Boffin, primarily to ensure that the newly rich Boffin will not be swindled out of his inherited riches. The father of the protagonist in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous (1897), “in a veranda-room, between a secretary and a typewriter, who was also a telegraphist, toiled along wearily from day to day”. Although the term “typist was first used in 1885, Miss Kinsey, the “typewriter”, takes orders from the male secretary, Mr. Milsom. Miss Kinsey would not presume to call herself a secretary; indeed, her title is the same as the machine she used, indicating that in some quarters, employers did not differentiate between the machine and its operator.

Women began moving into the secretarial sector of the workforce in the second and third decades of the 20th century. The preponderance of women in administrative professional positions today is the logical outcome of the increased need for skilled administrative personnel, particularly in the United States, during World War II, when a large number of men enlisted or were drafted. The National Secretaries Association was formed to recognize the contributions of secretaries and other administrative personnel to the economy, to support their personal development and to help attract people to administrative careers in the field. The association’s name was changed to Professional Secretaries International in 1981 and, finally, the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) in 1998. The first National Secretaries Week was organized in 1952 in conjunction with the United States Department of Commerce and various office supply and equipment manufacturers. The Wednesday of that week became known as National Secretaries Day.

As late as the 1950s it was unusual for married women to be in the office professional workforce. In an episode of the early 1950s-vintage television sitcom The Honeymooners, Ralph Kramden is laid off from his job as a bus driver. Alice, his wife, goes back to work in a secretarial job, such as she had had before she married, but must pretend that she and Ralph are brother and sister. “They don’t want a married woman—they think she’ll want to have a baby and quit on them,” she tells Ralph. Now, of course, working women—and working mothers—occupy administrative professional positions throughout the nation and the world, then go home to perform the multitudinous and many-faceted domestic duties required of them. Within the category of “Office and Administrative Support Occupations” are a wide variety of job titles, indicating that those employed have many, widely varying, duties, but one thing is abundantly clear—without them, American business and commerce would not function. The same is equally true of working and stay-at-home women and mothers. Their duties in the office and at home are equally varied, equally demanding and equally deserving of the respect of all.

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