Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Feb 25, 2011

Help Wanted: Female

Instructor, Caroline Bender

Student Z.N. asks, "Why are women preferred to men for secretarial positions?" and what the question generated was an exploration of whether that statement is necessarily true.  That is certainly our recent, western, cultural belief, but has certainly not always been so.  When did it change, and what is the status of that alleged preference today, in a business world where women now proportionately outnumber men?

"Secretary" as a job title has fallen out of favor, and the role exists far less than it did, especially in the corporate arena.  Miss Bender's personal observation is that they only exist at the top levels, are more likely to be called "Admins" (with a little less reverence than they were when they outranked all the other secretaries) and tend to be shared by multiple execs (heavens!).

The Department of Labor breaks Office and Administrative Support Occupations (43-000, if you are coding along) into 58 sub-categories, which include postal, workers and shipping clerks.  Secretarial roles by name are 4 of them (executive -1.3M, medical-469K, legal-244K, and other-1.8M).  Incidentally, these are 2009 stats, before economic collapse. 

Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms 96% of  the 3M secretaries and administrative assistants are female,

Before the Modern age, secretarial duties were a clerk's role: appointments, correspondence, general gatekeeping, somewhere between a butler of the workplace and a batman.  In 1996, Ebony magazine ran a man-bites-dog story about the rise of  "male secretaries" which cited the usual reference of  the popularity of the typewriter bringing young women into the office, and adds, "By the 1930s, the number of men in secretarial positions began to diminish." ("Male Secretaries: A Minority but No Longer a Novelty," Ebony, August 1996)

The real question is why the complete conversion, in 80 years of rapid technological, educational, and social advances, from a male to female gender-defined occupation.  Did the women dominate.... or did the men just opt out?  And is the answer the same for nurses, school teachers, dental hygienists? (most female occupation -- did you know?  I didn't.)

One of the men in the Ebony article defines the fulfillment he gets from his secretarial work this way:
"Serving others and being on top of things and networking with counterparts are only a few of the rewards achieved from this career.  When one can take pride in the accomplishments in a day's work and know that as a result you have added a dimension to the situation, this really is gratifying."  (Ebony, 1996)  

On the other hand, it was another man who famously observed "secretarial work was real drudgery," and did something about it by developing a word processor with type one could manipulate on screen ("An Wang: getting to the essentials." Nation's Business, Dec 1987).

There are plenty of women who find drudgery in the secretarial role as well.  After all, 96% of all secretaries in the US may be women, but barely 5 % percent of women are secretaries by the BLS definition.  I'd like to report that the rest of us are scattered liberally throughout all professions, but it remains that our most prevalent occupations are what you would expect (same BLS source as above):

  1. Secretaries and administrative assistants, 3,074,000
  2. Registered nurses, 2,612,000
  3. Elementary and middle school teachers, 2,343,000
  4. Cashiers, 2,273,000
  5. Nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides, 1,770,000
  6. Retail salespersons, 1,650,000
  7. First-line supervisors/managers of retail sales workers, 1,459,000
  8. Waiters and waitresses, 1,434,000
  9. Maids and housekeeping cleaners, 1,282,000
  10. Customer service representatives, 1,263,000
  11. Child care workers, 1,228,000
  12. Bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks, 1,205,000
  13. Receptionists and information clerks, 1,168,000
  14. First-line supervisors/managers of office and administrative support workers, 1,163,000
  15. Managers, all other, 1,106,000
  16. Accountants and auditors, 1,084,000
  17. Teacher assistants, 921,000
  18. Cooks, 831,000
  19. Office clerks, general 821,000
  20. Personal and home care aides, 789,000
Wage gap figures also continue to cite the female wage as 80 cents to the male dollar.  ("...median weekly earnings of women who were full-time wage and salary workers was $657, or 80 percent of men’s $819" -- BLS 2009)  What is reflected in this gap is the low-paying nature of work where women are prevalent (above) compared to the high-paying work where men have been prevalent (skilled, manual, dangerous, and ... to be honest, sports.)

But bacon is bacon.   34.5% of married women out earned their husbands in 2008, and based on current unemployment breakdown by gender, we can extrapolate that the % is higher today.  Last summer The Atlantic dove deeply into the question of whether equality was being realized, or if women were simply becoming the new men.  I must, by necessity, link you to that very long article to continue this conversation.  

Your comments are always welcome, and your articles in reply are even more so.

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