Administrative Professionals: It’s Not Like ‘Mad Men’ Anymore

Unless you have one (in which case you won't need this reminder) Corp! would like to be among the first to suggest you put April 25 on your calendar. That will mark the 60th anniversary of National Administrative Professionals (nee Secretaries) Day.

Susan Fenner, education and professional development manager of the International Association of Administrative Professionals.

Some History
It wasn't until World War I that the idea of secretarial work began to become almost exclusively the province of women. Prior to then, explains Susan Fenner, the education and professional development manager of the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP), "there were scribes, monks and other men transcribing the works of other men." Fenner, who has a PhD in curriculum and instruction, knows of what she speaks. When the male "secretaries" went to war women took over and, for the most part, have remained in place -“ indispensable and often in control.

"It went from being an office worker to being almost an office wife," says Fenner. "A secretary was almost a perk of a position. You didn't have a secretary until you became a vice president or whatever. That person went along with that title. That's when they started doing everything from picking up dry cleaning to doing the coffee or sending out Christmas cards.

"That sort of morphed into becoming an office partner. It's when you began to see a secretary-manager team. Oftentimes, when the boss moved up, he took his secretary with him. You wanted to make sure you got with a boss who was going someplace."

Fenner is fond of a description of the next step in the evolution from "secretary" to "administrative professional:" "The 'professionalization of the clerical staff, and the clericalization of the professional staff,'" she says, "is when the clerical staff had to do all these professional things that they weren't really trained to do -“ negotiating with people, delegating to other people and so on. The managers, on the other hand, started to book their own travel and hotel rooms among other things their secretaries had handled previously.

"Today," Fenner explains, "the number of people an admin supports has just gone up, up, up. The admin is part of an office team and no longer works for a group of managers but is more like a project coordinator."

International Association of Administrative Professionals members dance during an evening of welcome for the association's annual educational meeting last July in Montreal.

In 1942 a group of secretaries banded together in Topeka, Kan., and founded what would become an international association with more than 500 chapters. "They were all in the same profession, and started to see it as more than just a job," explains Fenner. "They wanted to be able to network with others. Today's technology expands those networks far beyond the local chapters. Admins can really network via the Web with people throughout the world -“ which is pretty neat."

"Secretaries Day" started out as a public relations effort on the part of office products manufacturers to recognize the work of secretaries and attract more women into the profession -“ while creating a warm fuzzy glow around brands of address labels and rubber bands and staplers. By 1952 the U.S. Commerce Department gave its official blessing to what by then had become an entire week of recognition for the (mainly) women who kept offices throughout the country running smoothly.

The IAAP is the sole official sponsor and, explains Fenner, "has expanded the idea to celebrating the contribution of all support personnel, not just admins. They're really part of the team now."

The Office "Team"
The team concept of collaboration throughout an office with less emphasis on a top-down organizational structure is something Fenner believes in. Asked if this idea started back in the '60s when the movie musical "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" reminded its fictional senior managers that "a secretary is not a toy" but also contained the additional lines, "She's a highly specialized key component of operational unity, a fine and sensitive mechanism to serve the office community," Fenner replied, "Yes, but just barely. There's that word 'serve,'" she laughs.

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