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.

“With the advent of women’s liberation,” Fenner continues, “there was much more of the idea of ‘I’ll do the coffee this time, but you do it the next.'”

It was also a time when more men began to come into the profession. “But oftentimes they’d get a different title,” Fenner notes. “It wasn’t ‘secretary’ -“ and they’d get more pay.”

However, in a recent global survey of admins conducted by the IAAP, the title of “secretary” is coming back. While the current edition of the biannual survey shows that executive assistant and administrative assistant are still the top two job titles, administrative secretary is now the third most common title. And, still, 99 percent of survey respondents were women.

“But,” contends Fenner, “people don’t get hung up on titles much anymore. They just don’t have time to worry about them because they’ve got so darn much work to do.” The 2011 survey respondents ranked “increased workload” second only to the difficulties of keeping up with technology as their greatest challenge.

Part of that workload increase, says Fenner, comes with managing projects that are often “staffed by people from India. You don’t even see the persons your working closely with. That’s just a part of how the requirements of the admin position are changing.” Fenner then relates a conversation she had at a recent conference with a corporate director of training. She asked whether the training director had her own admin -“ and she did, but not in her home office in Texas -“ the admin was in India. “Everything is changing because of technology,” Fenner says. “I have seen job descriptions of secretaries in the early days and they questioned whether women would ever be able to handle any kind of machines. Look where we are now!”

Certification Counts
Fenner’s association has been involved with professional certification almost since its beginning. As with most aspects of the job, the requirements of certification have changed from determining the number of words that someone could type on a manual typewriter to the number of office software programs that can be utilized successfully. “We used to have a Certified Professional Secretary, and then we added Certified Administrative Professional,” Fenner explains. “Now we have just the CAP but we’ve added two niche certifications: Organizational Management (OM) and Technology Applications (TA).

Members of the IAAP learn about new products during the office expo at the association’s annual educational meeting.

“When people are applying for a job they’ll say they can do everything and for any technology requirement they’ll put ‘proficient’ on the application,” she continues. “You may know what you can do on a computer but you don’t know what you don’t know. Wherever you are you may only be using one-tenth of the functions [of a particular office software program] that are available. The thing about certifications is that an employer knows that people have knowledge in particular areas. They can see what was on the exam and that the person is truly proficient in those areas.” The association works closely with Microsoft in developing its technology testing so that getting a CAP with a TA appended to it represents the prospective employee’s practical knowledge of at least three Microsoft Office components.

Perhaps the earliest form of secretarial certification was graduation from a Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School. Their white-gloved alumnae were prized acquisitions to any office. “You just knew they could do anything,” Fenner laughs. “They knew correct grammar, everything.”

However, Fenner notes, they “would be rolling in their graves if they had to deal with the incivility that’s taking place in the workplace today. It’s gotten so casual and emotionally laden. The hot topic today is dealing with cross-cultural matters. It’s being able to understand others, not just in the office but much more broadly. If you’re going to be dealing with people from other countries you’ve got to be up on what to do and what not to do.”

Just like in the real world.