From Secretary to Administrative Assistant: How the Admin Role has Changed Over Time?

From Secretary to Administrative Assistant: How the Admin Role has Changed Over Time?

Thoughts from Ann – as Administrative Professionals Day approaches the end of this month on April 27th, 2022.


Gone are the “Mad Men” days when secretaries took dictation on steno pads and transcribed letters on manual typewriters. Today, administrative professionals rely on technology to perform their daily duties. In addition to organizing meetings, planning events, and creating and giving presentations, many admins perform tasks ranging from database maintenance to videoconferencing.


Today, less than 15% of administrative staff still use the title “Secretary”. Most are called administrative assistants, executive assistants, office managers, or office supervisors. According to the US Census, there are over 4 million administrative professionals in the workplace and that number is expected to continue to rise. Today close to 96% of administrative professionals are women, but it was a job originally held by men.

So where does the title “Secretary” originate from? The word secretary comes from the Latin secretum, meaning secret. Because heads of state needed to trust their secretaries with confidential information, the job was held in high regard.

According to the University of Pennsylvania Garfield Library, the first secretaries were probably ancient Egyptian scribes who chiseled the details of business transactions into stone around 400 A.D. They were some of the most educated men of their time as they could read and write. During the Middle Ages, clergymen performed most secretarial duties, giving rise to the terms “clerk” and “clerical.”  During the late Renaissance, non-clergy clerks emerged to serve the growing merchant class. Until the 1860s, all secretaries were men.

So what happened after the 1860s? In the 1860s, Christopher Latham Sholes changed the job forever by inventing a mechanical typing machine, which eventually became known as the typewriter. This machine played a huge role in women’s entrance into the paid labor force in the late19th and early 20th centuries.

Typewriters didn’t catch on at first. They cost about $100 and required a lot of maintenance. Even though typing was faster than writing by hand, it was difficult to type quickly on the first typewriters, especially because early typists only used two fingers on each hand to strike keys and they couldn’t see what they were typing.

Typewriters eventually improved and typewritten correspondence became the norm in business. It wasn’t until the population of labor-age males took a devastating hit in the Civil War, when 625,000 American men died on the battlefields between 1861and 1865, that women started to fill the position of secretary. Male laborers were also pulled away from the job because of the large demand in the booming manufacturing, mining, and construction fields.

What was the rise of the Pink Collar Professional? During the late 19th century, free compulsory school became available to women allowing them the opportunity to become qualified to fill the surplus clerical positions. Quick note though, they were expected to leave the workplace when they got married, and they were paid much less than men.

At first, women were hired to be “copyists”, who reproduced documents by hand. Then in the mid-1880s, they were hired as typists and stenographers who transcribed correspondence in shorthand. Typewriter companies began marketing their new machines as most suitable for women. “The typewriter is especially adapted to feminine fingers. They seem to be made for typewriting. The typewriting involves no hard labor and no more skill than playing the piano,” wrote John Harrison in the 1888 Manual of the Typewriter.

Perceptions also fueled change of more women joining the field. The belief that women had small, dexterous fingers that could better operate a typewriter was widespread. Women’s perceived domestic skills also were seen as advantageous for secretarial work. As the social face of the corporation became more important, women put a “happy face” on the corporation.

A job once filled by men became the pink-collar profession.

Fast forward to the 20th century
Since the 1930s, women have held over 95% of administrative support jobs. In 1950, secretary was the most common occupation for a woman, and that’s still true today. The name changed in the 1950s to “Administrative Assistant”, and the role dramatically broadened over the years. The importance of the position increased, as well as salaries, making it a more viable career choice than ever before for both women and men.

The future of the administrative professional and virtual assistants Administrative professionals are more educated than ever before. Technology has allowed for workers to have more flexibility in their schedule and complete a wide range of tasks that don’t require them to be physically present in an office, making way for the Virtual Assistant. It also allows for business owners to access a huge talent pool that may not be readily available in their geographic area. Virtual Assistants help business owners and CEOs alike with their productivity and work-life balance.

Today’s admins face a diverse and multifaceted workload. They handle everything from completing general business transactions and working on delegated tasks to joining strategic planning meetings and organizing a board of directors. The position requires more than it did decades ago. The business world continues to advance, and along with it, the administrative profession