“Learn to type and you’ll always get a job.”

Sage words uttered by my mother back in the mid-seventies when I was choosing my secondary school subjects. Over the years, those words of motherly wisdom became a kind of ‘raison d’etre’ during my administration career. Learning to touch and speed type certainly was the linchpin to set me on the path of steady growth from office clerk to personal assistant to business development manager. Ok, not just typing, I acquired many other skills over the years, but it certainly was a gamechanger for me post-graduation.

I, along with my peers, learned to type on manual typewriters that looked like they’d been resurrected from the archives of a musty old film set. A large plastic-coated chart was hung on the wall in front of us and we were duly instructed in how to manage our fingers on the keys, keep our eyes on the chart and practice until we developed muscles on our little fingers!

Admittedly, I initially thought being a secretary was a bit of a lowly job. Now and then I’d dibble and dabble in other ‘career’ changes, but somehow the meaningful and better-paying roles required my secretarial skills to keep me gainfully employed. People’s perception of a secretary was varied from role to role and company to company. I’ve literally been treated like the front door mat to being revered as a Personal Assistant, with the assumption that I’d be able to run the business blindfolded.

Delving into the history of the secretary has altered my opinion. The common denominator between the secretary of bygone years to current times is support. According to Wikipedia, the word, secretary, derives from the passive participle of the Latin word secernere being secretum, meaning “having been set apart”. The eventual connotation of secretum is something private or confidential, i.e. secret. A secretary was a person overseeing business confidentially, usually for a powerful individual such as a Prelate, Magistrate, Prince, King, Queen or Pope. They were often employed by city-states and principalities and in many offices under the papal curia or court.

A further source from Etymonline states that a ‘Medieval Latin Secretarius originated in 14th century Europe and was applied to a clerk entrusted with secret and private matters. A person who keeps records, writes letters and other important matters originally for a King’.

In short, a secretary in Medieval times was an essential asset overseeing business and executing a high measure of confidentiality, usually for a powerful individual. They almost certainly derived from middle-class families of notaries or physicians. But, before you ladies start punching the air and shouting ‘Girl Power!’ it must be made clear that these roles were exclusively held by MEN. Even Sir Isaac Pitman’s School of Shorthand, which opened in 1870 England, was intended only for ‘male students to qualify as shorthand writers to “professional and commercial men”’.

And this remained so until late 19th century with the invention of the typewriter and the emergence of women’s rights.

Part 2: The rise of the female secretary – from domestic drudgery to skilled office worker

(Period Late 19th Century to the 1970s)

It all began with the typewriter

While there were many attempts at inventing a ‘writing machine,’ the first commercially successful typewriter was the brainchild of Christopher Latham Sholes and Carlos Gidden in the early 1860s.

By 1873 Sholes and Gidden, retaining the patent rights sold the manufacturing rights to Remington. Remington began mass producing the typewriter and by the mid-1880s over 40,000 machines had been sold.

In the United States and abroad, government offices, businesses, and banks began using the typewriter regularly. By the late 1890s, other manufacturers were churning out competitive best-selling models.

Companies were hiring skilled operators who were able to quickly and accurately type clear, presentable documents. It was a booming industry as administrative work was churned out with the help of the now ubiquitous typewriter. By the 1890s the once male-dominated administrative positions were being filled by women, as men’s careers advanced beyond secretary positions.

Training facilities offering courses to teach women how to become professional typists mushroomed. With these skills, over time, many women became educated, empowered and valued in the workplace.

In retrospect, it’s apparent that the invention of the typewriter meant more than just being a ‘useful device’. Its influence in improved document presentation and professionalism, speed, and efficiency contributed to the establishment of the ‘modern day’ secretary.

Women in the workforce

History describes how women’s restriction in the workforce was due to legal and cultural practices as well as long-standing religious and educational conventions. Their lack of access to higher education effectively limited them to low-paid, poor-status occupations for the majority of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Of the top ten occupations for women listed by the United States Department of Labor during that time period, almost half of women’s paid work was in domestic services. Shockingly harsh working conditions with little or no time off disenfranchised women who often lived in their employer’s attic or basement.

However, through the 20th century, the workforce in general increasingly moved to office jobs that didn’t require heavy labour, and women increasingly acquired the higher education that led to better-compensated, longer-term careers. With the rise of available new jobs in factories, shops and offices, women gravitated to these more attractive options, even if it meant they earned less than half of their male counterparts’ salary.

The great war meant great opportunities

The First World War (sometimes referred to as the Great War) is considered by many as the turning point in the history of women’s employment. The uptake was less than that of World War Two, but it was enough to alter the dynamics of working women then and for future generations.

When the Great War ended, many women declined to step back into the home and instead remained employed. Their presence triggered significant cultural and social change forcing governments and unions to rethink their mandates.

The suffragette movement seeking the vote for women and the 1929 stock market crash sparking the Great Depression of the 1930s meant changes were afoot.

The rise of the ‘female secretary’ was impressive in the UK and the US from 1870. In the UK, of all employed stenographers and typists zero percent were women. By 1911 that had grown to 37%. Similarly, recorded in 1870 in the United States, 5% of employed stenographers and typists were women, which rapidly grew to a massive 96% by 1930. This was partly due to their exceptional typing skills, high literacy rates and willingness to work for lower wages.

However, It wasn’t until 1950 that being a secretary became the most popular job among women. A 1950 U.S. Census report states that 1.5 million women worked in a category defined as “stenographers, typists or secretaries.” This accounted for 94% of all employed women.

While the title has evolved since then, it remains the top female job. “Every time a major new technology showed up, there were always predictions that this would spell the end of secretaries,” said Ray Weikal, spokesman for the International Association of Administrative Professionals. “You saw that with the development of electric typewriters, the personal computer, and the internet, but every time technology gets more efficient, the amount of business increases. You continue to need people who can use those tools.

The swinging sixties and the feminist movement

During the 1960s and ’70s the term secretary was becoming unfashionable, mainly due to the emergent feminist movement.

In the early 1970s, a group of secretaries at Harvard formed an organisation called ‘9to5’ (National Association of Working Women). Their intent was to change the image and working conditions for female office workers. Some early demands included written job descriptions, overtime compensation, systematic procedures for filing a complaint, and regular salary reviews. Sister organizations sprung up in Chicago, San Francisco and New York. Over time ‘9to5’ evolved into a national organisation, with some affiliates joining unions.

Encouraged by those movements, workplaces started to rename the job to “administrative assistant”,  “executive assistant” or “office professional”, to reflect the shifting perception of secretaries. The National Secretaries Association eventually changed its name to the International Association of Administrative Professionals.

Part 3: The past, the present and the future – how it is today

Through the ages we followed the establishment and growth of the secretarial profession. We can now look at how, from the 1980s onwards, the role has evolved even further.

With new technology came new areas of responsibility. Typing was still the mainstay but other skills were developing such as operating multi-line telephones, processing figures with adding machines and scheduling appointments. The personal assistant was on the rise. Their job became a one-to-one ‘ right-hand man’ relationship with the boss. They were required to interact with the general public, vendors, customers and any other people or groups on a senior level.

The seventies saw women starting to demand to be treated as equals, and they also had a voice in how they should be treated by their bosses and male colleagues with the introduction of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Men were starting to sit up and listen if they didn’t want to be accused of sexual harassment.

By the mid-eighties a plethora of automated office technologies and equipment surfaced. Fax machines were all the rage. Word processors were slowly replacing the once ubiquitous typewriter. Administrative assistants were becoming proficient in new processes such as spreadsheets, databases and desktop publishing all of which expanded their skill set and value to their companies.

1995 witnessed the Internet transitioning into a commercial enterprise and web-based processes like email and web-browsing became a daily practice. Windows95 was released by Microsoft revolutionising administrative support services around the world.

But some things never change

Still today the most common job for a woman is working as an EA, administration assistant or other fancy title that means “secretary”. Of these jobs 96% of them are held by women but that is changing as more men are now entering the field. Women are still being advised that the best entry into many fields is via administrative positions despite being better educated and earning more graduate degrees. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment of secretaries and administrative assistants is projected to decline five percent from 2016 to 2026. Most job openings will result from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation.

Specialised roles like the Legal Secretary have hovered on the periphery of the traditional secretarial world. Despite a role regarded as being of the utmost importance with an understanding of the intricacies of the law and a high level of confidentiality, many still decide to go on to become Paralegals. Paralegals are paid better, have a higher status and it’s a step up if you’re interested in becoming a lawyer yourself.

With emerging technology, the 21st Century Personal Assistant or Administrator is proficient in many ways. They have skills in face-to-face roles with clients, interviewing prospective employees, marketing, business development and at a higher level becoming more autonomous and making decisions. Most office personnel are fully IT literate.

In 2016 the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that there were 3.9 million secretaries and administrative assistants in the US alone, not distinguishing between office-based assistants and those that work online, known as Virtual Assistants (VAs).

Enter the virtual assistant

Working remotely from home, cafe or co-working space is the new ‘growth-industry.’ Whether the VA is an employee, independent contractor or freelancer they offer the commercial world a whole new concept of administrative support. Their services comprise of traditional secretarial skill sets to more niche-specific, such as social media marketing, transcription or translation services, copy and content writing, website and SEO management.

It is almost impossible to determine how many VAs there are around the world as many don’t belong to any official organisation or networking group. Some VAs utilise acquired skills to work from home part-time while their children are growing. Others treat it as a full-time business with fixed hours and set fees, undertaking extensive further education to increase or refine their skill sets.

Freelancing platforms such as Upwork, Guru, Freelancer and Craigslist are go-to places for many VAs, freelance writers, designers and marketers in search of potential work. Others choose to market themselves either via their own website, Facebook page or other methods.

Working as a freelancer has many benefits as well as some pitfalls. One benefit is not having dependency on a set physical location, a major attraction as long as there is an Internet connection, computer and phone. This can benefit companies or individuals who hire VAs. They can have a pool of VAs who may be located around the world from which they pull resources. Additionally, employers’ costs are lowered significantly because they don’t have to provide VAs with office space and equipment. Nor do they pay the VA’s tax, medical, pension, bonuses or any other entitlement.

Research shows that remote workers are more productive when working at home or another location. And this is the opinion held by 91% of remote workers in a study carried out by TINYpulse, an employee engagement and feedback software company. Other benefits are fewer distractions, and the ability to work longer or more flexible hours. It makes it possible to structure their schedules around other responsibilities. Long commutes become a thing of the past.

On the flip side VAs lose out on getting health insurance, paid time off, sick leave or holiday pay. And they must pay the full amount of their Social Security and Medicare taxes, half of which would normally be paid by the company.

Communication can be challenging between the employer and VA, as they’re not in the same room together. Fortunately technology saves the day in the shape of interactive tools like email, Skype, phone calls, apps and task management programmes. New tools are constantly being developed to provide a more connective face-to-face interaction.

Job security can be the downside for a remote freelancer. A VA can be working on multiple projects at the same time and short-term assignments with different employers. The VA can end a project or working relationship at any time, as can their client. Contracts may offer some protection but generally there is no severance pay and golden handshakes simply don’t exist in the industry. The lack of personal interaction can also make it very easy to terminate a contract.

In spite of that the number of VAs continues to grow and replace traditional office employees. Intuit, a financial software company, predicts that 40% of the US workforce will be made up of freelancers and virtual assistants by 2020. From 2005 to 2012, the number of telecommuting employees in the US grew by 79.7 percent. Freelancers now account for over 34 percent of the total US workforce.

A new entrepreneur emerges

Mention the word Entrepreneur once upon a time and an image of a suave professional looking businessman may have been in the forefront of people’s minds. Now women entrepreneurs, with their own brand of business style, are mushrooming around the world. The VA is no different. Indeed, many VAs have gone on to develop their own successful businesses as self-employed virtual assistants, or expanded into opening their own training institutes. They’ve become coaches and mentors, they provide online courses and create other entrepreneurial ventures.

Learned skills, versatility and flexibility ‘ingrained’ in many women’s DNA, coupled with a deep desire to work from home and raise a family are massive incentives to take those intrepid steps into developing a successful business.

Whilst I could wax lyrical on the emergence and growth of women entrepreneurs, I think that will be saved for another article. We’ll finish with the knowledge that in just over 150 years the role of the secretary has had quite a journey. It’s help pave the way for many modern day women to rise above the shackles of being second class citizens. By surging forth and taking control of how they earn money, deciding where and when they work and being creative in developing their brand, style and type of business, women are empowered like never before.

And much of that is owed to the invention of the humble typewriter.