Secretarius: Men in Admin. Careers, Then and Now

This was a man’s world

While many readers can’t imagine an administrative world not dominated by women, that wasn’t always the case.  If you do a bit of reading, you’ll find it suggested that this was entirely a man’s world until the 1880s. Relatively speaking, that’s not long after the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War.

Combine opportunities arising from industrialisation with the introduction of the first mass-produced typewriters in the 1880s, as well as increasing numbers of educated females, and you have the beginning of a trend. It’s said that, in the US, most of the secretaries were women by the 1920s.

What’s the gender composition in your office?

Secretaries and Clerks

Many today think of the term “secretary” as outdated in relation to administrative careers. The word’s origins are ancient, but reflect prestige. The origins date back to Latin terms such as secretussecretum (a secret, or hidden thing), secretarium (a council chamber or conclave) and secretarius (confidential officer).

Outside the worlds of politics and royal houses, the position was often referred to as a “clerk”. It was perceived as an entry level job for educated middle class men who proceeded up the ladder to become managers.

The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that the term “secretary” was recorded as early as 1400 to describe a “person who keeps records, writes letters, etc.” , originally for royalty.  The term “Secretary of State” has a long history, and variations on that job title have been used as far back as the 1590s.

Photo credit: Jonathan Hayward

I’d love to stand corrected, but am fairly certain there were few – if any – women in those early secretarial roles. Here in Canada, our very own Flora MacDonald was appointed Secretary of State for External Affairs back in 1979. It’s thought that she was among the first female Secretaries of State anywhere on this globe.

What about today’s landscape?

A wee note: The admin. career is highly portable. Interestingly, three of our eight panelists have made or committed to career changes since responding to my questions, so their responses reflect their previous places of employment. Not all career changes are planned; sometimes great opportunities come knocking!

Over Arizona 6643 Copyright Shelagh Donnelly

Here’s what our panelists’ environments look like.

For Brits Craig Bryson and Matthew Want , it’s relatively straightforward. They’re both the sole admin. professional in their respective organisations, and so 100% of such positions are held by males. In Craig’s previous role, he was the first male admin. professional in the organisation’s C-Suite. Both are employed in the private sector.

In her Not-For-Profit (NFP) organisation, New Yorker Bianca Constance is one of 18 admin. professionals. 6% of all the admin. professionals are male, and none of them work in the C-Suite.

Craig Harris is also with a NFP organisation, and believes he’s the only male admin. professional there – that’s definitely the case in his London office. Harris does work in the C-Suite, and the other eight admin. professionals in that suite are female.

In Louise Whitehead’s private sector organisation, there are 632 admin. professionals. Of those, she estimated that 0.6% of them were male. None of the admin. professionals in her organisation’s C-Suite (the suite typically occupied by the top guns – Chief Executive / Operating / Financial / Information / other Officers) are male.

Declan Halton-Woodward is in the private sector, and there are three employees who are formally identified as admin. staff. He notes, though, that the duties of some the Junior Account Management Team in particular are largely administrative. His presence in the role means that 30% of the admin. professionals in his organisation are male – and 100% of the admin. professionals in the C-Suite are male.

Down Under, Jennifer Robson’s private sector organisation has approximately 325 admin. professionals. Less than one percent of them are male, and none of those are in the C-Suite.

In Chicago, James Sobczak is in the world of post-secondary education. He says, “There are roughly 212 admin personnel in my organization, comprised of Executive Assistants, Admin. Assistants, Project Assistants, Admin. Specialists, and Secretaries.” James estimates that men represent 6% of the admin. professionals in the organisation. There are two C-Suites in the medical centre, and he is the only male – for total representation of 8%.

A job by any other name

All panelists reported that the job titles and position descriptions in their workplaces are gender-neutral. James observed that the University works very hard to keep all job titles gender-neutral, and Declan summed it up in saying, this is “… the way it should be!”

Cypress Rose Copyright Shelagh Donnelly

Equal compensation?

I asked the group if it’s their experience that employers compensate female and male administrative professionals performing at the same job level equally/in a gender-neutral manner. Some weren’t privy to colleagues’ salaries and couldn’t comment. Those who could offer insights shared the following.

  •  In the organizations I have worked with, the pay has been equal.
  • To my knowledge they do (compensate equally), but salaries are not published.
  • I have never been privy to or present in any circumstance where compensation based on gender has existed.


Are any sectors more progressive than others?

Here, we were trying to determine if there’s any particular industry or sector that is particularly progressive in terms of gender balance among administrative employees. My own observation is that the public sector is pretty strong on this front; here’s what our group had to say.

  • I have spent 18 years in the NFP sector so am unfamiliar with other industries and the gender balance among their administrative employees.
  •  I think the Public sector tries its best to be as gender balanced as possible. Though this is an example to all other sectors, I don’t think it is perfect.
  • To be completely honest, I’m not sure that any sector is what I would call “progressive” in relation to the gender split. However, the majority of male PAs/EA s that I personally know work in the NFP sector.
  • Unfortunately, I myself do not know with certainty any industry that is progressive in the manner you describe.
  • My personal opinion is  that Australia is lagging behind and there is more work to be done to promote gender balance
  • From my personal experience, I have not seen this.
How do these numbers and observations compare to your experience?

Feel free to click on the “Leave a comment” icon near the top of your screen if you’d like to add your observations.

Check back next week for more!

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