is “secretary” a demeaning title?

A reader writes:

I work in the tree care industry at a company where the hierarchy is the owner and manager (“Will”), his assistant on the field providing estimates, then me, the owner’s secretary, then the tree workers (who have their own hierarchy).

I work in the office by myself taking calls from clients for estimate appointments, managing correspondence for Will through calls or emails on his behalf, getting mail, making sure bills are paid on time, and taking messages from people trying to get in touch with Will.

My job title is the “secretary,” but more than once when I’ve spoken to a client and mentioned my title in passing they have said things like “You mean office manager?” or “You mean admin assistant?”. One lady who was already kind of angry with Will actually yelled at him that my job is as an office manager not a secretary (she was angry about something else, she just used my title as an excuse).

I have no problem with my title, I think it accurately describes what I do. I am by myself and don’t do any dispatching and I only interact with clients on the phone. I have looked online and it seems like “secretary” is an old word for “admin assistant,” and this is a company that has been around since the 1980s. Is this just an old title? I am female — do you think there a gender issue involved? Will is very happy with my work and would probably change my title if I asked him to without questioning it. What do you think?

It’s true that “secretary” is now mostly considered an old-fashioned title and has been largely replaced by “administrative assistant” or “executive assistant.”

And it does read as at least a little tinged with sexism to many people now — kind of like calling a flight attendant a stewardess.

But I was curious about why and when that happened, so I went looking to see if I could find answers. I found an interview with Lynn Peril, the author of a history of secretaries called Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office. The whole interview is worth a read, but the relevant part for this question is where she says:

“At first … women aspired to be a private secretary or an executive secretary, to move to the top of the office hierarchy, to move out of the steno pool, to stop being a stenographer who just went in and took dictation from her boss, to not be a typist, to be a secretary. So it was really something that women looked up to and towards.

But, at the same time, there was this pop culture tradition. The term, office wife, really goes back to the 1920s and then sort of throughout the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and up into the ’70s, this evolution of the idea of the secretary as this hot-to-trot, pencil-pushing woman who’s there to have an affair with the boss, meet a husband. And it’s not a very positive image.

[B]y the ’70s, when women are really starting to strike out for their rights in all sorts of ways, they asked to be called administrative assistant because administrative assistant actually means you’re taking your job seriously. It’s a way to say, I’m doing my work. I’m serious. I’m not a secretary. Secretary now has a bad connotation, but I’m an administrative assistant. I take myself seriously. I take my job seriously.”

But regardless, there are still plenty of people around whose title is “secretary.” And the clients who are getting up in arms about it are being weird. It’s not a slur; it’s a job title that’s still in use by some perfectly respectful companies. There’s also some sexism in correcting a woman about her own job title that she’s perfectly comfortable with!

That said, if you’re not terribly attached to the title, switching to “administrative assistant” might play better with clients and could be a more marketable title to have on your resume at whatever point you’re next job-searching. But if you like “secretary” and prefer to use it, I think it’s perfectly fine to stay with it.

{ 365 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Anonymous Poster

    If you want a handy retort ready for when people get oddly up in arms about it, remind them, “The leader of the USSR and most communist countries wasn’t ever the president. It was the secretary!”

    They’re being a bit silly about it, but this is one of those ‘either title is acceptable’ situations. I would try not to worry about it as much as you can.

    Reply
      1. ErinW

        I’ve never understood the “gal Friday” expression, at least not as far as the movie is concerned. Rosalind Russell is, like Cary Grant, a full-fledged reporter, and not anybody’s secretary or assistant.

        Reply
        1. DArcy

          It’s because the movie isn’t the origin of the phrase. “Gal/girl Friday” is a gender flip of Robinson Crusoe’s servant Friday.

          Reply
    1. Breda

      This was one of my favorite Twitter jokes during the Democratic primary: “So insulting that they keep referring to the man as ‘Senator’ but call the woman ‘Secretary.'” (Not to get into politics! I just found it hilarious.)

      Reply
      1. Not a Former Reality Game Show Host

        Although “Secretary [Name]”/”Madam Secretary” is the proper form of address for a member of the Cabinet, tone of voice and facial expression can indicate whether the title is used as a respectful form of address or may be intended as a sexist slight.

        Reply
    2. BetsyTacy

      I actually work in a part of government where Secretary means like the Secretary of State or Secretary of Health… We have plenty of Assistant Secretaries around here who are super powerful.

      To me, it’s one of those things that I would only think about if it bothers you.

      Reply
      1. Slow Gin Lizz

        I was about to comment on this. Secretary of State is not at all a demeaning title, and the vast majority of Secs of State have been male.

        Reply
        1. Marillenbaum

          I think it speaks to how the title has changed over time–the Latin origin of the word means “one who is trusted with a secret”. Whether the person holding a cabinet-level position, or someone who acts as an assistant, secretaries hold a position of power (even if that power doesn’t always translate to authority in the hierarchy).

          Reply
          1. hermit crab

            Oh, how fascinating! The word “secretary” even has “secret” in it, which I never noticed before.

            Reply
          2. LBK

            Interesting! I also wondered how the term came to simultaneously mean someone at the highest and lowest ends of the hierarchy.

            Reply
            1. Samata

              Wonder if it has to do with the “secret” part — being the secretary for a big boss back in the day meant you could be trusted with some pretty confidential material. And the people in my company who have worked her 30+ years say that earning a true secretary position (not just typing pool) was a BIG DEAL.

              Reply
            2. DArcy

              The usage of “Secretary” for cabinet department heads is a relatively unique Americanism; no other nation uses the title this way as far as I am aware. In other countries, the government “secretary” positions that are very senior civil servants are still very much actual secretaries; they just have a lot of soft power because they’re the direct personal assistants to high ranking ministers. Even the handful of nations where the highest ranking government secretaries are ministerial posts rather than civil service posts, they’re still doing secretarial-as-in-administrative work.

              Reply
              1. SineNomine

                Hmmm? I could’ve sworn the UK still goes by “Secretary of State for X” even if they have a Prime Minister. And AFAIK, the Indian IAS still uses Secretary for titles. Though for other english speaking countries I think they all go by Minister. I may need to double check all this.

                Reply
                1. Blossom

                  Yep, you’re right. The Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Education Secretary, Environment Secretary and so on… All second only to the Prime Minister (who is, herself, really just “first among equals”).
                  I believe this is the case across the Commonwealth too.

                2. Hazel

                  The official title of most UK ministers still contains Secretary, and high ranking MPs will also have other MPs as their Parliamentary Private Secretary. The whole place is littered with secretaries.

                3. Teapot PR consultant

                  WhIn Australia, cabinet ministers are ministers but the permanent public servants who head government departments are secretaries.

                  Some departments still retain a hierarchy of

                  Deputy Secretary
                  First Assistant Secretary
                  Assistant Secretary…

                  All senior executives managing large numbers of staff and key government issues.

                4. London Engineer

                  Yeah they might be informally known as the Education Minister or whatever but most of them are officially Secretaries – the ones that aren’t are Chancellors

          3. TotesMaGoats

            A faculty member at my alma mater did a newspaper editorial many years ago about the origin of the title secretary and how it mean “secret keeper”…and now all I can think of is Harry Potter.

            Reply
              1. Teapot PR consultant

                Until last year, though, the Queen’s Assistant Private Secretary was a woman (Samantha Cohen).

                Reply
          4. Becky B

            This is how I remember how to spell “secretary”–one of my grade school teachers pointed out that it has “secret” in it! She didn’t give any origins at the time, though.

            Reply
      2. McWhadden

        I am pretty sure people would just think someone was delusional if they tried to compare those two different secretaries.

        Reply
          1. Been There, Done That

            Hear, hear.

            I’m intrigued to read all the comments referring to super-powerful people with “Secretary” in their title in response to this secretary’s experiences people who have issues with her title.

            Reply
        1. Hrovitnir

          Have you never encountered people using humour to deflect things? Because this is pretty bog standard and no one would actually think you meant it – or so I assumed until I saw this response.

          Reply
          1. WeevilWobble

            Jokes are usually funny, though, not just “hey, this title is the same as one for a totally different job” with no punchline, joke, or anything remotely funny.

            Reply
            1. MsSolo

              I think that’s a cultural humour thing. It’s a wry statement – you’re meant to infer the humour and self-deprecatingly laugh at yourself for overlooking the similarity. Basically a passive-aggressive pun – the joke is very much on the recipient.

              (I’ve been reading/watching a lot of Swedish crime dramas recently, which are absolutely peppered with stuff like this. So weird watching Man on the Roof at the cinema and being very much in the minority finding it laugh out loud funny.)

              Reply
      3. McWhadden

        I don’t mind secretary and in some fields it’s still sometimes a thing. You’ll still see legal secretary on occasion. And that suggests certain specific skills.

        But I think in your case Office Manager does make more sense and is more marketable. And, as you point out, it’s about overall frustration with your boss with this title just one symptom of it. The initial argument wasn’t just about your title.

        Frankly, there is a lot of BS attached to “secretary.” You’ll see a lot of people talk about the soft power secretaries have. “If she didn’t like you you weren’t hired!” “She could get you the nice office!” But that importance and power sure as hell doesn’t equate to pay scale. And it’s not something you can put on your resume. It’s a very convenient way to keep women in a position where they aren’t on the official hierarchy, aren’t paid particularly well, aren’t provided with a marketable title, but are told and reassured how powerful and important they are.

        Reply
        1. Jess

          That’s a good point about lawyers having legal secretaries, not legal admins. My husband is a lawyer and he has a (male) secretary.

          Reply
        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Totally true re: legal secretaries—they’re plenty important and have really specific training that makes them invaluable. I remember when I first received a legal secretary and a paralegal—it was like 20 Christmases and 5 childhood birthdays.

          The same is true of admins, who are the real power brokers in most offices. Unfortunately, fields dominated by women are often devalued, but I think it’s worth pushing back against the subtle sexism that tries to cast secretaries as inherently subordinate or diminished jobs.

          Reply
          1. justcurious

            I’d be curious to know the difference in duties between your secretary and paralegal and how that plays out in office politics.

            Reply
            1. notanon

              A legal secretary and a paralegal have very well-defined roles requiring specific (and different) educational qualification. The titles are industry standard. My apologies if I am reading more into your comment than you intended, but there is no undertone of condescension implied towards either of those titles.

              Reply
            2. Koko

              A paralegal has some legal training, but is not a lawyer. They are capable of doing legal research, drafting legal documents for the lawyer they work with, and their time on spent on a case is billable to the client.

              A legal secretary is a secretary/admin asssistant who works in a legal office. They do standard administrative/secretarial tasks like scheduling, travel planning, answering phones, filing, etc. Their time is not billable.

              Reply
              1. Dove

                I remember during the course I took to become a paralegal that we were regularly reminded, towards the end of it (once we got into the more specialized, law-specific stuff), to *not* call ourselves legal secretaries. We were paralegals, not secretaries.

                I vaguely recall, too, that one of my classmates asked what the difference was and got told that a paralegal gets paid more. (Much of our training was cross-applicable, except that we were specifically being trained in how to work in a law office. So a lot of functions we were taught were more secretarial in nature. But we also got properly licensed, and were taught how to do legal research and draft documents.)

                Reply
            3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

              The primary differences relate to essentially administration, including client interactions, calendaring, and the actual physical process of filing or binding filings (what the secretary does) vs. generating content for legal documents, providing substantive legal support including legal research, managing discovery/evidence, and providing additional case management (what the paralegal does).

              The distinction is in part educational—each has specific training (and cross-training), but paralegals also have additional licensing requirements as professionals (there are certification programs for legal secretaries, but a certificate is not required to serve as a legal secretary). So far I haven’t noticed a difference in office politics, perhaps because they’re both women. But I confess that I probably have the worst vantage point for evaluating what goes on below the surface. I just try really hard to create a culture in which each team member is treated as having equal value—because they do—and trying to be aggressively proactive about fair compensation, work conditions, etc.

              Reply
          2. Sarah

            I find the discussions re legal secretaries/paralegals really interesting. I work as a legal assistant in a boutique firm in a relatively relaxed area of law. Perhaps because it’s a small firm, or perhaps because it’s relaxed, we don’t have the same kind of formalities surrounding these titles.

            First of all, we don’t have any paralegals at all, only legal assistants or legal secretaries. (In my state, paralegals generally have a particular associate’s degree.) Second, the two titles are practically interchangeable. The only difference is secretaries will sometimes answer phones (but attorneys mostly answer their own phones) and will also type dictations. Both of those duties are relatively rare, however, and legal assistants and legal secretaries are generally treated and paid exactly the same.

            Reply
        3. Kai Jones

          I was a legal secretary for 30 years, but at my current firm, I am a practice assistant. That’s partly because what we do now has changed: I rarely type first drafts, transcribe dictation, or make corrections that were handwritten in red on a printed draft. I format already-typed drafts (my attorneys type their first drafts) to comply with court rules and our firm’s style preferences; the attorneys review and edit the electronic version. A lot of things get done without ever being on paper (you don’t need a wet signature to electronically file in most courts).

          Reply
        4. MaHow

          I agree with this. As someone who worked in support staff-type roles for a number of years, it always really bothered me when people tried to reassure me about how much “power” I had. It was true in some sense, but definitely not something I could put on a resume and sound impressive. I always felt like people who talked about my “power” were being pretty condescending, overall.

          Reply
          1. MaHow

            Sorry, this was supposed to be in direct reply to McWhadden – I didn’t realize it would appear so far down the chain.

            Reply
        5. Been There, Done That

          And in many workplaces are on the “admin” track if they have any opportunity for advancement at all. (I know that sounds snotty and apologize for the tone.) But it’s true. If your boss gets promoted, you get to be admin-to-higher-level-person, but wouldn’t be considered for the position he/she moves up from. Not every place is like that, but there’s still a lot of “once a secretary/admin, always a secretary/admin” out there.

          Reply
        6. Ashli

          I agree. I am technically an executive assistant (at least, that’s what my business card says), but my boss keeps calling me her secretary and for some reason it bugs me. Part of my job are the duties of a traditional secretary, yes, but I feel like I am more than taking dictation and managing her calendar. She also persists in calling other assistants “secretaries” and it just feels so demeaning for some reason.

          Reply
      4. Em Too

        “He could meet anyone, from Deputy Secretary right down to Higher Executive Officer!”

        – from ‘Yes Minister’ re UK civil service, though I may have misremembered. And the lowest grade of all is Administrative Assistant. Which I don’t think tells us much beyond that words evolve.

        Reply
        1. AnonforThis

          Yes during my time working in a UK government office last decade an AA (admin assistant) was still the absolute lowest grade of staff so I wouldn’t picture anyone with authority or particular skill when thinking of a title like that (I was an AA so I’m not meaning that in a mean way). Executive assistant sounds more like the equivalent for the secretary to the owner of the company. If I was mad and heard I was talking to an admin assistant I’d probably think I was being fobbed off and want someone with higher up the food chain

          Reply
          1. Blossom

            Yeah, to my British ears, Secretary definitely outranks admin assistant. Administrator is more on the same level, but just sounds so dreary… I always liked the idea of being a Secretary as a child, with my own office just like the school secretary.

            Reply
        2. Kas

          I love the scene in the first episode where Sir Humphrey is explaining all the secretaries :D

          (YouTube link to follow)

          Reply
    3. Military kid

      Very good point. On a related note, my father had a long and active career as in the military and in his final and most senior posting (at which point his rank was equivalent to a junior general), his official title was ‘Executive Coordinator’. His own way to simplify this for people not familiar with the organisation concerned was that he was the secretary to a particular committee. In his case, that was essentially true – he was supporting that group and certainly not running a country! – but the level of complexity, responsibility and sensitivity of the position was rather different to what the word ‘secretary’ usually conjures up.

      Reply
    4. Anonymous Poster

      I’d be concerned putting anything else on a resume, because a reference checker might hear, ‘Office manager? Do you mean secretary?’ But I don’t think that’s the biggest reason to not worry too much.

      My job title my entire career has been System Engineer. It gives absolutely no insight into what I do in any of my roles. Instead I have to make sure that my bullet points under my job titles describe what I do better. I couldn’t mix up my job titles because then HR wouldn’t be able to verify anything – they too only knew us as systems engineers, so it would mainly confuse them during a potential job search.

      If your resume has bullet points that describe what you do and anyone would ID it as Office Manager, I wouldn’t worry too much.

      Reply
    5. Kathie

      I was a “secretary” for 20 years and yes, I met my husband at work. Its a critical but thankless job. You cant make any mistakes and you have to catch others mistakes. Its just a title, just give me the $$ and Im fine with it.

      Reply
    6. Specialk9

      I’m confused by this joke. Do you mean the cabinet level Secretary of X positions in the US, or do you actually think that the admin for the President (during any year prior to 2017) and other world positions is leading the world? I get that it’s humor but I don’t see enough truth to find it funny, so am likely missing something.

      Reply
      1. Elizabeth H.

        It’s a play on words. The title of the person who was understood as the leader of the Soviet Union (USSR) was either “General Secretary” or “First Secretary” (specifically, of the Central Committee of the Communist Party etc. etc. etc.) The joke is that the title “Secretary” can be used to mean a high ranking political position, as a title within a governmental structure, but it can also be the title of an office worker who performs administrative duties.

        Reply
      2. Anonymous Poster

        In Communist dictatorships, generally the General Secretary is the real ruler of the country, not the Premier or the President. The joke is that the secretary is the one that really rules the roost, not the titular head.

        It’s a way to deflect people being weird about a job title that the OP is comfortable with, and hopefully make them not keep bringing it up.

        Reply
  2. Future Homesteader

    Ooooh this is a fraught one for me. At my last (academic) job, even the people whose entire jobs consisted of supporting faculty were called program coordinators, officially. Unofficially they were referred to as assistants by most people, and the only people who used the word secretary were usually sharply corrected (or the kind of faculty that no one ever corrected about anything).

    At my current job, I’m an EA, but there are secretaries, too. I still bristle whenever anyone refers to me as a secretary (and my boss will correct them), but I try to ignore it because I don’t want to undermine the people who actually do have secretary in their title by implying that it’s a less-than position. So I’ve suggested (in the appropriate setting), that maybe we consider changing that title at some point. It was well received, but I’m not sure how much political will there is to actually do it. Until then, I try to just keep it to myself…

    Reply
    1. Future Homesteader

      Hmmm, my meaning may have gotten lost in my storytelling. TL;DR of this comment is that I personally dislike the term secretary and feel that it has negative, sexist, and limiting connotations, but at the same time enough people still use the title (and as someone pointed out below, plenty of people are negative, sexist, and limiting when it comes to any support roles, regardless of title) that I don’t want to undermine them and their great work by saying that secretary is unacceptable.

      Reply
    2. Temperance

      Honestly, there are few things that grate on me more than when someone assumes that I’m a secretary, and calls me such. For me, it’s the gendered assumption that because I’m female at a law firm, and relatively young-looking, I must be someone’s secretary. (The day that a male intern refused to listen to me when I told him that I was not X’s secretary, and that no, I couldn’t see if he was on the phone because I only answer my own calls was not a good day for that intern.)

      Reply
      1. neverjaunty

        Well, clearly you’re not the court reporter, so you must be a secretary! :p

        Maybe this is something that varies by field? I’ve rarely heard “administrative assistant” used in law firms, legal secretaries are secretaries. (And no lawyer with half a brain disses the secretaries.)

        Reply
        1. Alison Read

          I’m guessing Temperance might be a paralegal? I ruled out atty because I would hope the intern had identified all of the attys in the office already. Thankfully he didn’t ask you to fetch him coffee! (Although… my mother, the judge, did advise me when I was temping as a secretary [late 80’s] if someone asked for coffee that it was indeed my job.)

          Reply
          1. Tea

            I believe Temperance is an attorney. It may be that the intern wasn’t familiar with all the attorneys in the firm…. or, like some guys do, default to expecting women to do things that they themselves don’t want to do, regardless of the woman’s title or position.

            Reply
              1. Temperance

                I was less than kind to him after he repeated his request three times, using different phrasing each time, and I called his boss and let her know that he needed to learn that not all women were secretaries for whatever male attorneys were in their vicinity. She ripped him a new asshole that afternoon, and let him know that it’s not okay to make that assumption.

                The first time he asked me about Mr. X’s availability, I pointed down the hallway, to where his actual assistant sat, and told him her name and that she could help. He then clarified that he only needed me to check if Mr. X was on the phone, and said, “I just need you to check his phone and see if he’s available”, and pointed at my phone. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he wasn’t so rude and pushy in tone. I then replied that I don’t answer his calls, because I’m not his assistant, or anyone else’s assistant. He then started saying again that he just needed me to check Rich’s availability and I cut him off and said, very slowly as if I was talking to a bad toddler, that he needed to call Mr. X himself or check with Mr. X’s assistant. He turned bright red and just kind of skulked away. After he left but I was still pissed, I called his boss.

                Reply
      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        Totally agreed, but I assume this has more to do with being sexist asses who still refer to “women lawyers” or “lady lawyers” than because secretary is inherently “less than.”

        Says the woman who gets routinely harassed in court for having the audacity to sit at counsel’s table because only white men are lawyers (and certainly not women of color!).

        Reply
        1. Specialk9

          Are you f– flipping kidding me?! That’s still said out loud, and not ‘just’ squirting out on hidden sexist racist ways? Arghhhhh.

          Reply
          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

            I mean, that’s not the worst of what I deal with on a regular basis, but I don’t want to derail too much.

            Someone tried to tell me it’s because I look young, and I very bluntly replied that it’s because I’m a woman of color. The regionality doesn’t seem to matter (I get this grief in deep blue parts of the state and deep red). I see plenty of younger, babyfaced white guys who are not aggressively frisked by court security and who are told they can’t bring in their laptop/cell (a right reserved only for attorneys and their designated paralegals), who have to have a second attorney vouch for them because my bar card is apparently insufficient to prove that I’m licensed in good standing, or who have been forcibly escorted out of the counsel area until shown with internet print outs that I’m a real lawyer (because my phone was confiscated, so I couldn’t show them using wifi on a device). It’s enraging, but at this point I only have so much emotional energy to expend on people being complete assholes.

            Reply
            1. Samata

              I don’t want to keep derailing but I met a woman a few months ago who had just moved from a big city to my town – like a top 10 big city. There were still quite a few judges there who wouldn’t permit female council into court if they had on a pants suit and not an appropriate skirt/dress suit with proper hose (no bare legs).

              Reply
            2. neverjaunty

              Cue another legal publication thinkpiece on “why are the top tiers of the legal profession so white and male? Truly, it is a mystery!”

              Reply
      3. Nye

        I’m in my late 30s and female and am tenure-track faculty. One of the older male faculty in a different department (who I had not yet met) assumed I was a prospective grad student visiting for our Open House weekend recently.

        This is not unusual, but it is always irritating and fairly depressing. I am pretty sure men don’t do this to my 30-something male colleagues.

        Reply
    3. Blue

      I work at a university and do some content maintenance on the website. Just last week, I met with a department admin, and she asked if I could change how her title was listed. The department-provided info listed her as “secretary,” even though her official title is indeed “Program Coordinator.” She’d brought it up with the chair more than once, but he’s a very old white dude who thought it was ridiculous that she would protest the secretary title and refused to facilitate the edit (even though it was factually inaccurate!) He’s not the kind of prof you can really push back against, but there’s very little chance that he’ll notice if it gets changed, so… Anyway, it’s fixed now. :)

      Reply
    4. Elizabeth H.

      Program coordinator means something different than administrative assistant! At least it does at the university I work at. It means you support a program itself, rather than an office or other employees such as faculty or other administrator. My work is definitely the former (although my official title is project administrator, which I find annoyingly nondescriptive of what I actually do – it’s just a hierarchical designation)

      Reply
      1. Luna

        It can, but it varies a lot not only between different universities but also within the same university. The job categories at my university were created by HR, who really knew nothing about what anyone did. So for some reason my position had an admin coordinator title, while others in my same department had program coordinator titles- even though I was the only one who worked for an actual program!

        Reply
    5. FTW

      Agreed. I don’t think secretary is by definition demeaning, but most people in the role have a scope of work that exceeds that title.

      When the responsibilities are not reflected in the role title, then secretary might not be appropriate.

      Reply
  3. Dee-Nice

    My official title is Administrative Assistant, but sometimes my boss (an older guy) refers to me as his secretary and it never bothers me, because he treats me with consistent respect. I have, however, felt insulted by people who called me an Admin Asst but clearly didn’t think much of my contributions. If you feel “secretary” accurately describes your role, I say go with it. I do agree with Alison that it’s probably better to put another title on your resume for job searches.

    Reply
    1. Only here for the teapots

      ‘Admin’ has become another odd term that can mean administration, as in at the top of a hierarchy, and also administrative assistant, not at the top of a hierarchy.

      Reply
      1. NJ Anon

        True and people sometimes get the 2 confused. At old job, 2 well meaning young program staff gave me (the finance director) and the HR manager cards or something for admin asst day because, well, we were administrative staff, not program staff.

        Reply
      2. MsChanandlerBong

        Exactly. My current title is [Llama] Admin (not using the actual word here, as I’ve never heard the title used elsewhere and want to stay somewhat anon). However, I am not an admin assistant. I recruit new freelancers (screen resumes, conduct interviews, etc.), help with on-boarding, write help documentation for new system features, edit things written by our team of writers, etc. I also have the authority to terminate freelancers if their work is subpar. I am thinking of asking for a title change, or at least asking if I can use a different title on my resume if I ever decide to look elsewhere, as my title doesn’t really communicate what I do.

        Reply
      3. snowed in!

        Yep. We have “administrative officers” who run entire programs. We also have “administrative assistants” who provide office support.

        Reply
    2. Bea

      I twitch at “administrative assistant”, I report to ownership very least incorrectly call me an Executive Assistant. I did add EA to my title a few jobs back because I was hired as a Bookkeeper but it wasn’t at all accurate in the scheme of things.

      Reply
  4. Temperance

    LW, I would request to change your title to “Office Manager”. It will enable you to move up into roles at larger companies, if that’s something that you’re interested in. “Office Manager” indicates that you run an office, which you do. Secretary implies personal assistant and a lower level of tasks and responsibility.

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      It’s true, I think tracking down and paying company invoices seems to be beyond personal assistance to an executive, which is what “secretary” as a job title suggests to me.

      Reply
    2. Helpful

      I think this is the strongest argument for changing your title to OM. It will translate better to other workplaces as it means a certain level of responsibility. There’s nothing wrong with secretary if you don’t care, but the truth is that it reflects a role that it sounds like you exceed.

      Reply
    3. an infinite number of monkeys

      I agree – I would consider office manager to be a more accurate title than administrative assistant, based on running-the-business functions you perform (like handling accounts payable and scheduling client services.)

      Reply
    4. Engineer Girl

      I am by myself and don’t do any dispatching

      Based on the above statement I would strongly disagree. The OP is not directing anyone. Most office managers direct others, at least nominally.

      Admin assistant is a more exact title.

      Reply
      1. NJ Anon

        Not true. Office managers run the office. They dont necessarily manage anyone. In some jobs, yes. In others, no. I’ve seen both.

        Reply
      2. Alison Read

        But if they brought in a temp or hired a part time assistant to catch up on filing, invoices, etc. I believe OP would be the one to manage their workload. It seems the OP does manage the workings of the office.

        Consider mine a vote for title change to Office Manager, specifically for future employment opportunities.

        Reply
      3. Elizabeth H.

        I don’t think that you need to manage others in order to be an office manager. Some do, others don’t. They manage an office. I also agree with above comment that if another non-technical worker joined staff (like an intern or a receptionist) the OP would probably manage him or her.
        Imo, if you are responsible for bills, paperwork, ordering, working with vendors, answering phones and managing client files, that’s being the office manager. To my mind, office manager denotes more financial and budgetary responsibilities especially working with vendors and keeping track of accounts, and arguably doing payroll also. If OP doesn’t do this, it may be more of an administrative assistant role. I agree that it’s probably worth a title change in light of how it looks on a resume.

        Reply
        1. DArcy

          My employer used to use the “office manager” title in a decidedly unorthodox way: the office manager was the management-tier employee who was in charge of the office/administrative side of the company as opposed to the “watch commander” who was in charge of the fieldwork side of the company (private security company, hence the police style ranks for fieldwork). The office manager only had two formal direct reports (the one-person HR department and the dispatcher), but was in fact the third highest ranking person in the company, behind the president and vice-president.

          Reply
      4. Samata

        See I think the opposite. In my experience Officer Managers do not have any reports, they manage the actual office – phones, supplies, filing and liaison with building management, maybe training a seasonal temp, etc. They manage the day-to-day operations to make sure things run smoothly, but are no responsible for other people.

        Reply
      5. einahpets

        I think it depends on the industry / position and accepted general role. Project managers don’t necessarily manage anyone but calling them something else (project coordinators? project delivery specialists?) seems unnecessarily obtuse.

        Reply
      6. Bea

        It’s about the size of the company. I handled the office without needing additional support, it included customer service, vendor negotiation, full cycle books, making sure we were complying with all government regulations, shipping, receiving and anything that didn’t involve using heavy machinery to make the products we manufactured.

        I was not an administrative assistant despite doing all the paperwork and phones, I managed the company, starting with the office first and foremost.

        Later I took on an office with 4 direct reports for a larger scale company.

        If someone who was an Administrative Assistant applied for an Office Manager position later, you’re behind a lot of other people who may or may not have the same experience as the OP.

        Reply
      7. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

        This hasn’t been my experience? From what I can tell, “Office Manager” varies widely in responsibility and sometimes doesn’t require a person to manage others (instead, the person is managing things like office procurement, serving, front desk, etc.). But I agree with Temperance that the title change may open up additional opportunities for OP.

        Reply
      8. KimberlyR

        I’ve been an Office Manager before. I was not a manager of people, just the actual functions and running of the office. It was an accurate title for my role.

        Reply
  5. CM

    That is a bizarre thing for people to get hung up on. I can understand if someone dislikes “secretary” as their own job title if they feel administrative assistant or office manager is a better description for what they do, but why get upset at someone else’s job title?

    Reply
    1. kb

      Yeah, it’s worth considering a good debate to have, but it’s odd that these outside entities are bringing it up.

      Reply
    2. Specialk9

      She gave good context as to why that one person yelled (mad at something else and wanting to yell).

      But broadly, most of us hear “secretary” and assume there’s a sexist old man calling the shots. Because the term has demeaning connotations. So even if OP it’s cool with it, it’s making people assume bad things about her boss, and it’s not setting her up well for her next job. So I’d look into a job title change.

      Reply
      1. Special Administrative Specialists

        Good point Specialk9. My title was mansplained by a bunch of old white men on a committee without asking me what I actually do. It was changed from Administrative Secretary to Administrative Specialists.

        I didn’t fight it for the pure fact that my new boss thought (and said out loud) that “having a secretary was a weakness and he didn’t need a secretary”. I think it’s bought me time but not respect even though I do a kick a$s job at specializing the crap out of this administration.

        Reply
    3. MCMonkeyBean

      Yeah, they may think “secretary” is a condescending job title, but I what’s really condescending is attempting to correct someone about their own job title!

      Reply
  6. Pollygrammer

    I think switching to “administrative assistant” would be a wise move. It might be a little beneficial, and it wouldn’t do any harm.

    Reply
    1. steve

      Its caving in to political correctness. Its usually easier to be politically correct, but it probably makes the world a worse place. My opinion for what its worth.

      Reply
      1. Temperance

        So she should keep an effectively lower title that might hinder her future prospects, because it’s so much worse to “cave in to political correctness”?

        Reply
        1. steve

          She likes the title and has no problem with it. People who judge her for it are the problem. Maybe she should change it if people are going to hinder her because they dont like the word. Like I said, it might be easier to cave, but in principle there is nothing wrong with the word ‘secretary”. Its nothing but political correctness. Sometimes that is worth fighting, sometimes not. It is horse**** ,in my opinion, that people want to diminish her because of the word.

          Reply
          1. LBK

            So did you just completely ignore all the history and context behind the word that Alison posted? There’s a reason it has a negative connotation, it wasn’t just invented by some SJWs trying to ruin your life.

            Reply
          2. Temperance

            No, it signifies a lower level of responsibility and a lesser job than she actually has. “Secretary” signifies lower-level tasks of a menial nature, which is not what she does.

            Reply
            1. steve

              The letter writer says, “I think it accurately describes what I do. ” How is it you know more then her about her situation? If you have a negative connotation for “secretary” maybe you should check your biases. There is nothing demeaning about being a secretary.

              Reply
                1. LouiseM

                  What an extremely rude and overly-personal comment! I have never noticed steve’s comments before, but I’ve certainly noticed yours and not at all in a good way.

                  There was nothing reactionary about Steve’s comment. Clearly, some people are projecting the negative cultural/personal biases they know of around “secretary” onto the OP, who has no problem with the term. That alone may be an argument for changing the title. But it certainly does not make steve “reactionary.”

                2. Snark

                  Steve’s a big boy, and he starts enough arguments that I’m quite certain he can respond or not as suits him. Your decision to jump to his defense, though, is a good demonstration of why I’m as much fan of your posts as you are of mine.

                3. Specialk9

                  I used to get so riled by the awful things steve posted. Then I realized I was making him happy by rising to the bait.

                4. Blossom

                  So uncalled for. What was wrong with Steve’s remark that you replied to? I don’t think it was reactionary at all, and I happen to concur that secretary does not sound lesser to my ears. Remarks like the one you just made stoke an atmosphere of distrust and bad faith. I don’t know or care what Steve has said in the past – his remark above was totally innocuous.

                5. Mad Baggins

                  His post at 11:45 is fine. Many others have echoed the same sentiment. But his 11:13 post about “caving in to political correctness” suggests that he is fitting this story in with a larger narrative that is not relevant to the letter and to which many other readers would object. I think Snark was perhaps a bit too snarky here but I think Steve was baiting people intentionally with that phrase.

                6. Snark

                  @Blossom – you may personally find it the best policy to ignore a poster’s history of, as you say, stoking distrust and arguing in bad faith. I do not. We can agree to disagree, though!

              1. Temperance

                I read the letter and her tasks that she included in the letter. Notice that I said nothing about secretarial work being “demeaning”, nor did I demonstrate bias against secretarial work. I think that the LW is selling herself short by using a title that indicates a much lower level of responsibility.

                Reply
              2. Snark

                But in any case, the letter writer is specifically asking Alison, and us, whether there’s baggage.
                And don’t playt the fool. “Secretary” has baggage, whether it accurately describes her role or not. That’s not my biases, that’s the culture’s, and while it’d be great if those biases didn’t exist, that’s the nature of the beast. Given that bias against the title exists, what should she do? Well, given that there are neutral terms like “admin assistant” or “office manager” available that describe her role as described just as well or arguably better, why not use them?

                Reply
              3. fposte

                I actually agree with a lot of what you say–I think a lot of people here are youth enough that they’re familiar with the concept of secretaries mostly from pop culture, so they’re underselling the role.

                But I also think it’s perfectly fine to change the title if it’s causing problems–administrative assistant also describes the work she does, so it’s not sacrificing accuracy, and just because you recognize the euphemism treadmill doesn’t mean there’s some kind of larger virtue in fighting against it, because it doesn’t really matter.

                Reply
                1. steve

                  I think it is okay for her to change titles to. But I think the only reason to is because of politcal correctness. It is dishonest to say that people who oppose the word secretary are not biased and politcally correct at the expense of people like the letter writer. They are the problem the letter writer has to contend with.

                2. fposte

                  Well, they may be biased or they may just be unfamiliar–a lot of people in the thread seem to be unfamiliar–and we’ve all got biases, including you and me, so I don’t think it’s the end of the world or something that isn’t worth considering.

                3. Elizabeth H.

                  Steve, I understand why you see it as being “just political correctness” and I think you have some good points. However, I think that it’s truly not ONLY political correctness but rather that the working world as it currently exists may have associations with the word “secretary” that could disadvantage OP in the future. It’s a context thing either above or in addition to or beside the political correctness thing.

                  It also reminds me a little of the advice for female managers not to bring in baked goods, even if they like to bake, even if they don’t make the baked goods themselves, and even if male managers bring in baked goods. In an ideal world, bringing in baked goods shouldn’t risk diminishing one’s authority, but unfortunately because of the associations that it can carry – femininity, nurturing behavior, being an office “mom” – it’s better not to. I see this case the same way: Other people’s biases, stereotypes or prejudgments may be the reason that the word “secretary” (or the act of bringing in baked goods) creates associations that the OP may not want to evoke. The world shouldn’t necessarily be this way; words or actions that are associated with stereotypical or conventional displays of femininity SHOULDN’T connote a lesser degree of respect or authority! But unfortunately, we do not live in a world where that’s the case. I think that fighting against these stereotypes is worthwhile. In a perfect world, female professionals should be able to bring in baked goods, take a half day to go to their kid’s soccer game, use the title “secretary” – and not lose any authority, power or respect, the same as men who do these things. (I read an article once that men who left work early or missed a meeting and said it was for a kid’s school event or something were perceived as MORE professional while women who did the same thing were perceived as LESS professional – infuriating).

                  Anyway, Alison’s advice actually WAS that the OP can and should keep the title secretary if she likes it, but that she may want to ask for a title change so that it matches current conventions for business terminology better. That’s not crazy. Physicists used to be seen as mathematicians before the field of physics was better known. Administrative professions have also expanded a lot in scope and terminology has changed accordingly.

            2. Ambpersand

              Agreed. “Secretary” implies similar duties to a receptionist- greeting customers, answering the phones, handling filing or sending mail. Office managers and administrative assistants handle more than that, and often have more pressing responsibilities- such as making payments and overseeing correspondence, which is exactly what the OP is doing.

              Reply
              1. fposte

                I think that that connotation is a reason why she might want to change her title, but it’s still really incorrect. There were no administrative assistants in the days when “secretary” was the term of art, and secretaries handled making payments and overseeing/generating correspondence all the time. It’s not like the bosses were doing their own.

                Reply
                1. Morning Glory

                  There was a position called ‘administrative assistant’ back in the days of secretaries, but I am not sure exactly what it was. I remember in the 1960 movie “The Apartment” the main character gets promoted to administrative assistant and gets his own office, so it clearly was not the same as today’s admins.

            3. Fish Microwaver

              Personally, I find titles with “assistant ” in them signify lower level responsibility. If OP wanted to change her title, I would lean towards “office manager ” rather than any type of “assistant “.

              Reply
              1. Been There, Done That

                Replying to Morning Glory above–and in the dialog of the movie “The Apartment,” the character gives his title as Second Administrative Assistant and points out that he’s the youngest junior executive in the firm. The meaning of the title has changed, all right.

                Reply
        1. steve

          Its not caving in if she wants to. It is caving in, in my opinion, if she just does it just to please people who dont like that she uses a perfectly fine word. The letter writer said, “I have no problem with my title, I think it accurately describes what I do. “

          Reply
        2. Specialk9

          Are you seriously arguing with someone on the internet who rails against political correctness? That’s a rookie mistake. Nothing good comes from engaging with that kind of internet denizen.

          Reply
      2. Bagpuss

        Steve, your comment made me think of something Neil Gaiman said a few years back:

        “I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.”
        Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase “politically correct” wherever we could with “treating other people with respect”, and it made me smile.
        You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening.
        I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking “Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!”

        Happy Valentine’s Day.

        —Neil Gaiman

        I am struggling to think of situations where ‘political correctness’ makes the world a worse place. Except, of course, for people who have been comfortably being offensive or discriminatory and suddenly find themselves being challenged about their behaviour, of course. In what waydo you think it makes things worse?

        Reply
        1. steve

          I do not understand how expecting a woman to change a title that she says of “I have no problem with my title, I think it accurately describes what I do. ” makes the world a better place. I do not understand why me thinking she should use the word she wants to use to describe herself is in any way unkind. I do think it is unkind if others want to think less of her because she describes herself as a “secretary” and not the word they want her to use, “administrative assistant”.

          I have no problem with her choosing whatever word she wants, Why do you (if you do) or others have a problem?

          Reply
          1. Snark

            Because she may not be fully aware that in other workplaces, and in the culture at large, that title will have the effect of framing her work experience, and her role, in a way that is not complimentary, good for her career, or complimentary of her skills.

            Reply
            1. Juli G.

              I think my only caveat is that I still think it’s rude for strangers and customers to question her on her job title. I do think that in the context of this thread, where OP is requesting feedback, we should all be transparent.

              Reply
              1. Snark

                I agree, but if the question is, “does the title secretary have baggage and connotations that OP would probably prefer to avoid, if Bossman is willing to change her title to something more neutral like office manager or administrative assistant,” the answer can really only be yes.

                Reply
        2. Only here for the teapots

          I think steve has decided not to understand the issue of why ‘political correctness’ is such a loaded term. In the twitterverse we deploy mock, block & roll tactics with trolls.

          Reply
        3. steve

          “In what way do you think it makes things worse?”

          Because people want to diminish the letter writer because she uses a term they think is wrong. People want to limit her job prospects because she chooses to descibe herself as a secretary. It is a word that she thinks accurately describes her job. How do you think her being punished for using the word is not political correctness making the world worse?

          The political correctness is against her. It is her being punished for the way she wants to describe herself, not the way she wants to describe others.

          Reply
          1. Snark

            No, people think the letter writer is diminished by her employer’s use of a title that is problematic, and they’re telling her and her boss so. She, by her own account, was not particularly bothered by it and was not aware of the baggage, so was generally okay with the use of that title until it became obvious that people thought it was problematic. Then she contacted Alison to get more input. And now she’s getting it.

            You’re imputing to OP a lot of commitment to keeping that title that isn’t in evidence, as part of a general attempt to effortfully manipulate the scenario to make a very particular political point, and my patience with casuistry is not high today.

            Reply
          2. Perfectly Particular

            This is a matter of language evolving, not of political correctness. In her current work, she is likely to be more respected by those outside her office if she uses a title like Administrative Assistant or Office Manager, because those terms are common throughout many offices, and people understand what type of work is involved in that role. (Most of us know that our offices would fall apart without the Admins!) Moving forward, having a more modern title will help her for basically the same reason, when recruiters are shuffling through resumes at 30 seconds each, the “Secretary” one might get passed over, while Experienced Office Manager would get pulled for a closer reviewer.

            In my own work, I have learned the importance your title on a resume. I was passed over for several positions at my current company before finally getting a phone screen, even though I though my experience was relevant. I learned, when I finally spoke to the recruiter, that the title I was using – Product Development Engineer – while synonymous with Design Engineer at my old company, had a specific meaning at the new company. It implied a lower level of education and a less developed skill set. Once I cleared that up, I became a viable candidate for the positions I was seeking.

            Reply
          3. dr_silverware

            I think this is a really interesting comment, because I agree with you…but I wouldn’t call what you’re talking about “political correctness”!

            I think it’s messed up that secretary has become a loaded term, and I think it’s messed up that if other companies see “secretary” on her resume they might say, “oh, yeah, she’s not high-level enough.” Those things, which we both see as problems, I see as “sexism” and you see as “political correctness.” Which is an interesting disconnect.

            You say, “How do you think her being punished for using the word is not political correctness making the world worse?” My answer is, “her being punished for using the word is sexism making the world worse.” And I think most commenters are acknowledging, 1. customers should NOT be yelling at her for calling herself a secretary, and 2. calling herself a secretary MAY give her actual consequences in finding a new job so here’s some advice to avoid that.

            Reply
            1. Elizabeth H.

              Yes, you articulated this really well – “political correctness” vs. “sexism”! I agree completely. I think that this is what I was trying to get at with my novel length comment above.

              Reply
            2. dr_silverware

              And not to rattle on too long, but here’s why I say it’s sexism. With the word “secretary” specifically, there are two jobs associated with it. One is the male-dominated political position, which is a lot more respected. The other is the female-dominated administrative position, which is not very respected; you can see other commenters talking about how they think the job of a secretary is to do menial office admin tasks and how it is not as skilled as an administrative assistant or office manager or whatever.

              How did that happen? Many, many times, if a job begins to have a majority-female workforce, it gets less respected. Then it can become a bit of a race, and this is where the “political correctness” comes in–you’re trying to outrun the less-respected title. “Will employers respect my work and pay me more if I call myself an office manager instead of a secretary, even if I’m doing the same work? Yes? Thank goodness! Here we go, I’m an office manager now.”

              But the reason you’re switching to that new word isn’t political correctness, it’s self-preservation, right? That’s what commenters are advising. “For sexist reasons ‘secretary’ now implies that you’re doing menial tasks. You’re not doing menial tasks, you’re a skilled worker, but for self-preservation, you may want to change what you call yourself.”

              steve, you’re completely right that it stinks that we have to keep doing this, but the solution isn’t “yeah, just keep the same old words,” because that’s sacrificing people’s careers to the sad and annoying reality that many people doing the hiring don’t respect those same old words.

              Reply
              1. Specialk9

                It’s a kind take… But 2016 taught us that most people who rail against political correctness are motivated by wanting to get to keep being sexist, racist, and antisemitic. It’s remarkably unsubtle – it’s what that group of people are saying, out loud, on record. So I’m not sure why we’re pretending that someone who uses that distinctive language, and regularly posts pretty awful things is actually motivated by disliking sexism, rather than being manipulative.

                Reply
        4. Storie

          I love this quote. It’s a constantly changing world and this somehow makes people nervous, but it really is about respect.

          I think she should consider changing her title to be more modern and reflect the scope of what she does—for future job prospects as well.

          If she was a man, this would not be her title. Except in certain specialized fields (legal secretary etc), it’s not gender neutral. And her boss should realize it’s bunping the clients a little and possibly making him look like a dinosaur.

          Reply
        5. Nita

          I can, unfortunately, think of a situation where political correctness makes the world a worse place. Think of “microagression,” which is tied with the idea that political correctness = you must never, ever offend anyone. I don’t know if everyone interprets “microagression” this way, but I’ve run into quite a few people that are up in arms about things someone says that could maaaybe seen by someone as offensive, when they clearly weren’t meant to offend. It could be something like the incident with comparing babies and dogs that was discussed on AAM recently, or something like “wow, you’re a good student!” – that last one is “clearly” racist if directed at certain ethnicities.

          The people that flag this as a microagression then label whoever said the supposedly offensive thing as a “horrible person,” and spend a lot of effort trying to stamp the thing in question out of public speech. People get twitchy, afraid of saying something innocent because someone somewhere could get their feelings hurt. You have fewer frank conversations between people who are different in some way, because there you are just talking and all of a sudden you’re actually a closet racist. And it’s all a gigantic waste of energy which would be better focused on fighting real racism, injustice, poverty, etc.

          Treating people with respect, now – that’s much better.

          Reply
          1. Project Manager

            We are going off topic, but I do want to briefly add to this comment, with which I concur, and then I will shut up – a while back, I read an article about a man in rural India who was working hard to equip local women with more knowledge about menstruation so that they could address hygiene and also stay in school – the knowledge where he was was so limited that girls had to drop out of school once they started menstruating. Great guy and working really hard to make a real difference in many women’s lives.

            Half the comments on the article were along the lines of “You know, men can menstruate too.”

            THAT is what we mean by “political correctness run amok”. There was absolutely nothing disrespectful to transgendered people in that article.

            Back to the point, I agree that unfortunately, the OP probably should use a different title when job searching.

            Reply
            1. Yolo

              Your example is not the fault of political correctness, it is the fault of the system of poorly-moderated conversation platforms that proliferated in the early days of the internet that we are now apparently incapable of taking back.

              If one person made such a comment so that the point was included, but then further not-directly-relevant thoughts on that topic were removed or prevented from being posted, it would be useful information for readers, rather than a derail.

              Don’t throw out the baby (sharing information about and being sensitive to the diverse perspectives in a connected society) with the bathwater (systems that allow for trolls/off-topic ranters to take over).

              Reply
          2. Countess Boochie Flagrante

            I’m not sure where you’re getting this notion of microaggression as “maybe be seen by someone as offensive” as opposed to ‘that same stupid thing I have to hear 15 times a day that people obviously don’t take five seconds to think about before they let it roll out of their mouths.’

            Reply
          3. Turkletina

            Yeah, that’s is not what a microagression is. Not telling random women that they’d be prettier if they “just smiled” is indeed treating people with respect. Serving the black woman who was in line first before the white man who muscled in in front of her is treating people with respect.

            Reply
          4. 1.0

            1. That’s not what a microaggression is

            2. Honestly? As someone who has kept their mouth shut and tried not to be bothered while the people around me do and say little things over and over that remind me that they don’t really think of people like me as whole, entire humans? Man idk I’m okay with a little less frank conversations and “innocent” speech.

            Reply
            1. Nita

              *sigh* but that’s not what I’m saying… I’m saying that if someone starts interpreting “you guys” as evil, because it means that the speaker doesn’t think of women as whole, entire humans, we have a problem. We don’t need to start seeing enemies where there are none. (I’m not making this one up, it came from a news article a friend was discussing with me).

              And if someone someone actually says hurtful little things over and over in front of you… I’m sorry, and I hope you’re in a position to call them out. Being polite to jerks is overrated, they do not deserve it.

              Reply
              1. Turkletina

                I really disagree. It irks me when people say “you guys” because it’s an example of just how insidious the masculine default is. I don’t think anyone who says “you guys” is an “enemy”, but I do think they should take a careful, introspective look at how that kind of word choice can contribute to a feeling of exclusion/marginalization among people who don’t identify as “guys”.

                Reply
              2. Lindsay J

                +1

                I see a lot of people borrowing trouble.

                Like, yeah, sure, the person with the username ending in 88 might be a ne0-Nazi using that number as a dogwhistle. Or, they might have been born in 1988, or just like the number 88. Assuming ill-intent, or insisting that they must change their username in order to not be racist or supporting racists is going too far.

                If something goes 70% or 80% or 90% of the way there, it doesn’t need to be brought up that they’re not at 100%. (Like say, a movie that has great representation of women and of black women. We can celebrate that and don’t need to point out that maybe they could have representing trans women or disabled women or Asian woman as well.) Not pointing it out doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to be done. It means that there is always going to be work to be done, but we can still recognize progress.

                Reply
              3. 1.0

                I am really, genuinely hilarified you brought up “you guys” as an example you thought I would agree with. Masculine as default and “oh of COURSE ‘men’ means all people!” is a hurtful little thing. I’m in tech, being addressed as “guys/gentlemen/fellas” is common and small, and endlessly exhausting when it’s day in and day out.

                I don’t particularly think it makes anybody evil (and, if my experiences hold true, I suspect that phrasing is the result of interpreting any sort of pushback on actions as some kind of moral statement about one’s inherent character) — but it’s not a purely unloaded, neutral statement, either!

                Reply
        6. Scion

          I just downloaded the Chrome extension that replaces “political correctness” with “treating people with respect.”
          steve’s original comment turned into this:
          “Its caving in to treating people with respect. Its usually easier to be respectful, but it probably makes the world a worse place. My opinion for what its worth.”

          Reply
      3. Snark

        It’s actually considerably harder to avoid pissing people off gratuitously – which is what you’re attempting to denigrate as political correctness – and I generally think the world is markedly improved it.

        Reply
      4. Yolo

        For others to agree with your evaluation, others must also agree that there is no inherent value in “political correctness”. However, many consider it respectful and considerate of others’ perspectives, and thus will not agree that it “makes the world a worse place”.

        Reply
  7. Snarkus Aurelius

    I always assumed the sentiment changed because the job description of a secretary has changed dramatically. Fifty years ago, a secretary would have taken dictation, screened phone calls, typed everything, and ran personal errands. Today, an administrative or executive assistant will probably more educated (so many of those jobs now require college degrees even when they’re not needed) and looking for advancement, and the person will screen emails, put together PowerPoints, do all the scheduling and logistics, write and edit important correspondence, be the gatekeeper for the executive, fill out all the expense reports, call IT when there’s a computer or mobile device issue, ordering office supplies, event planning, and so much more.

    Oh and asking an admin/executive assistant to pick up dry cleaning would be frowned upon, although some assistants are okay with that today. Also, your admin/executive assistant might be a guy.

    The title demands more and produces more than what a secretary did so long ago. It’s also more common to assume an admin/executive assistant may want to be doing something more either in that field or elsewhere. That may be what people mean when they comment on the title as an insult.

    Reply
    1. k.k

      This is why I’d want a title change. If OP is ever applying for another job, they should have a title on their resume that accurately reflects what they did. The job OP describes sounds like something I would consider an executive assistant or office manager, secretary doesn’t seem to cover all that she’s doing.

      Reply
    2. Temperance

      I don’t think “executive assistant” would be appropriate here because her boss isn’t an executive.

      Reply
      1. DecorativeCacti

        He’s the owner, so even if he doesn’t have “executive” in his title, I would think he qualifies.

        My suggestion for the OP is to go read some job descriptions in her area of office manager, executive assistant, and admin assistant and see which one fits best.

        Reply
    3. fposte

      But secretaries did do all that then–just not, you know, the emails and the PowerPoints. This is a bit of a euphemism treadmill situation. I think it’s fine for the OP to change her title if it seems plausible, but it’s not because secretaries lacked ability and power–the problem was that the term predominated when the job’s contributions were largely devalued because of the gender of the incumbent.

      I think it’s okay to change a term to get away from dated connotations, but I don’t like it when it’s done at the expense of talented and hardworking women who held the job of secretary by devaluing what they did.

      Reply
      1. Samata

        I tend to agree, becuase it did vary wildly and I think it varied/varies by industry. We have 30+ year veterans at my company who wanted to be secretaries. Because that meant they STOPPED doing what Snarkus Aurelius opened with: Fifty years ago, a secretary would have taken dictation, screened phone calls, typed everything, and ran personal errands. The internal temps & typing pool did this work.

        Secretaries did what admin assistants do now, sans computers. And Executive Secretaries did more of what our Executive Assistants do today. I only know this because I have heard from many who have retired recently that their jobs did not change much once we got computers.

        I realize this is anecdotal and likes varies, but FWIW: We’ve had about 10 30+ year employees retire in the past 3 years and have another 40 or so retiring over the next 5. People work here for-EVER.

        Reply
        1. fposte

          Yeah, when I was in the corporate world secretaries were pretty high level; receptionists, clerks, and typists (we had clerk/typist combos) were the lower levels.

          Reply
          1. Susan K

            Same here; I worked for a Fortune 500 energy company, and the lower level administrative employees (assigned to a whole department) were clerks or administrative assistants. A secretary was a higher level, higher paid position, assigned to a specific upper-level manager or executive, so “secretary” was actually a more prestigious title. I wonder if they got offended by people calling them administrative assistants.

            Reply
    4. nonymous

      My dad worked in a job where he had a secretary (back in the 60s) and as kid I remember him expecting me to act in the same capacity for family affairs. Sure some of it was him sitting in the recliner while I read fields off a form and typed in the answers he gave, but when it came to taking dictation, it was a much more collaborative process.

      I have a hard time imagining that a kid of 10 would be held to higher performance standards over a secretary with years of paid experience, but I was expected to fix spelling and grammar errors, as well as make suggestions for readability. The model I was taught to aspire to was similar to that of von Braun and Bonnie Holmes (Saturn V, 1950s) and in fact her job was later reclassified as EA in the 70s.

      Reply
  8. Juli G.

    I agree that secretary has connotations now but I find it more rude and condescending that people would question what you call yourself. Ugh.

    Reply
    1. Jesmlet

      I don’t think they’re questioning what she calls herself, I think they’re questioning the title that Will gave her. Probably in a “frustrated on her behalf, she is clearly more than a secretary” kind of way.

      Reply
  9. MuseumChick

    I guess it does sound a little old fashioned. But I’m amazed that people so passionately about it. My dad had a secretary that worked for him for decades and she had the most power of anyone in his office. Literally, if he was conducting interviews and his secretary didn’t like someone they were not getting hired. Didn’t matter what their qualifications were.

    Reply
    1. BravoMessenger

      My father’s company had a secretary like that when in the 1980s. Amazing lady that I miss very much.

      Reply
      1. snowed in!

        My school lost its principal one year too late to get a new one and went the entire year with, yes, the secretary running absolutely everything. I assume the board or something signed off on various paperwork, but otherwise, she was in charge.

        Reply
        1. snowed in!

          in reflection on the comment about pay above: I have no idea if they increased her salary; I was 16. But I suspect not. Still, my own interactions with the school admin were markedly much easier and better that year.

          Reply
  10. Luna

    Agree about the secretary title being a bit old fashioned, but to be honest if people are getting up in arms about it I think that says a lot more about them and how they view secretarial/admin work than anything else.

    Besides, now “admin” has become so common that some people are starting to use that word in the same way that most people use “secretary.” So many of my friends, when searching for jobs out of college, would scoff at administrative assistant jobs, often commenting that they were too good for “just an admin” role. That was before they realized that I was an admin! Luckily I liked my job so didn’t care much.

    Some people will always have weird, judgmental views about admin work, no matter what your title is. As long as you like your job and are treated well by your boss and co-workers that is all that really matters!

    Reply
    1. Marillenbaum

      Anyone who denigrates admin/secretarial work does so at their own peril. They are the key office functionaries, a bit akin to the tech people in a theatre company (like those jokes that actors without techies are naked people emoting in the dark, while techies without actors are still employed!) They are an important source of institutional knowledge and essential to getting things done.

      Reply
      1. Luna

        I absolutely agree, and the thing is my friends who would make those comments would never actually be rude to anyone or treat them badly. I’m sure they would deny that they were looking down on anyone else, they just felt that admin work wasn’t good enough *for themselves*. Sadly I think that attitude is very common among even otherwise nice people.

        Reply
      2. Ambpersand

        I’m an admin and I’ve heard some pretty fantastic stories from the executive admins from days past about what would happen when someone would piss off the wrong EA. They hold a lot more power than people realize. One woman went so far as to cancel an executive’s flight home while he was on a business trip because he’d been acting like a holy terror to her for weeks. She got a stern “talking to” from her direct boss but otherwise went about her business afterwards, completely unruffled.

        My best personal story so far is when I left for vacation last year and two days later the office turned into a circus because no one could figure out what should have been a 20 minute job. It took four people to solve the mystery. Even this morning a director sent someone my way with the message, “When in doubt, just go to the source of all our office information- Ambpersand.”

        Reply
    2. Caramel & Cheddar

      I think looking down on admin work is definitely a thing, but I don’t think getting annoyed with the term “secretary” is necessarily part of that. Prior to my current job, I spent about ten years in various levels of admin and I would have been livid if anyone ever referred to me or my more junior admin staff as secretaries. It’s explicitly because I don’t think admin work is to be looked down on that I think “secretary” can be very, very demeaning to those who do it.

      Reply
      1. Luna

        The difference though in the LW’s situation is that not only is she not the one annoyed by it, but secretary is her official title. Calling someone a secretary when their title is actually office manager is completely different, and worth getting annoyed over.

        Reply
  11. ABK

    It does seem to me like you are more of an office manager than an administrative assistant, if you choose to change your title. However, I totally agree with the point that questioning a woman about her traditionally women’s job title is sexist. You could respond people with something like “I know that some people find this title outdated, but I’m actually proud of my field and its history of professional women in the workplace, so I don’t feel the need to replace the title.”

    Reply
  12. LBK

    Maybe this is just me, but I think of an admin as having more responsibility than a secretary. I do still think of a secretary as only covering the more traditional duties like taking notes, screening calls and managing the boss’s schedule, whereas most admins I’ve worked with have office managerial duties beyond that and also tend to support additional members of the management team or even the whole department beyond just their main assigned executive.

    Reply
  13. Bagpuss

    I think it is ultimately down to what you are comfortable with. I don’t think ‘secretary’ is demeaning, ut I do think that it probably understates what you actually do.

    Given how you describe your role, I think that ‘Office Manager’ would be an entirely appropriate title and might stand you in good stead if you were to find yourself looking for a new job at any stage, and it may also help in terms of how third parties treat you, particularly new suppliers etc who you don’t already have a relationship with.

    I do think that ‘secretary’ implies that you have a narrower range of responsibilities – some of things you do, such as managing bill payments are not tasks I’d automatically associate with a secretary, for instance.

    And of course, if you are happy either way, then changing your title officially may be the way forward, If you boss, or existing clients then sometimes refer to you as a secretary it sounds as though you wouldn’t have a problem with that!

    Reply
  14. Jillociraptor

    My partner worked in a law firm that used the title “secretary,” which we both always found a little old fashioned, as you say, though not to the point that I’d comment on it to someone who used that title! It’s interesting to think about how that role has changed as white collar work has changed. I have very vivid memories of my dad dictating notes at home in the evenings (“Period. Paragraph.”) for his secretary to type in the morning.

    I was also really curious about the term “office wife.” We used that term a lot at an old job, but much more in the sense of “best friend at work” or someone you worked extremely closely and well with. For example, I was in more of a work-polygyny situation with a little trio of us who worked on a bunch of cross-functional projects together (and called the man my “work husband” and the woman my “work wife”). It had honestly never occurred to me that the roots of this terminology might be different!

    Reply
    1. hermit crab

      I think law is different – my understanding is that “legal secretary” is a specific job, which requires a particular type of training.

      Reply
    2. Lil Fidget

      “Office wife” can also be annoying if it’s used to be “person who assists you, reminds you of things, gets your coat for you, etc” because – it implies that wives generally exist to nag and cater to and support their husbands (and not the other way around). But I seem to see it used more often today among two people who are just good friends at the office and have each other’s backs, and often they’re both female – so maybe it’s been reclaimed.

      Reply
      1. Sometimes yes, sometimes no

        I feel like that has become “Office Mom.” Office Wife/Husband is more a way to say super best work friend who knows more about you as a person than almost anyone other than your actual wife/husband/boyfriend/relationship of similar depth.

        Reply
    3. K.

      The only person I’ve worked with who talked about having a work spouse was a former boss, a woman who said she had a work husband at every job she’d had. She meant it more like a close friend of the opposite sex, not someone that reported to or was junior to her. (She was very much a “manage up” sort of person so she didn’t really associate with people who were junior to her unless she managed them directly, and she wasn’t particularly nice to us. A common refrain we heard was “Does she always talk to you like that?” Her work husbands were always her peers.) Someone she could go to lunch with, maybe talk to about home repair stuff (she had a fixer-upper house), etc. She wasn’t married so she said she’d caused some confusion in previous jobs referring to people as her work husband.

      Reply
    4. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think “office wife” was used differently then than we use it now. Based on the context in the interview I linked to, it sounds like she’s using “office wife” to mean “women who worked in order to find a husband.” Very different than the term today.

      Reply
      1. snowed in!

        Ah, like the equivalent of saying someone is going to college to get an “MRS” degree. The first time I heard that, I had no idea what that meant.

        Reply
  15. eplawyer

    I was a legal secretary for many years. I well KNOW the power a secretary can wield. The title is not demeaning. If you are okay with it, then it’s okay to use. If someone else has a problem with it, they don’t have to use the title. It’s simple.

    Honestly, there are so many other work place things to get worked up about — like substandard TP.

    Reply
    1. lawyer

      Our legal secretaries are technically called “legal administrative assistants,” but they almost universally refer to themselves as secretaries and so that’s the terminology I generally use when I’m talking to one of them about them. I do think that there’s some history to the role of a legal secretary that means many are attached to the title even though it’s less common now.

      That said, when I refer to my secretary outside of the firm, I call her my assistant, because I understand the baggage the term carries and I want to make it clear that I respect her. I think you can tell an enormous amount about a person by how she treats her assistant.

      Reply
      1. Quickstepping Matilda

        When I was a patent agent and later an associate at my old law firm, we had a branch of drama around the “legal secretary” title as it pertained to the intellectual property department. We were a general practice firm, with many legal secretaries, including in our department. However, “patent secretary” implied more duties and a higher salary in the market around us. Our firm refused to establish a separate title and pay scale for them, because it would “make the other legal secretaries jealous.” This ended up meaning that every six months, I got a new “legal secretary,” trained them up to be able to support me, and had them leave the firm for a higher salary. For years. It was incredibly frustrating and counterproductive.

        Reply
  16. Akcipitrokulo

    I’m reminded of Yes, Minister…

    Hacker: Who else is in this department?

    Sir Humphrey: Well briefly, sir, I am the Permanent Under Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary. I too have a Principal Private Secretary and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretaries are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary.

    Hacker: Can they all type?

    Sir Humphrey: None of us can type. Mrs Mackay types: she’s the secretary.

    Reply
    1. Adereterial

      Ha! I work for the British Government. Private Secretaries have huge amounts of power – they’re your gateway to the Minister/Secretary of State/Cabinet Secretary. You annoy them at your peril. Permanent Secretaries (or, more commonly, Perm Secs) run entire departments.

      Largely, though, that’s as far as Secretary gets used in British Government. You’re more likely to be some form of Director or Chief something these days.

      We can all type though… to varying degrees.

      Reply
      1. Akcipitrokulo

        It was the 80s ;) maybe typing is more common now!

        So job titles do seem to have changed in the meantime. TBH most of my knowledge of the civil service comes from YM/YPM!

        Reply
    2. an infinite number of monkeys

      I’m so delighted that you posted this. I work for a (U.S.) state agency myself, and have always thought “Yes, [Prime] Minister” was wonderfully representative of the way government actually works!

      Though, in state government parlance, Mrs Mackay’s title would be “Office Technician” (probably at least a IV!). All the other myriad Secretaries would be Section Directors, Branch Managers, Information Specialists, and Program Specialists of one level or another. The word “secretary” does not appear in our lexicon.

      Amazon thanks you for my purchase of the complete box set.

      Reply
  17. essEss

    In my brain, I think of ‘secretary’ to be a person that is doing basic clerical work for an office, possibly for a group of people so they do a variety of smaller tasks as assigned. An office manager would be the person in charge of the office staff (such as other secretaries or bookkeepers or receptionists) and performs office shift scheduling duties and other duties to keep the office running such as inventory, ordering, staffing, timekeeping, etc… And an Administrative Assistant is assigned to a single C-level or upper level management person and performs clerical duties as well as personalized services such as travel, maintaining the manager’s calendar/scheduling, assisting in event planning and setup, arranging catering for meetings, etc.

    My descriptions might not be accurate, but that’s the mental impression I have when I read each of the titles.

    Reply
    1. Jennifer

      Admin assistant is pretty much the generic term for clerical/not exec’s assistant here. They do everything you listed.

      Reply
  18. I Love Thrawn

    I’m an admin assistant but plenty of people call me secretary and always have. I really don’t care. Either is fine. I will say that if I ever was a true executive assistant – the kind that’s just unbelievably amazing, talented and uber competent – I would care a lot more. But that level is pretty high up there. I am the assistant to the senior pastor here, but it’s a small church, so I won’t be leaning on that title.

    Reply
  19. Goosela

    I started off as a receptionist/admin assistant. The (much older) president of the company would often refer to me as his secretary. Other than the fact that it made me think about that Maggie Gyllenhall and James Spader movie, it never bothered me much.

    Reply
  20. Ave

    Many terms like secretary and nurse were originally applied to men in a profession.

    They didn’t become “degrading” terms until women entered the profession.

    No one said “he’s just a secretary ” to my 2 x grand uncle. He was a private secretary to a national figure in the old country 150 years ago.

    My aunt in the USA…She was “just a secretary.”

    The demeaning element isn’t the term per se, it’s the assumptions about gender and race.

    Women entering a profession decreases its status and pay. Men taking it over increases it.

    It’s not about the terms per se. it’s about the worth of women.

    https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/09/what-programmings-past-reveals-about-todays-gender-pay-gap/498797/

    Reply
    1. Lil Fidget

      But this being the status now, is it okay to reject the term “secretary” if it’s applied to you, a female? Or do we have to go through some long period of reclaiming it?

      Reply
      1. Ave

        I have no idea.

        I think some terms can be reclaimed. I think others cannot.

        I don’t use the term. Don’t use the term stewardess either.

        Whether or not it would work better to reclaim it? No clue.

        Reply
      2. Ave

        PS one thing to consider….

        With technological advances, there are fewer and fewer true “secretaries” out there. Most people in these jobs now are not answering phones, typing, getting dry cleaning., doing gal Friday tasks.

        For accuracy alone, I think terms like receptionist, office manager, etc. are better.

        I even know a few valets in the UK who do trasidironal valet duties but are called PAs now because they do other tasks

        Reply
  21. DoctorateStrange

    Weren’t secretaries originally male-dominated? I feel like I read somewhere that it was. It is depressing to think that it likely came to be undervalued because women started to become the majority in it.

    A touch off-topic, but I remember a bigwig journalist giving journalist students/rookie journalists advice that if they wanted to talk to certain people, the best way to do that was to be respectful/friendly to their secretaries. He said if you ever messed with a secretary, you were screwed.

    Whether the people identify as admin or secretary, I think it is amazing how disrespectful people can be towards them as they have to be one of the most important positions in the professional world. My respect for admin/secretaries goes a long mile.

    Reply
    1. Caramel & Cheddar

      This. I was going to say that “secretary” used to be a well-regarded term when men performed the exact same functions a century ago but, like many others, became devalued the more and more women took over the role.

      Reply
      1. DoctorateStrange

        There was a high amount of women in the maintenance/cleaning field as well, weren’t they? It always made me cringe when people would say that before the women’s rights movement came to be, all women just ran their households. Uh, yeah, probably not the lower-class women.

        Reply
        1. lawyer

          In fact, the idea of the norm being that women would be dedicated solely to childcare and housework is basically something that historically existed only at the highest echelons of the upper class and in the post WWII US. It’s absolutely the historical exception, not the norm. Even when women were not typically engaged in wage labor, their time would largely be dedicated to home production (not cooking and cleaning, although they did that too, but actually growing/preserving food, spinning/weaving, making clothes and fabric goods, etc.). And paid work was much more common than people think – working as a hired man/woman, factory labor, working in shops, selling fruits and vegetables, etc.

          Reply
          1. DoctorateStrange

            Thank you, I was not sure how else to word it and you put it perfectly. You can’t imagine how frustrated I get when this false notion permeates into historical fiction and even in historical nonfiction to some extent. I especially grit my teeth when this gets into fantasy works (as a lot of them are influenced by medieval England) and I always found women of both upper- and lower-classes of those times to have quite interesting roles.

            Reply
      2. DoctorateStrange

        Although, unfortunately, that problem still persists today, I forgot to add. I remember a female scientist commenting in a forum that, because more women were entering into the biology field, that field started getting undervalued and she started noticing a lot of microaggressions of the sexist sort being thrown towards it. There was a female Russian lecturer a few years ago that was commenting that she was surprised how doctors were seen white-collar in the US when they were considered of the more blue-collar variety back in her country-until she realized that most Russian doctors were female. This phenomenon intersects with the Glass Escalator phenomenon.

        Reply
    2. Goya de la Mancha

      All the positions were originally male-dominated since women were barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen ;) I could be wrong, but I think men in the secretarial role were called Clerks?

      Reply
      1. DoctorateStrange

        You’re probably right about the “clerk” title. I just Googled “secretaries clerks” and the results seem to imply that “clerk” and “secretary” were interchangeable at some point in time. There is even a result that links to “the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries.”

        lawyer in a comment above to this thread actually pointed out the “barefoot and pregnant” idea is not truly historically accurate. Labor history is complex and interesting as I have come to realize.

        Reply
    3. Been There, Done That

      It’s been many years since I read this so I can’t provide a source, but when most secretaries were men (far fewer women in the workforce back then), they were apprentice managers. As more women entered the workforce, the job became office helper.

      Reply
  22. Wannabe Disney Princess

    The only reason I might suggest changing your title is to make yourself more marketable if you job search. Secretary is a little old fashioned and I think having either administrative assistant or office manager would help you out if (or when) the time comes to start putting your resume out there.

    That being said, I don’t think it’s demeaning or derogatory at all. It’s just a word that’s fallen out of favor. The people who are reacting so strongly though? That says way more about them than it does you. So if you’re happy and it doesn’t bother you, keep chugging along!

    Reply
    1. KR

      Also if she thinks her boss would be agreeable to it, whenever she changes jobs she can just let her boss know she is listing the work as being an office manager or administrative assistant!

      Reply
      1. Wannabe Disney Princess

        Oh, exactly. It’s not a change right this second type of thing. But, I do think, it would be better to do it sooner instead of later in case something changes and her boss isn’t as agreeable. Or she doesn’t want Will to know she’s leaving. Change can blindside you.

        Reply
    2. Anonymous72

      And I think she will be paid more at her next job if she has a job title other than Secretary. In my work, the hierarchy of pay is Secretary at the bottom, Administrative Assistant next, then Assistant to the [Administrator], and finally Office Manager. Going from Secretary to AA is a promotion and a pay raise with more responsibilities, expectations, and you’re own office. Secretary is sitting at reception (entertaining people), making copies, collating items, taking notes, knowing where everyone is at all times, greeting customers, answering the phone, and dropping everything you’re doing to assist others with clerical tasks.

      OP – if your boss will let you decide your own title, take full advantage of it.

      Reply
  23. kracken

    When I was in paralegal school the instructors told all of us that the terms paralegal, legal assistant, and legal secretary were all interchangeable, but since I’ve been working I’ve found that’s very much not the case. I much preferred when my title was legal assistant and not legal secretary. The job was more interesting too. I get paid more as a legal secretary than I did as a legal assistant, but I think that’s because my previous firm was notorious for underpaying people. And paralegal is a different animal from what I’ve observed. I don’t have enough experience to be a paralegal yet, but that’s the ultimate goal.

    Reply
    1. Marillenbaum

      Good luck with reaching your goals! My mom is a paralegal (corporate real estate law) and it seems like it’s been an interesting field.

      Reply
  24. all aboard the anon train

    At my last company, there were a few employees who would call female editorial assistants “secretaries”, but the male EAs, “assistants”. We didn’t have anyone in the company with an official secretary title, so it was definitely a gendered move.

    I also loathe the term office wife/husband. Not only for the reasons mentioned, but it makes me uncomfortable because it’s so degrading. I feel like it’s morphed from the definition above to the idea of the woman in the office who does the emotional labor and “office housework”. It’s cutesy and heteronormative and I will die on this hill when people try to refer to me as so and so’s work wife. Why do you have to bring gender roles and marriage roles into it? Can’t we just be close coworkers?

    Reply
    1. Renamis

      Hetronormative? I know lots of people that use those terms, and while it’s silly and all in good fun sexual preferences don’t factor in very much at all. I know straight guys with a work husband, work boyfriend, and work wife all at the same time, and gay guys with work wifes all over the place. And all the women I know who use the phrase do the same. It’s just a bit of silly fun for the office, nothing serious.

      Reply
      1. Specialk9

        I have pretty much only heard gay people refer to work husband and work wife, so that’s interesting.

        Reply
    2. Goya de la Mancha

      *shrug* My dad and his boss were office husband/wife…..his boss was a dude. They had worked together for 35+ years and bickered like an old married couple.

      Reply
  25. Nan

    Gah! My husband calls his office admins secretaries when he talks about them. Drives me nuts and always earns him the side eye from me when he says it. Along with “dude, they aren’t secretaries anymore.” To be fair, if he is talking to me about his, he uses her name. If he’s talking about someone else’s, then it’s “Bob’s secretary” and a side eye from me.

    As a non-admin or secretary, and a female, it rubs me the wrong way. It feels to me like secretaries are always female, but admins can be female or male. I don’t know why, it just is that way to me.

    But, if it’s the title you use and like, then I’m ok with that, too. Whatever floats your boat. I do think it’s odd for clients to correct you about your title.

    Reply
    1. ErinW

      I’m fine with the word secretary, but when I first started dating my husband I took him to task for referring to the “girls” in his group at work. “You manage women, sweetie. Women.”

      Reply
      1. Ann Furthermore

        My parents lived in Saudi Arabia for many years, and there were no women in the workplace. So my dad had a male secretary and hadn’t worked with women for quite a few years. After they moved back to the US, my mom overheard him on the phone one day trying to set up an appointment with someone, and told whoever he was speaking with to, “….have his girl give me a call.” She had to correct him and tell him that the person he was talking about was a woman, and that her job title was likely “Administrative Assistant” or “Executive Assistant.”

        My dad was very open-minded and progressive, but was just from a different generation.

        Reply
  26. CatCat

    I just call people what they want to be called. My legal secretary usually calls herself a legal secretary even though the official title of the job is something else (something like administrative assistant) so I use the terminology she uses. In the last place I worked, I’d say well over half of “whatever the official title was for the role” referred to themselves as legal secretaries. I don’t find “legal secretary” outdated or demeaning. I wonder what others in the legal industry think of the term?

    Reply
    1. Future Homesteader

      It’s interesting that there are a lot of comments specifically relating to the legal field. I think law is slower to change and more hierarchical than most areas (I work in legal education, and even here on the academic side of things we’re very much outliers in terms of hierarchy and formality compared to, say, an English department). Honestly, as someone who has always worked with/for attorneys but is not one, there is a very definite line between those who have a JD (or are studying for one) and those who don’t. Most people are respectful, but you can still feel a bit of condescension, especially in the form of surprise that those of us without JDs may be educated and worldly, just in a different way. And I do feel like the people who misbehave/aren’t respectful (the small minority, but they exist) are more likely to get away with it.

      Then again, I don’t have much experience working *outside* of the legal world, so I’d be curious to hear if other sectors have analogous hierarchies…

      Reply
      1. law talk

        At my current firm, “legal assistant” = “paralegal” (I think the official title is legal assistant; everyone refers to those folks as paralegals) and legal secretaries are a different thing (correspondence and similar–the sort of classic secretary gig). This isn’t the case everywhere, of course, but I have the sense that it’s relatively common. Given that assistant (or administrative assistant) seems to be the most common modernization of secretary, I wonder if the existence of a position already called “legal assistant” makes the move harder.

        Reply
        1. CityMouse

          Our legal assistants definitely are not paralegals, interestingly. I think paralegals should be called just that. A legal secretary in my experience is very different from a paralegal.

          Reply
    2. Future Homesteader

      I should add, CatCat, that I’m in no way implicating you!! The reason I still work in the legal world is because I really love it, and I love working with attorneys. And I think you’re absolutely right to use the terminology your secretary uses. (Not that you need my approval, but I don’t want to come off like I’m annoyed with all lawyers or the legal world! It’s quirky and I love it.)

      Reply
    3. lawyer

      I commented above, but we have the same setup – the official title is legal administrative assistant, but my secretary calls herself a legal secretary and she seems to be the norm. When speaking to people outside the firm, I use “assistant.”

      We have case assistants (which are what some firms call legal assistants – usually new graduates from a BA/BS program who are considering law school, although that’s not a requirement), and also paralegals. All very different roles.

      Reply
    4. lawyer

      Also, the interesting thing is that, at least in my practice, the skills that used to make legal secretaries a more specialized group are actually going away. I know that in the past, esp. in litigation, legal secretaries were invaluable in terms of getting filings done correctly, managing logistics with the courthouse, etc. I’m in a transactional practice, and my secretary (again, her preferred title) answers my phone, makes photocopies, arranges travel, and handles scheduling. The only thing that’s really not a general admin assistant role is handling my billing (but even then, most of that is done by a billing coordinator). The growth of legal technology means that a lot of what legal secretaries used to do is now done directly by the lawyer, at least in big firms.

      Reply
    5. Former Govt Contractor

      I’ve been a paralegal for 28 years, first in law firms, then in Federal government, now in a corporation. Everywhere I have worked, paralegals were called paralegals, while legal secretaries were called legal assistant or legal secretary. Most of the legal assistants I have worked with would have been upset to be called secretary.

      Reply
  27. Laura H

    Job titles are weird…

    I’m not a “Sales Rockstar” (I find titles of that nature more offputting to be honest) , I’m a Sales Associate. (Official title) Or sometimes just the nice lady at the counter (this one’s usually from parents of little ones) Sometimes- I’m just a warm body. Regardless of my title official or temporary- I’m needed. I’m valued, I’m employed.

    Titles can vary a lot from org to org and you should go with what’s comfortable for you. I wouldn’t be as worried about the title on my resumé as I would be about conveying my accomplishments and contributions correctly, while making it as easy as possible for someone to go “ah comparable to x.”

    Reply
  28. Anon to me

    I would change your title. I’ve worked in a couple places where they use the title administration assistant and secretary, and there is a very different set of responsibilities associated with each role.

    Secretaries in those places are typically limited to strictly clerical activities, so typing, data entry, envelope stuffing, and serving as the receptionist for the area they work in. Versus an administrative assistant who is usually responsible for more complex tasks. Because there are still places that have that sort of differentiation and because of the historical connotations with the title, I would suggest asking for a title that most closely reflects the work you are doing. So there isn’t any confusion when you move onto the next job.

    Reply
  29. ENFP in Texas

    “You’re a secretary? Isn’t that demeaning?”

    “Well, ‘Secretary of the Interior, State, and Executive Cat Herding’ won’t fit on my business cards.”

    Reply
  30. Guy Incognito

    I refer to Stewardesses as “Sky Waitresses”.

    (Not really and bonus points if you can pick out the obscure reference)

    Reply
  31. Nervous Accountant

    I’d be ehhhh if I was called a secretary bc….I’m an accountant. But when I applied for positions, the word secretary was hardly on my list of thorns.

    OTOH I never knew why “secretary/receptionist” was considered an easy job and heads of states also have these titles.

    Reply
  32. Fabulous

    I think “Office Manager” would be a more accurate title for you, OP. Yes you do administrative duties, but you’re the only one in the office “managing” the day. Paying bills, ordering office materials, and generally maintaining the office itself I think goes beyond “administrative assistant” and a “secretary” even. “Executive assistant”–to me at least–means an assistant for a C-suite executive.

    Reply
  33. Sandy (no, that's a song from a play.)

    Men of a certain age, now dying out, used to pronounce “secretary” “sexratary”. Over and over and over. Every blessed time. They thought they were being cute and flirtatious. Women the age of the daughters of those men started the movement to change to administrative assistant.

    Reply
    1. Specialk9

      (lip curl)

      The partner who called me The Secretary was definitely referring to the S&M movie, and thought he was sooooooo cute. I was broke so I smiled along.

      Which is pretty much the world that the alt righters miss, because uppity females like me were put in our place because we were poor.

      Reply
  34. jk

    In Asian countries, particularly Korea, it’s mostly men who are secretaries. It’s a much sought after and respected job where they get to work alongside high-powered execs. It has a different meaning in the west. The differences are so interesting to me.

    Reply
    1. oranges & lemons

      That’s really interesting–this sounds a lot more like the original Western definition of secretaries, before the profession became “feminized.”

      Reply
    2. Snark

      I think that’s more the historical sense of the word, but it kind of became a shorthand for “female executive servant who exists to be sexually objectified and tasked with menial, repetitive jobs” in American culture in the ’50s-70s.

      Reply
      1. Elizabeth H.

        I feel like this is what fposte alluded to above, that this is a stereotype from pop culture and that it doesn’t reflect the majority of real people’s experience in the workplace.

        Reply
        1. Snark

          Sure! And it’s terribly gendered and sexist as well. But that doesn’t mean it lacks substance and force in the world.

          Reply
    3. Tardigrade

      Reminds me of Mad Men when Lane Pryce came with his (male) secretary, and he quickly tried to differentiate himself from the women.

      Reply
  35. Cringing 24/7

    This is helpful information to know! I’ve always seen “Secretary” titles in things like “Secretary of State” or “Secretary of Defense” and assumed that the title originated from positions like those and denoted that this was the official in charge of (blank), so office secretaries (in my thinking) ran the office and oversaw its efficiency. Alison’s always teaching me new things!

    Reply
    1. Bea

      Secretary is also a corporate title. My old boss was the President and his wife who later took over was formally the Secretary on corporate paperwork. So it’s easy to be confused by that!

      Reply
  36. Lily in NYC

    My title was Executive Secretary until they updated our admin titles in 2008. I get that it’s outdated but I never really cared either way – mainly because I don’t use business cards and no one really knows my title unless I provide it or if they look at our phone lists. But I don’t think I’d want to use it on my resume if I were looking for a new job. For some reason the title “secretary” seems more pure admin to me (as in, no project work).

    Reply
  37. oranges & lemons

    “Secretary” is a title that I find really fascinating because of how thoroughly it switched from being available only to men to being primarily associated with women (after World War I). In Victorian novels, a “private secretary” was always a man, and I get the impression that it was considered a position of greater status and influence when it was male-dominated. Although in mysteries, more often than not the private secretary will get the axe at some point.

    Reply
    1. Em Too

      But ‘Private Secretary’ was (and is) different to ‘Secretary’ I think. If you were Private Secretary to a sufficiently important person, we’re getting back towards the Secretary of State usage?

      Reply
      1. oranges & lemons

        I think “private secretary” was also used for a position more like an executive assistant, which is mostly what I was thinking of (like the private secretary to a wealthy business owner). The lines were probably a bit blurrier at the time, since the title hadn’t taken on the sexist baggage it has now. (Disclaimer: most of my history knowledge comes from novels so it could all be completely wrong.)

        Reply
    2. bluelyon

      And – the private secretaries who still exist tend to be the old school version. The British Royal Family was hiring one recently and it’s everything from correspondence, to scheduling, to travel arrangements and delegating all of the things that go with it. I’m sure where it ranks as a status symbol depends on a lot of things but there’s a reason listings like that end up in the Economist and not on Monster.

      (I am not British….I just love the theory of working for the Royal Family)

      Reply
    3. Marillenbaum

      Or exists to provide some sideline witty banter, like Mr. Ackroyd’s secretary Raymond in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Or possibly to sort-of seduce the daughter of the rich industrialist, causing a Scandal. Or, sometimes, to actually be the murderer (as in, partially, Murder on the Orient Express).

      Reply
  38. Bea

    I was officially “Office Manager” for over a decade, doing the full scale of administrative, accounting and operations management in the end. They still referred to me as “the secretary” and I hated them for it. Same sized company and all men, so yeah it felt like an archaic way to refer to me. However they all knew I was the boss in most instances and treated me like gold so I didn’t say anything, picking battles and all that.

    However you don’t mind it and it’s nobody’s business to be telling your boss what your title should be.

    Reply
  39. Argh!

    Watch some old Perry Mason shows. Della Street was a “secretary” but clearly super smart and she was definitely an essential employee. In the old days even though it may have been “women’s work,” a “secretary” was a respectable job title. Back then it was one of the few jobs a woman could get, and the people she reported to had no clue how to do any of the things she did (including making coffee — that’s the only demeaning thing from those days).

    If you’re working for old-fashioned people, “secretary” is not necessarily demeaning at all. If people get bent out of shape, say “I’m the modern day Della Street.” Nobody could disrespect Della Street!

    Reply
  40. CityMouse

    I think it is bizarre to go off on someone who has no issue with their own job title. If OP wanted it changed, sure, but for clients to insist is weird. That being said, if it is turning into a distraction OP might raise it politely with the boss.

    Reply
  41. Mazzy

    secretary means your job only entails the mechanics of office work – typing, filing, dictating, mailings, scheduling, without input into what you’re processing. It’s not sexist or old fashioned per se, but few of any jobs like this exist anymore. Most have some level of decision making built in and most of the paperwork and filing automated away

    Reply
    1. fposte

      A few of you are saying this, and as somebody who lived in the era before administrative assistants and didn’t find this true, I’m curious–who do you think was doing that decision-making work before people were called administrative assistants?

      Reply
      1. fposte

        That sounds like I’m either being snarky or asking rhetorically, and I don’t mean either. It’s just that the “secretary is a low-level job” notion seems to be dependent on the idea that somebody else was doing the high-level work done by administrative assistants, and I’m not sure who in the configuration is being conceived of for that. Is the thought that there were higher and lower support roles, or is the theory that the admin assistants are doing work that bosses did before?

        Reply
        1. Em Too

          I didn’t take it as sarky and was genuinely trying to think! I think ‘Assistant to the [senior job]’ or even clerk, though I may be channelling 1920s Hollywood or possibly Dickens here. There’s also something about balance – there was so much more typing/filing/opening post needed then that I would expect most secretaries would mostly do that, even if some of them were doing the higher level work?

          Reply
          1. fposte

            I wonder if some of this is because the term “secretary” stayed as a pop culture trope but the clerk and typist jobs seem to have disappeared from consciousness. Though your use of “post” suggests that you’re not from U.S., so we’ll have national cultural difference in there too.

            Reply
            1. Em Too

              Yep, UK, though probably pretty influenced by US films. And agree re typist being swallowed up in my mental picture of a secretary.

              Reply
        2. Em Too

          …and having read comments above, some of that higher level stuff might be done by a ‘Private Secretary’ rather than ‘Secretary’.

          Reply
      2. Lily in NYC

        There was a lot less technology back then, so there were a lot more people who did primarily clerical work (like typing and steno pools).

        Reply
          1. Luna

            Exactly, plus some truly high up executives sometimes had more than one assistant (and still do), so the more senior secretary was still the one doing the more complicated decision-making while the junior secretary answered phones & opened mail

            Reply
    2. TootsNYC

      yeah, and really LONG time ago, a man’s “secretary” was sort of a junior version of him! He might even act on his own for many things.

      Reply
  42. Hiring Mgr

    I’m male, and I once worked for a well known professional baseball team as the assistant to the traveling secretary. It was kind of a wacky organization where title and gender didn’t really matter, but other things were noteworthy. For example, one time I accidentally locked my keys in my car, so the car stayed in the parking lot all night and the next day, so I got credit for being the last one to leave and the first one to arrive…

    Reply
  43. Pollygrammer

    One thing I haven’t seen suggested here is that using a dated term can (potentially) make the whole office look a bit dated. Like having a huge tan computer on your desk, or only providing phone and fax for your contact information. Not egregious, but it does give a bit of an impression.

    Reply
  44. Amber Rose

    Secretary tends to be a pretty gendered term and has old-timey baggage attached to it. Whereas Admin Assistant doesn’t have that problem. That’s all it is, I think. It’s not that it’s demeaning, and there’s no reason you can’t or shouldn’t use it, but it has undertones and implications left over from less gender equal times that people who are overly PC are probably reacting to when they get upset on your behalf.

    This is why the study of linguistics is so fun. Words can carry so much meaning beyond their definitions. And of course, we start associating things with them. The mental image lots of people get from “secretary” is a woman in a short skirt with a typewriter who is the other woman having an affair with their male boss, and movies like Secretary (the crappy attempt at hopping on the 50 Shades bandwagon) do not help change that.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      The very fact that you couldn’t do a 50 Shades knockoff called “Administrative Assistant” is an argument in favor for that term.

      Reply
      1. Goya de la Mancha

        Besides the fact that Secretary was released in 2002 and the 50 shades books didn’t come out until approx. 10 years later?

        Reply
          1. Goya de la Mancha

            You are correct, it’s so not as titillating ;)

            I meant that comment to thread under Amber Rose…I’m very thread in capable lately it seems.

            Reply
    2. Elizabeth H.

      Hi, sorry but Secretary is an excellent and critically acclaimed movie, is a serious film with award winning actors, and came out LONG before 50 shades! Good grief.

      Reply
      1. DoctorateStrange

        I love that movie, it’s actually one of my favorite romance sort of movies. The chemistry was amazing and had charming subtleties to it despite its themes.

        Reply
      2. Amber Rose

        You’re right, I mixed it up with a different film I was thinking of. Nevertheless, that’s the kind of image secretaries have in media, so.

        Reply
  45. Sometimes yes, sometimes no

    Job titles are a part of an offer that is negotiable. That they are suggests they are also a thing that in and of themselves hold power. In a lot of cases, as you’re building a career, it hardly matters what *you* think of it – it’s what future hiring managers, clients, coworkers, etc. will take from it that ultimately drives the concern.

    So with that in mind, I think it’s important to acknowledge how, generally, the title is considered in the market. Take a look at job postings for secretaries. Is that what you do? If so, great! Formalize it and stick it in your own job description and your boss has ammo to roll eyes and shoot back at anyone who is coming in demanding your title be changed according to their sensibilities.

    If it doesn’t match, though, maybe that means it’s time to find out what does. Where are you going next? Even if you don’t plan to move, what do you want people to understand about what you do with one or two words? That’s what a job title does.

    Reply
  46. AlwhoisthatAl

    Personally I blame Porn and the “Sexy Secretary” rubbish, I do Deep Tissue Massage and Swedish massage and boy am I tired of the continuous smirks when Massage is mentioned.
    And I’m a short, fat, hairy 50 year old bloke !

    Reply
    1. Been There, Done That

      Ha! Back in the day I was interested in becoming a massage therapist and took some classes. I decided it wasn’t for me, but jeezy! Nothing sexy about the work to learn to do it right!

      Reply
  47. Kelly L.

    I call myself a secretary a fair amount, and also sometimes “an admin,” though that breeds confusion with some IT jobs. I think I got into the habit because (a) my workplace has really lengthy in-house job titles (my title is not technically Secretary nor Administrative Assistant, but something longer that’s quite annoying to say), and (b) my former co-worker in the role, now retired, always used it for herself. On a resume I’d use the long cumbersome one, but it doesn’t flow in conversation.

    It sounds like your boss would be open to a discussion about it–I don’t see why not!

    Reply
  48. ErinW

    When I was hired in my current job, it was as a Secretary, though a year or so later there was a dictate from above that all Secretaries were being renamed Administrative Assistants. I was fine with the change, but personally, I kind of feel that “Administrative Assistant” is more for the administration than for the assistant; it makes them feel like they are not trapping people (/women) in dead-end, mindless jobs. On the contrary–they are highly-trained operatives! Most assistants that I know are crucial to the success of their offices without being precious about their title and their status. If the administration wants to show their respect they should do it in pay and benefits.

    I also look forward to being bought lunch on Administrative Professionals’ (/Secretaries’) Day, so… (Lunch is lunch.)

    Reply
  49. MissDisplaced

    Generally, Administrative Assistant or Executive Assistant is more the correct title if you’re supporting a person directly, and Office Manager if you’re the support for a larger group or team of people at a specific location (i.e. running an office and office functions). Based on what OP has said, I would say that Office Manager is a more accurate description of what she is actually doing, although there is probably more overlap with the owner as this is a smaller company. I think the defining factor is if she is also responsible to help the ‘tree workers’ with whatever they may need administrative help with? Or is it just the owner?
    To me, “secretary” is an older term for Administrative or Executive Assistant. I find it kind of gendered and old fashioned, though of course that’s not the case if one is Secretary of State.

    Reply
  50. Hey Karma, Over here.

    Most people are saying this because, hey, small talk. Some people have an agenda; others think they are helping you.
    I suggest treating everyone as if they are in the last category. “Thanks, that’s good to know. If I’m ever looking to move on from here, I will make sure to review those positions as well.”
    That should shut down the conversation, because why else would they be telling you? Do they want you to lead the revolution? Probably not. They just want you to know. So you acknowledge you know. And you can get on with your day.

    Reply
  51. Goya de la Mancha

    Question for those that are Secretaries/Administative Assistants/Office Managers/Executive Assistants:

    Do your bosses dictate to you or do you take notes for your bosses? I’ve never worked in an environment where this was still a thing. I’ve grown in the work force as computers were taking over, so while all the supervisors I’ve worked for had Assistants, they did their own typing/etc. as the Assistants had more pressing tasks then typing up something that was faster/easier for the supervisor to type up then to write out. That being said, I think the ex-supervisor at my current job was very much the “good ol’ boy” type and I can almost definitely say that he would have been the “feet propped up on the desk while dictating to the secretary” type who delegated more then he actually worked.

    Reply
    1. Secretary

      I type dictated notes! It’s actually just because I can type super fast and my boss is not tech savy.

      Reply
    2. Bea

      I’ve typed things only rarely and it’s because my beloved boss had no use for technology and was Dyslexic. He wouldn’t dictate but give me a rough idea of what he wanted to say. These were mainly just got formal correspondence that happened a couple times during my decade working for him.

      My other bosses wouldn’t dream of it, they know how to type and know something coming from BigBoss@company dot com had more power than anything else.

      I have ALL THE DUTIES and then the occasional “Hey can you fill these out and fax/mail/whatever them.” or my old favorite was tasks involving Googling for answers “that was fast!” “Yeah Google is magic like that.” then he went back to build things and I went back to selling and shipping the things he made.

      Reply
    3. Former Admin Turned Project Manager

      As on admin, I drafted correspondence for my bosses (not full-on dictation, but they would give the gist of what they wanted in the letter/memo/mass email and I would craft the language for them to tweak if needed). This type of task came not only from men old enough to be my dad, but women only a decade or so older than I am (as such, I didn’t see it as a “good old boy” type act, but rather a “it takes less time for boss to edit my first draft than to create it from nothingness”).

      Reply
      1. Kelly L.

        Same! I’ve never actually “taken dictation” in the traditional sense, but I’ve drafted letters from a general idea of what the boss wants to say.

        Reply
    4. Anon for this

      I actually do occasionally take dictation from my boss – sometimes we meet in my office, so I’m the one at the computer, doesn’t bother me in the least. When we meet, we are focused on Getting Stuff Done, so if I need him to write an email about something I’m unfamiliar with, I am happy to have him dictate to me. He also always asks if I’m OK doing the typing.

      Reply
    5. Lena Duffin

      In the medical field the secretaries type the doctor’s dictated notes quite commonly. Voice recognition is becoming more widely used now, but even then it needs some correcting. My mum thought it was hilariously old-fashioned when I told her my firm has people whose job title is typist, but they’re still around.

      Reply
    6. GermanCoffeeBean

      I’m a legal secretary and I’ve noticed a generational divide. When I first started working (about 20 years ago), I would spend almost all day typing dictation and one of my bosses always lamented that it was so bad I wasn’t trained in stenography and couldn’t take notes.

      Now, most of my bosses a few years younger than I am (I’m 36), are more tech-savvy and dictation is not a part of their training, so it’s easier for them to draft documents themselves. We have one partner who uses dictation software and one associate who will ask us to type dication from time to time, but that’s (thankfully) rare.
      But I have worked for (old-school) lawyers who would dictate everything, including one-sentence answer emails (i. e. “Please draft an email to Mike Smith; Dear Mike, Thanks for your email. I’ll meet you on Friday at 1 pm at FoodPlace. End of dictation.”)

      Reply
  52. Discordia Angel Jones

    I’ve seen reference in the comments above to “legal secretaries”. Just want to point out that, in the UK, a legal secretary is a pretty different job to being an admin assistant. It may be the same in the US?

    In the UK for example legal secretaries tend to be more trained to do legal paperwork (basic court forms, property forms) for fee earners so that the client doesn’t have to pay the more expensive hourly rate. They will still do other things like letters, dictations, answer phones, arrange meetings, etc. There also tend to also be admin assistants in addition to the legal secretaries. At least, it’s been that way in every UK law firm I’ve ever worked XD

    I also don’t think the negative connotations of the word secretary have quite made it over here to the UK – I’ve never thought of it as a bad job title or as negative, but I can certainly see now why it may be thought that way!

    Reply
  53. Secretary

    Hi Alison, OP here.

    Thank you for such an in depth answer to my question! That article is fascinating. This entire topic really is fascinating. Interestingly, when I wrote you it was during a month when I had multiple people say something about my title, but it hasn’t happened since.

    I think the title is Secretary because it fits with the duties I perform extremely well and it’s just a tad old fashioned. There have only been two other people in my job before me since the 1980s (great pay, great hours and great boss) and my boss is in his 60s so I think he’s just used to saying “Secretary”. This company is pretty casual, and on payroll I’m officially marked as “Administration” but that’s the only time I’m referred to that way.

    As for job prospects in the future, I know that both my predecessors moved on and listed themselves as “office manager” on their resumes when job searching and there was no issue. If an employer took issue with it my boss would probably just tell them I was an office manager.

    I’m so glad you gave me your take on this Alison, I love your column and read it every day.

    Reply
  54. TootsNYC

    I remember reading an Agatha Christie-era mystery in which the “secretary” of a very important financier is traveling incognito to bring information crucial to a government/spy network, something.

    And the “secretary” is presented as being pretty much as smart, important, and powerful as the financier. A “right-hand man” that is far beyond just handling the paperwork–someone who is privy to all the same information, has much the same information and expertise, THE person the financier would appoint (naturally–all assumed it to be so) to act in his stead, etc.

    I think “secretary” became a demeaned title when the role began being filled by women. (though interestingly, in that story, the “secretary” was actually a woman)

    Reply
    1. Marillenbaum

      In A Murder is Announced, Letitia Blacklock was the secretary to a powerful financier, and his right-hand man, and as a result was the heir to his fortune following the death of his wife, Belle, leading to all sorts of plotting and murderous deeds.

      Reply
  55. KG

    This is a sample size of one, but my previous employer used the titles Secretary, Secretary Sr., Administrative Assistant, Administrative Assistant Sr., Executive Assistant, and Executive Assistant (SVP/EVP). There were eight pay grades between Secretary and Executive Assistant (SVP/EVP). At least for some employers, it appears that Secretary and Administrative Assistant are different positions with different pay rates.

    All of the job descriptions and pay rates are online. I’ll post a link in a reply. It’s interesting to read through the various descriptions.

    Reply
  56. Rachel

    Almost my entire work history (20+ years) has been some sort of receptionist/secretary/admin assistant/office manager/exec assistant, etc. I will shorthand in conversation and say that I’m a secretary to get a point across. But I earned every step up the title ladder. Recently my company has made some changes and it’s extremely important to be clear on one’s actual title in communications. So – because there are multiple administrative levels (Secretary I-III, Admin Asst, Exec Asst, Sr. Exec Asst) my title is in my signature line as Sr. Executive Assistant – which means that I support a highest-level exec. I earned that title, and I will use it when it’s in writing (my email signature)… but I’ll refer to myself verbally as an admin.

    Reply
  57. Dr. Doll

    I’m confused as to how “secretary” became demeaning since we have the Secretaries of Defense, State, Interior, etc. etc.? And, men used to do this job. Is it just since it pinked up that we get huffy about what it’s called?

    If so, let’s take a terrific word back, since it used to denote a person entrusted with confidential issues and information, a position of honor.

    Reply
    1. Marillenbaum

      Pretty much. It seems to mostly be your standard-issue “women doing a thing makes it less valuable, because Misogyny” that leads to lower pay and gross gendered expectations about emotional labor/sexual availability.

      Reply
    2. Been There, Done That

      Titles of Secretary of Defense etc. originated centuries ago. I don’t think it’s a good or useful comparison to modern-day office workers.

      Reply
  58. JustAnotherHRPro

    Allison,
    Stop contributing to my list of “to be read” books on Goodreads!!!!! I am already years behind all the books I want to read, and practically every week you add to it!! Now I want to read the history of the Admin…err..secretary. Your recommendation this week better not be a good one. ;)

    Reply
  59. Sophia Brooks

    At the University where I work, there are both secretaries and administrative assistants. The secretaries are more like what we call admins now, and administrative assistants sort of run smaller departments administratively as staff (rather than faculty) and secretaries report to them. The secretaries are non-exempt and the AAs are exempt. It is also a catch all term (AA) here for people who do stuff but the system does not have a title. So today I have been reading student applications and making decisions and helping set up our new application system and build reports.

    Regardless, I sort of hate being called an Admin, and I really quite hate being called a secretary, because it is such a small part of what I do. At other parts of the University they use functional titles, but at the school I am with now, they won’t do that.

    Reply
  60. MissingArizona

    My uncle has been a “secretary” for 30 years, he is very specific that he is no ones’ assistant. His reasoning was that he took care of his job, which benefited everyone in the building, but he was doing the tasks as his job, not because he was assisting anyone. Also, doesn’t like being called an administrative professional, never gave a reason for that one.

    Reply
  61. Monica

    For what it’s worth, I get straight-up p!$$ed if anyone tries to call me a secretary. I work with mostly men, and it does not fly with me.

    Reply
  62. Nat

    About the “secretary” thing…my husband works for the federal government and that happens to be one of the few places left that actually gives department managers a secretary. My husband’s secretary has been with this agency for 21 years and she makes about $120K U.S. per year. I asked her once if she was offended that her job title was secretary and she told she could care less about the title so long as her paychecks don’t bounce :)

    Reply
  63. ReadItWithSpanishAccent

    I would be a bit careful with that advice. In Spain, a secretary is a higher position than an administrative assistant, also somewhat in Scandinavia too. They are not interchangeable. Administrative Assistant is an entry-level role, while for secretary you need some years of experience and either a BA or professional secretarial school.
    I wonder if this is interchangeable only in USA, to be honest.

    Reply
  64. Database Developer Dude

    I’ve gone through all the comments, and not seen my own experience with the title ‘Secretary’ cited, so here goes: I’m the Secretary of my Masonic Lodge…(I’m a Freemason), and the duties are basically that of a Chief Administrative Officer. Not only do I take the minutes of meetings, I receive all money due the Lodge, including dues, and keep track of what I turn over to the Treasurer. I take applications for membership in the Lodge, and I have to study the code (the Masonic Law of our jurisdiction) and know our Lodge bylaws…. There’s more, but I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to share…..in any case, it’s a pretty important job, and the wrong person in the job can derail the Lodge for a long time. I’m still cleaning up a mess from two Secretaries ago because both my immediate predecessors were bad for that Lodge, for different reasons.

    I also used to be Secretary of my Mother Lodge (the Lodge where I first became a Mason), but someone else is Secretary now, and I’m training him. He’s good.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

Before you comment: Please be kind, stay on-topic, and follow the site's commenting rules.
You can report an ad, tech, or typo issue here.

Subscribe to all comments on this post by RSS