update: is “secretary” a demeaning title?

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer wondering if “secretary” is a demeaning title? Here’s the update.

As of this week I’ve completely moved away from the title and am now called “Office Manager” or “Assistant” interchangeably.

I still maintain that the title was fine at the time I wrote in. It was pretty accurate, and I wasn’t concerned. On payroll I’m listed as “Administration” because I’m the only admin person, my boss has just had the company for 40 years and the habit of saying secretary was strong. Gradually though, I started running into work-related obstacles; like certain companies wouldn’t accept HR documentation because “secretary” wasn’t a high enough title, or I would try to do a personal thing for my boss and the company he was dealing with wouldn’t talk to me.

I quietly started listing myself as “Office Manager” on all official documentation to circumvent this. Then I changed it in my email signature and began referring to myself that way on calls. My boss doesn’t care at all about titles and I’m the only admin, so this was ok to do without his permission in my particular situation. When I made calls on behalf of my boss for personal items I referred to myself as his assistant, and didn’t get nearly as much pushback.

This is how it came up with my boss: I tipped him off one day while he was trying to get approved for a loan, that if he should reference me sending anything to call me his assistant. I also told him about the changes I had made and that people were more receptive to assistant or office manager. He tried it out and he said he definitely notices the difference and that he thinks we should have changed that a long time ago. He now exclusively refers to me as the office manager or his assistant.

I think you had such an interesting take on this, because I don’t think the title itself was demeaning, just old fashioned. I do think it was interesting that it was being perceived as a lower title than office manager or EA when my work is exactly the same.

{ 146 comments… read them below }

  1. New Job So Much Better*

    That’s great! I had to do something similar at old job, because the lack of title was keeping me from being able to interact with the level of contacts that I needed.

    1. Anonym*

      This is such a thing. Having the right title can be necessary to do your job effectively. It helps people understand your role and what you need from them. (Less kindly, some people won’t give you the level of collaboration you need if they perceive your title/work as “lower” which sucks.)

      This is also super relevant when it comes to promotions.

      1. ellex42*

        I changed my job title from “Job” to “Office Manager/Job” on my resume for a previous job because when I was trying to describe my job duties, I realized “Job” really didn’t cover it.

        I checked with the boss/owner (with whom I’m still friends), and she enthusiastically told me to go ahead, and that it was absolutely correct. She still loves to tell people about how I went “above and beyond” by ordering a humane trap to catch a rat snake outside the office that was “terrorizing” her dogs (it was doing no such thing) and releasing it at a nearby park.

  2. Charlotte Lucas*

    I work for a state agency. “Secretary” is the highest title in my organization. (Just interesting how language changes & how government is so different from private organizations.)

    Glad you got a more accurate/up-to-date title!

    1. AMA Superfan*

      Yes, titles can vary so wildly from one organization to another. I went from “Director” of a small department overseeing 3 employees to “Assistant Director” of an organization, supervising 60 employees. I struggled with how to indicate the promotion on my resume because several people looking at it assumed it was a demotion.

      1. SLAS*

        Yeah – a family member (who is really pretty unqualified) was talking about his promotion to “Director” at his company in the same field my husband was hiring for at the time. He was going on about being “Director-level” and my husband told me later that from a hiring-side perspective, it’s going to be a problem on his resume next time he’s job-hunting if he’s looking anywhere legit… the ones who need to know, know what size and type of company he’d be coming from, and that being promoted to Director from entry-level that quickly isn’t a sign of incredible genius, but that they’re failing and wanted the guy they have to pay the least.

    2. banoffee pie*

      yeah, Secretary of State in the US is a pretty high-level job, same with Home Secretary/Foreign Secretary in the UK. Not sure why they use the words, I don’t think they do much secretarial work ;)

      1. Eliza*

        The original meaning of the word is someone entrusted to keep secrets, which certainly describes those positions.

        1. LinuxSystemsGuy*

          It’s interesting because very senior assistants to monarchs and high ranking nobles were refereed to by the title (referencing the “keeper of secrets” aspect), which is why very senior government officials hold it. Then the title trickled down to the senior assistants of business people. Then to the assistants of those assistants. In business the title kept moving down to just indicate an “assistant” with the senior people taking more impressive sounding titles like CFO instead of “Finance Secretary”. Meanwhile in the much more traditional government service, titles stayed the same.

          Thus the situation where often lowest rank of office worker has the same title as the highest ranking government officials.

          1. CmdrShepard*

            I can understand the trickle down, I think at a certain point in the past and maybe even now, secretaries/assistants were entrusted to keep their bosses secrets. Kind of the old 50/60s trope of the secretary going to buy bday/valentines gifts for the bosses wife and mistress, or saying yes boss is away on a very important business trip, when they are on vacation with their mistress.

          2. Iris Eyes*

            There was also the time period where it carried the idea of being assisting with the intention of learning the role so that you would one day fill it, more akin to an apprenticeship.

        2. MCMonkeyBean*

          Huh, I never made the connection before but it’s right there in front of my face! Interesting!

        3. Salad Daisy*

          Exactly what I was thinking.

          I worked for a British company and my title was Administrative Director. Subsequently when job searching in the US I always put Office Manager as my previous position.

      2. Hats Are Great*

        It’s funny when someone who’s not aware of this is told they’re going to meet with the “corporate secretary” and think they’re walking into a meeting with a pleasant young person who does typing and filing, and they walk into the meeting and discover it’s the CFO or the organization’s senior attorney, the one who has to sign the companies SEC filings every year.

    3. Philosophia*

      I seem to remember reading that originally a “typewriter” meant the person operating the said machine and not the machine itself.

      1. Your Local Password Resetter*

        “Computer” also originally referred to people who did math for a living.
        It’s funny how words can drift so much even in a few decades.

          1. Eliza*

            They did, which led to the wonderful line, “now that our IBM system is operational, we don’t need computers any more”.

          2. Seeking Second Childhood*

            Yes, that was the correct term for the person before the development of electronic devices to do the tasks.
            My great-aunt did computations for the US Army during WWII. She was visibly delighted when I used the correct term introducing her to my fiance. Such a little thing to bring her so much joy.

    4. LizM*

      Yup. I have a colleague who started as a secretary in a federal agency (when they were called secretaries, now we mostly call them Administrative Technicians or Executive Assistants, depending on the role and the size/rank of the team they’re supporting), and worked her way up to be a subject matter expert and counselor to the Assistant Secretary in our agency (Assistant Secretary is a Senate appointed position and reports directly to the Secretary or the Deputy Secretary). She jokes that her career path looks like it’s going backwards, she went from being a secretary to working for an assistant secretary.

      1. De Minimis*

        I think there are still a few jobs with the secretary title in the federal system [I know I’ve encountered at a couple], but a lot of the time I see similar jobs called “Office Automation Assistant,” which sounds vaguely technical.

      2. SnappinTerrapin*

        There was a time when State government agencies headed by a Board or Commission would have a senior executive under them, titled “Executive Secretary.” It wasn’t unusual for the second senior executive to be titled “Administrative Assistant.”

        One of the badges I collected over the course of my career identifies me as Administrative Assistant to a Board.

      1. MK*

        Which would make very good sense, because both high-level gov’t officials and Office Managers have secret-keeping as part of their jobs!

    5. Claire*

      I worked for a not for profit where Secretary was a very high position and sometimes it was hard to explain to new outside stakeholders! If I referenced just one Secretary I could say “Secretary of Finance” or something but the group of them were regularly referred to as “the secretaries” or “at the secretary-level.”

    6. Orange You Glad*

      Secretary is still used as a corporate-level position. Most corporations are required to appoint a Secretary (in addition to a Treasurer and a President) to register for business. That is really the only context I still use the title for. Anyone at a lower level doing administrative work usually has an “administrative assistant” or “office manager” title.

      I volunteer for a nonprofit and was appointed their Corporate Secretary. Every once in a while I have to remind someone that no, my job is not to file paperwork and send out reminder emails.

    7. Hats Are Great*

      Yeah, I used to work in an industry where secretary is more akin to the old version meaning “secret-keeper” or “very senior person in charge of very important things.”

      It’s funny because only people senior enough to be called “secretary” (in the big-boss way) actually have secretaries in the administrative sense, who assists them in correspondence and can access their important documents. Anyone who’s called an executive assistant or similar does calendaring and filing type things, and does not have access to the information that the secretaries (of the big-boss secretaries) have.

      The most junior big-boss secretary at my last organization earned $300,000 a year plus stock options. Administrative secretaries started at around $90,000 a year and most made closer to 120. Executive assistants earned like $60,000.

      I frequently have to remind myself that this is an outlier in American business, and that I should not call assistants “secretaries” unless they want to be called secretaries, and that sexism is a thing that exists, and administrative/secretarial work is frequently devalued.

  3. AJoftheInternet*

    The whole conversation surrounding this reminds me of the frankly horrible song in the musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, titled “A Secretary is Not a Toy.”

    1. Gerry Keay*

      How to Succeed won a pulitzer when it came out in the 60s! It’s a satire of corporate America during that time and that song is specifically critiquing misogynistic practices, not endorsing them!!

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a Pulitzer for drama! I’m looking it up now, why have I only heard of it in terms of newspapers before? Very interesting!

      2. AJoftheInternet*

        It’s a fantastic show. Maybe it was just how it was played at the production I saw, or the whiplash of watching my husband act in it, but I really hated that song.

    2. Cat Meowmy Admin*

      Or, how about “Take A Letter, Maria’ ?! I’m dating myself – hit song of the 1960s, great melody, but the words…!

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” theme song has typewriters in the background… and her character was the harassing slime-boss’s secretary.

    3. Umiel12*

      That is my favorite musical play. It’s like Mad Men set to music, except that is was contemporary and not a period piece.

  4. Essentially Cheesy*

    In my own experience I would agree with you on the ‘old fashioned’ part. An old boss would call me his secretary frequently and he was also very much the 40+ year long-timer (now retired).

  5. oranges*

    This is really great news, and I’m happy you’re seeing positive results. I cringe at the term “secretary”, and if you were my friend/co-worker, I’d have encouraged you to do it long ago too.

  6. jiggle mouse*

    My boomer mom used to tell young gen X me to never learn to type or I’d always be a secretary :P

    1. ENFP in Texas*

      LOL, my Boomer mom told GenX me (and my GenX brothers) that we had to take at least one Typing class in high school, because computers were going to become the standard and we needed to at least be above the “hunt and peck” level.

      My dad worked for IBM, so she was a little biased… but she was also very right!

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          My Boomer mom made my sister take typing, because she’d need it to write papers in college. (I was self taught on the word processor she insisted we buy.)

          She used a computer at work in the 80s, & saw those skills as needed.

            1. Charlotte Lucas*

              My dad was in a skilled trade, but he had worked on electronics in the military. They definitely saw those things as the future.

          1. Pikachu*

            My stay-at-home mom learned to type because she liked Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. I am pretty sure that is still the only “video game” she has ever played. Luckily she built skills for the ages!

          2. banoffee pie*

            I’m still pissed my mum wouldn’t teach me how to touch type despite the fact teaching it was her job, and she got to a ridiculously fast level herself, even compared to most teachers. She said there was ‘no point’ or some such rubbish. I’m pretty quick, not really hunt and peck, but still just two fingers. I’m gonna teach myself to touch type from those games on the internet I think.

            1. Not Your Secretary*

              You should! I, like many millenial/Gen Z-ers, learned in middle school and it’s more about repetition than anything. I learned in about 30 mins a day for a couple of months as a thirteen year old. It might take a little longer after years of ingrained habits, but it’s saved me countless hours as an adult (even just in comments sections hahaha).

      1. jiggle mouse*

        I never did learn formal typing, due to dyslexia issues, but I can 2-finger type fast enough to pass most workplace typing tests. Computers were just becoming a thing when I was in high school, and offered as a math class where we learned to write basic since software wasn’t really common yet.
        My dad was functionally illiterate but a natural engineer (thanks Navy!) and his post-military employer gave him a nice solid computer/programming education (for that era) so he could continue inventing solutions for the industry.

        1. Wants Green Things*

          Unite, 2 finger typers! I had typing classes in elementary and middle school, but my 2 finger typing was always way faster than “proper” typing. Now my typing is a mish-mash of the two forms, but still significantly faster than 8 fingers.

          1. After 33 years ...*

            Yes, as one who was required by a parent to take a high-school typing class – the only class I almost failed – I am a 50+ year serial two-finger typist.

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        Same. I had to take a semester of “practical art” in HS, and typing was pretty much the only thing that satisfied the requirement. Most useful class I ever took, taught by a lovely, patient woman who’d spent her first career as an executive assistant. She used to joke that 30 high school kids x 5 classes per day was a walk in the park after her first career.

        I am an excellent, fast typist and never found myself pigeonholed into admin work having that particular skill. (Probably because I lack a lot of other skills to be a good admin – mine is excellent and I could not do her job nearly as well.)

    2. Lifelong student*

      I’m a boomer- and my Mother told me the same thing! I was once one of the few or maybe only female on a community input panel- when it was mentioned that someone should take notes. Everyone looked at me- I kept my mouth shut and ignored the looks!

      1. WomEngineer*

        Gen Z here. I’ve also been advised to avoid too much “emotional labor” tasks (i.e. note-taking, social/community event planning, etc.) that’s outside my job description. It’s especially true for women in male-dominated fields. Personally, I enjoy those activities as long as my regular work is just as visible to others.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          Interesting to see note-taking in there. I know people who deliberately cultivated and offer that skill because it gets them invited to meetings they’d otherwise be too junior to attend.

          1. Not Your Secretary*

            I think, like most things on AAM, that’s all about your supervisor/who’s running the meeting! I’m a millenial woman and I’ve had supervisors where I’d feel totally confident offering to take notes to listen in on meetings I wouldn’t usually be in, and I’ve had supervisors where I knew either that offering would play into their ideas of what women should do in the workplace, which I like to avoid of-itself, or that offering would open the door to me be called upon to do care-tasks around the office.

        2. Mockingjay*

          The problem with note-taking is that you can’t participate fully in discussions. Over time, this can lead to you being seen as solely a minutes taker, especially in a male-dominated field.

          I have personal experience with this perception. It DOES affect your career if you are in a technical or tech support role. Interestingly, I have coworkers in administrative roles who are highly regarded by all. (There’s not enough of them to cover all meetings, which is why I get asked to do minutes. I refuse. Thank goodness my boss has my back.)

        3. So long and thanks for all the fish*

          I (female) was once in a meeting with my (female) boss and four male colleagues at my level. She asked that someone take notes, then realized I was the only one who’d brought a notebook and wouldn’t let me, lol. I loved her.

    3. OyHiOh*

      My Boomer-but-not-traditional-career-path mother made me learn to type when I was in about 5th grade, and then I had a mandatory keyboarding/business communications class in high school as well. My mom’s motivation was her firm and certain expectation that I was going to college and wanting me to be capable of typing long papers well. When I fussed about practicing typing, she’d tell me stories of working on her Master’s thesis; getting almost to the bottom of a page and making a mistake she couldn’t over write with white out and having to start over.

    4. SOUPervisor*

      My boomer aunt –who now teaches programming– said that she very deliberately did not learn to type as a young adult for just that reason, but now complains that her co-instructor types so much faster than she does

      1. skadhu*

        I’m a boomer who very deliberately and strategically took only one year of typing. I wanted to learn to touch type because it was obviously a useful skill, but even at 14 I knew that I definitely didn’t want to get good enough at it that anyone would hire me. The strategy worked perfectly, and I’m a fast typist now because I’ve used the skill for so many years.

        1. Lady_Lessaa*

          I took typing in HS, only one course because I was college bound. But one of my memories of that course was that due to being seated alphabetically, I had the only IBM Selectric, which was down a lot. Normal classes weren’t a problem because I could move to another electric one. Test time, and I was stuck on a manual one that I didn’t know how to set the tabs.

    5. Barb*

      I’m a late boomer myself and my all girl Catholic HS had a business typing class for the girls who were going to be secretaries, graded on wpm and accuracy, and a personal typing class for the girls going to college.
      I took the latter class (taught by a 90 yo nun) and still think it was the most useful class I took in HS. I still use those skills every day.
      I graduated HS in 1979

    6. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I’m straight in the middle of Gen X (born early 70s) and feel like I grew up with computers on some level — we had an Atari — and I absolutely was encouraged to learn to type; first on a typewriter, then quickly to a word processor and then a desktop computer and I never heard the “you’ll be a secretary!” stuff merely in relation to typing. But as a WOMAN, it’s sadly still very pervasive to assume a woman is an administrative assistant no matter what their actual job title is. I have a lot of respect for administrative assistants, however, I really bristle when I — a graphic designer — am assumed to do the tasks of an admin simply by being the woman at the table. I can’t take meeting minutes worth crap — just my own notes.

    7. Jinni*

      Same. I taught myself to type from a DOS based program when I was in graduate school. But I totally understand her fear of women being marginalized in the workplace.

    8. California Dreamin'*

      My husband (cusp between boomer/GenX) was told by his dad that he didn’t need to bother learning to type because he would just have a secretary who would do his typing. Yikes! Hubby is now a senior director at a major media company, a higher level than his dad ever was, and he types all his own emails :)

      1. La Triviata*

        I’m a boomer and my mother insisted I learn to type (HS class) so I’d always have something to fall back on. She worked in various executive-level jobs but would not type things for her peers; at one job, she refused to learn to run the switchboard, since the men didn’t have to.

        Back when computers were first becoming common for professional use (i.e., using a spreadsheet for financial planning), one large company had a mandatory class for their executives so they’d learn to type and use the programs. One such executive arrived with his secretary in tow to do the typing for him. She was sent back and he – in a huff – had to take the course.

    9. Pucci*

      This boomer refused to taking typing in high school because I didn’t want to get pushed into a secretarial job. I college I typed essays with two fingers. Then the computer revolution occured, and typing became a skill for everyone, not just secretaries. However, I never learned to type, and In my current job I type reports with two fingers ( I am fast). It’s interesting how a “woman’s skill” has become and general skill for everyone.

    10. Lady Danbury*

      I’m an elder millennial (mid-80s) and my boomer mom insisted that I learn how to type bc home computers were already a thing by the time I hit adolescence. Mavis Beacon taught me how to type on our family PC. I also had a typing class in high school (I think it was a subsection of computer studies) but I was fully proficient by then.

      My mom took computer classes back in college (math major), back when they were the size of a room, so she was aware of their evolution and potential importance by the time I came along.

    11. All Outrage, All The Time*

      I learned to type in 1985 and I’ve been a “secretary” ever since. My career has incorporated investment banking, working for Boards of Directors of international human rights organisations, working in anti-child-sex-trafficking and helping to arrest pedophiles, just to name a few. I’ve earned over $100,000 a year for at least a decade. I own three properties, one I live and two which are investments. At 52 Being a career “secretary” has been a fascinating and prosperous career for me. Tell your mom there is nothing wrong with “always” being a “secretary”.

    12. LizWings*

      Me, too! My mother was proud of her crazy fast typing speed, but didn’t want me to be stuck in that role in the office myself. By the time I was in mid-high school, I could see how touch-typing would be useful for anyone, but after I signed up for a class, I was so bored to tears that I dropped it after 2 days. Now I type with about 3 fingers per hand, and it’s still an impressive speed, by today’s standards, anyway. Almost nobody needs to meet that old 120 word per minute goal to get a job anymore!

      1. ENFP in Texas*

        I was taking notes one time in a meeting with a co-worker – he and I were bouncing ideas back and forth and I was typing them into Word as we were brainstorming. The fact that I could be watching him and talking with him while touch typing and not looking at my screen kinda weirded him out.

    13. NotRealAnonForThis*

      My boomer Mom told end-of-Gen-X me to never let on that I know how to type, or I’d be stuck typing notes for some dumb llama groomer instead of being a llama groomer myself. (She made it very clear that we did need to know how to type or any sort of professional life was going to pass us by!)

      She wasn’t wrong, by the way. The first half of my career as a llama groomer I vaguely pretended to not know how to type around anyone who really didn’t need to know it, and watched a few coworkers at my level be asked constantly to type notes for llama groomers.

    14. Betsy*

      My Greatest Generation dad told Boomer me that typing meant an indoor, seated job, which was a huge step up from his experience, and he encouraged his daughters towards nurse, teacher or secretary. I’ve done admin work from the 70s straight through to now, with job titles ranging from secretary (oh, how clever the old dudes thought they were with “sexetary”) to HR Coordinator. Good admins are the unsung heroes of every organization, no matter what they’re titled.

    15. Lord Peter Wimsey (she/her)*

      My mother, who worked a secretary in the 1960s, encouraged me (a female GenX high school student in the 1980s) to go to college, for the sole reason that as a college graduate, I’d have an advantage over all the other secretaries.

  7. Hippo-nony-potomus*

    My intuition is that “secretary” is a job of a different era. In the days of typewriters, before voicemail, and before word processing and email, the basics of communication took quite a long time. Filing was manual and incredibly time consuming – it was actually my first summer job.

    Administrative assistants and especially executive assistants perform a more expansive set of duties. They do special projects, a lot of the tasks that are necessary to keep an office running (QuickBooks), and some executive assistants represent their managers at high-level meetings. Which is to say, someone with that title is seen as representing the manager/executive, and I’m not sure that “secretary” conveys quite the same thing.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      And originally it was a job done by a man. It had the status of a respectable entry level position for a young man of wealth or bright man moving up from the trades. As it became open to women, the position was seen not as a stepping stone, but a plateau. The term took on a connotation of lesser or below.
      Since high level military and government positions were slower in opening positions to women, Secretary retains a power attached to it, that makes modern people scratch their heads, “why is HE called a secretary?”
      For a similar evolution, look at the changing roles of librarians since Dewey opened the schools to women.

  8. banoffee pie*

    I’ve noticed I’ve heard the word secretary a lot less recently. The term office manager, or maybe administrator, if you’re not actually running the whole office, has taken over in the UK.

  9. RagingADHD*

    I don’t think the term secretary is demeaning at all, but it is a different job function than an office manager. It makes sense that companies needing HR documentation wouldn’t accept it from a secretary, because a secretary does not normally have authority to make decisions and sign off on things. They handle routine communications as a proxy for the decision maker.

    An office manager does have a certain amount of decision making authority, so when you’re functioning in that role, it only makes sense to use the appropriate title.

    1. Theatre girl in an office world*

      I was really surprised last year when I was part of a search committee that a candidate was flat eliminated from consideration for calling someone his “secretary”. It isn’t used at the university, everyone is either an administrative assistant or an executive assistant, but that the word was seen as so sexist and demeaning was shocking.

      Meanwhile I have lived with both terms long enough that to me they seem interchangeable.

  10. Roscoe*

    Its interesting, because I’ve worked in offices with “secretaries” and “office managers”. I don’t really see them as the same thing. Yes, some of their duties may overlap, but overall, at least in my experience, they aren’t necessarily the same.

    If its working out of OP, great. But I think this is one of those things where people will have very different ideas and it will vary based on the company, that doesn’t however make it demeaning.

    I’m in Sales. Realistically, depending on the company and Account Executive and Outside Sales rep, may do the exact same thing. It doesn’t really matter to me (though on resume’s I do go with Account Executive because I think it looks better). But personally, I don’t care. I know what my job i. .

    1. TBS*

      It sounds like OP is the only admin in the office, so she is doing the job of office manager and assistant. In a larger office the roles might be different, but I’m guessing in such a small office those roles merge together.

  11. Late For the Party*

    I had concerns about my son not being able to spell so I had a meeting with his elementary school principal about possible testing for dyslexia, among other things. She told me not to worry about it as he would have a secretary to correct his mistakes when he got to the real world. I told her that, heaven forbid, he becomes the secretary! In his real world job, he reads doctors reports all day and creates a synopsis of the report. No secretary in sight but he says spellcheck is his best friend.

    1. Shad*

      Oh hey, that’s about half of my job, too! And spellcheck is definitely a godsend, even if it doesn’t always know the specialized terms or medication names (the squiggly line is still a good flag to double check that I got it right).

      1. techie*

        Most word processing programs will let you add words to the dictionary. Once you’ve checked the spelling once, you can add it to your personal dictionary and it will stop complaining about it on future docs

    2. Lady Danbury*

      I’ve lead an entire legal department and still never had a secretary (or any equivalent, lol). The world in which every single senior executive has their own admin definitely seems like a thing of the past for many organizations.

    3. MCMonkeyBean*

      What an odd thing for her to say! Was that just a passing comment intending to reassure you as you guys set up the testing, or was she saying don’t bother with the testing? Odd either way, but the latter seems like a concerning approach for a principal!

  12. Kate*

    I used to get this even with “Executive Assistant” at one of my old jobs. We worked solely with CEOs / COOs, etc (the first time I’d ever heard the word “C Suite” used to describe a group of roles). I had to go to a meeting on behalf of my boss (basically in any situation he wasn’t available, I was him), and my nameplate said “Kate – Executive Assistant, “.

    I got ignored. No one listened to my explanation of an event we were running and how it would impact their session, and the Ministers we’d lined up to attend.

    Spoke to my boss afterwards, and he changed my title to “Manager – Executive Office, “, because that’s what one of the major telco company’s called their CEO’s EA. Apparently it was enough, because from then on, if I was answering a question, they actually paid attention. Really strange how such a small thing makes some people act so differently!

    1. They Don’t Make Sunday*

      If I had been in that meeting I would have listened to you! EAs know everything. Weird that other execs wouldn’t be self-aware enough to realize that. Hierarchy does funny things to people’s brains.

      1. whomever*

        Oh yeah, and the golden rule of work. NEVER NEVER NEVER get on the wrong side of the EA of your boss, and if you do, just quit because it’ll not end well…

      2. Kate*

        I will admit I used to use it as a tool at some times too – when someone would walk up and ask “hey, can you tell me about the XYZ project” – knowing it was confidential, but hoping that the EA might think that they were allowed to know or let something slip cause we weren’t “knowledgeable enough” to know about confidentiality (those words were used). For those people I’d just go “oh, I don’t know anything about that, I don’t get to participate in those kinds of talks, I just take notes when they tell me what to write down”. Half the time I was the one leading the project. hahahaha

    2. MissDisplaced*

      Sadly, titles do matter.
      I had one place try to change my title from manager to specialist without my permission and I unfortunately had to throw a fit. In my field, that would be considered a huge demotion from manager, and I wasn’t having it.

      I don’t hear secretary used often anymore. It’s a shame people didn’t give you respect regardless of the title.

      1. Cj*

        I started a new job yesterday, and I just sort of assumed that would be senior tax accountant. I got my business cards today, and they say tax manager. As far as I know, I’m not managing anybody. It looks good to the clients though, I guess.

      2. Kate*

        I think they matter a lot across cultures as well – secretary in Australia if different to the US, and Asia. One of my previous jobs wanted to standardise the secretary title across the globe (to refer to all EAs), and whilst the US team seemed OK with it, the Aussie team lost our minds, and the Asian teams told them in no uncertain terms where to shove it, because their EAs are called “Business Manager”.

    3. CalypsoSummer*

      I was lucky enough to attend a fascinating talk on How To Get Hired And Do Well After That, years ago. It was given by a woman who had considerable experience in office management, and one of her positions was managing a multi-physician practice. The doctors had just formed their partnership and were in the process of opening their office, and she could NOT get them to listen to her recommendations. She couldn’t understand why they were paying her considerable salary if they didn’t want her expertise — and then, one day, she looked at them, and she looked at herself, and she reached over and snabbled the extra white coat hanging on the coat rack.

      She said she never had another bit of trouble. Once she too was wearing The White Coat of Authority, they listened to her suggestions and agreed with her recommendations, and while life was not always one long sweet song, at least things ran a lot more smoothly in the practice.

      1. Kate*

        Hahahaha – “The White Coat of Authority” – going to steal that and adjust to where necessary! Currently in construction, so it might be “The Red Hard Hat of Authority”!! :)

  13. OyHiOh*

    I started my current role as administrative assistant. A few days in, my boss realized that I was going to be doing an awful lot more than just entry level admin assistant duties and told me to make my business cards out as office manager. A year in, we’ve settled on “regional representative” because, while I still do office admin, I also sometimes need to attend public meetings and other functions where a “representative” of the organization gets paid attention to better than the back office person, as office managers are frequently thought of around here.

    As the OP and her boss both have discovered, titles are weird, changeable, and flexible. If I was job hunting, I’d say that I’d been the office manager but in day-to-day, the title is somewhat variable depending on what I actually need to do.

  14. Julia*

    I have strong feelings about this particular linguistic treadmill. The only reason “secretary” had to become “administrative assistant” and “stewardess” had to become “flight attendant” is because society denigrates these groups.

    We all agree these used to be neutral descriptive words. Some people say they became gauche insults because people used them as gauche insults. But it’s not just that they were explicitly used as insults. It’s because these are considered low-status things to be. Every female accountant who has ever snapped “look, I’m not a secretary”, every passenger who snaps his fingers and calls “Stewardess!”, is not using these terms as an insult. They’re just using the terms descriptively; it’s the context that is demeaning because these people are demeaned.

    So changing the words is not going to fix anything. “Admin” will eventually be demeaning too. I’d like to see more groups of people reclaiming the original word, like we have done with “fat” and “queer”. “Yes, I’m one of those. What of it?”

    1. RagingADHD*

      Oh, I guess you haven’t yet seen the folks around here who get very ruffled about not being “just an admin.”

      We’re already there.

      1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

        Not to mention the people who get VERY ruffled indeed at being mistaken for an admin. Why, that’s an INSULT!

    2. jiggle mouse*

      My workplace uses ‘admin’ for administration, as in the people at the top of the hierarchy. It always sounds odd to hear a lower level assistant referred to by the same term.

    3. Lirael*

      Paraphrasing, but the problem with women is that instead of jobs like “doctor” or “pilot” they go for jobs like “female doctor” or “female pilot” which are less well paid……

      (Sarcasm, in case anyone is unclear)

    4. Richard Hershberger*

      This is a recognized phenomenon in linguistics. Steven Pinker calls it the “euphemism treadmill.”

    5. MCMonkeyBean*

      I mostly agree, but I think it’s not that people necessarily think it’s a low-status thing to be. It *is* insulting for people to assume a woman is a secretary just because she is a woman, not because there is anything wrong with being a secretary but just because they are looking at the world with the sexist assumption that that was all women did. It makes sense to find that insulting. Just as a doctor may be insulted that people assume she is a nurse for no reason other than her gender, but that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with being a nurse! It’s just not the path she chose or the job she worked for and it’s insulting when people mistakenly put you in the wrong box based on sexist assumptions.

      But I agree that some of the pushback on the term came out of people pushing back on being called a secretary because that was genuinely not their job. And it’s a little bit silly because giving the job a new name doesn’t stop people from walking into a room and assuming the woman is the “admin assistant” just because she’s the only woman in the room.

      But I think it’s also true that the term is a bit dated just because the nature of the job has changed a lot.

      1. Julia*

        “…not because there is anything wrong with being a secretary but just because they are looking at the world with the sexist assumption that that was all women did.”

        Well, the problem with the sexist assumption isn’t just that these women aren’t secretaries. I doubt a male nurse is going to get all that offended if someone assumes he’s a doctor. It’s about people assuming you do something more low-status than you actually do; it’s not just about the assumption being incorrect. And the reason for the assumption is that women historically have held low-status roles. So the low-status thing is inextricable from the rest of it.

    1. Can't Sit Still*

      Well, there’s not a lot of jobs more specialized than hospital switchboard operator! I have nothing but respect for the switchboard operators, regardless of title, and I’ve always admired how cool you all are under pressure. And that you know everything! The last hospital I worked at, the switchboard operators had different titles to designate whether or not they were union, so it was essentially by hire date.

  15. Mrs. Hawiggins*

    I still get “are you Dr. so and so’s secretary,” I kindly state that I’m the administrator for the office. When they ask it’s not an insult some of them just are not familiar with titles/responsibilities today. It’s usually a generation or two away from mine. But of course if you google Mrs. Wiggins from the Carol Burnett show, as is my screen name (pronounced Mr. Tudball’s way), you’ll see a hysterical representation of a secretary, but that of course was back in the day.

    Then of course my boss will tell them “Of course she’s my secretary. Secretary of Defense.”

    It’s outdated, but it’s not insulting. I once had a visitor tell my boss, “Can I ask your girl to make a phone call for me.” That raised an eyebrow or twelve.

      1. Mrs. Hawiggins*

        Afraid so. Boss said, “My who?” and the old guy stuttered and stammered a bit, and boss showed him the phone in the lobby. So the whole rest of the day he said he had the song, “My Girl,” stuck in his head. I miss that boss a lot. He was one of the most supportive and motivating people I’ve ever supported. It was an honor to be his secretary ahem office administrator, friend. He got me two job offers based on his letters of recommendations and references. ‘Scuse me I need a tissue.

        1. La Triviata*

          Years ago, I saw a client tell a female vice president of the large, international company we worked for to get him a cup of coffee … and fix it the way he wanted it. She then had her assistant fetch the coffee.

      2. Gumby*

        I mean, over the long weekend I watched some old Project Runway episodes and cringed at the ***multiple*** times they referred to the models as girls. Pretty sure I was watching season 7. It was aired in 2010. “I’m going to send in the girls/your girls” type stuff. Just… ugh. I checked (because I was annoyed), and all of the models were at least 19.

    1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

      I’m sorry to say that at my job, “girls” is sometimes used as a synonym for the office staff. There are female managers, sales reps, and on up the hierarchy but of course no one would call them girls. There is one African-American male administrative assistant and I can imagine the fallout if anyone called him “boy.”

  16. TootsNYC*

    I remember reading old novels in which the high-powered executive had a secretary, and that secretary knew exactly as much as the boss, and was generally authorized to act on his behalf.

      1. Sleeping Late Every Day*

        When I was first in the work force in the late 60s, “executive secretary” was the head honcho administrative person in an office. Other workers were regular secretaries (more highly skilled than just typists), general clerks, typists, and file clerks. Executive secretaries had authority over all of them, and had skills like shorthand so they attended meetings. They were the eyes and ears of the boss for nearly everything, and frequently would be asked for input on any matter of business questions. Now that same position is usually Executive Assistant, and there aren’t many typists or file clerks; everyone does their own.

  17. Big Bird*

    For those of us of a certain age, remember “Games Mother Never Taught You”? It came out in the late ’70s. Its advice for dealing with men who insisted that women had to make the coffee, do the filing, etc. when it wasn’t part of their job descriptions was to do it so spectacularly badly that no one would dare ask again. Make the coffee so weak as to be undrinkable, spill the tea, all the while apologizing profusely while explaining this is not part of the job so you never learned how to do it. When asked to file, leave the papers in a corner of your office, conspicuously labeled “John’s Papers”, for as long as it takes. The passive-aggressive tactics are dated now, of course, but I wish I still had my copy.

  18. More dopamine, please*

    As a very young woman in the late nineties, I had a job where my title was “Secretary to the Director.” I remember sitting next to a woman on an airplane who was horrified at the title and thought it was demeaning.

    At the time, I wrote it off, but looking back, it was just one indicator of rampant inequality throughout that organization.

  19. My title is GRAND Poobah*

    I think if you worked in an office with a lot of admins you would find a number of them (not all) to be status conscious. Titles are very important for some of those people, and not because they want their co-workers to gain more recognition. A typical worker who feels titles are very important is someone who wants to communicate that SHE is very important, or at least MORE important than someone else. If someone else is an administrative assistant, she needs to be called executive assistant. If someone else is executive assistant, she needs to be called SENIOR executive assistant, and so on.

    1. Sleeping Late Every Day*

      That sounds pretty snobbish toward anyone who is in the admin field, especially using a phrase like “those people.”

    2. Purple Princess*

      I mean.. that happens in all professions and industries; some people are very title-conscious, others less so. If one worker is a support engineer, HE needs to be a technical engineer. If someone else is a technical engineer, HE needs to be called a Senior Technical Engineer, and so on. Or junior/senior/lead accountant. Or whatever. Admin is no different to any other career in that regard.

      Besides.. titles can and do mean something, whether that’s in an admin hierarchy or elsewhere. A senior admin may have several years more experience, or a wider breadth of knowledge, and the “senior” title helps to signify that to others in the organisation and beyond. It can also help to separate levels of authority and responsibility – an admin assistant may not have the authority to approve office supply purchases, or sign off on projects, whereas a senior admin may have that responsibility.

      And not to mention, titles are often negotiated as part of hiring and promotion. They are a good way to demonstrate career growth on a CV – compare one candidate with 10 years of admin assistant, and one candidate with 3 years as admin assistant, 4 years as executive admin and 2 years of senior executive admin. There’s an obvious growth in the second candidate that isn’t immediately obvious in the first. Titles – whether in admin or any other career path – are ways of delineating seniority and responsibility and not just a way for someone to communicate how important they feel they are.

    3. RagingADHD*

      I think that’s just realistic.

      Hierarchy is a real thing, and people really do treat you differently based on your perceived importance in the “food chain” of the office. Admins (or secretaries, or EAs, or whatever you want to call it) get treated with a lot of disrespect. Any little incremental improvement can make the one-third of your life you spend a work a bit less demoralizing.

  20. RabbitRabbit*

    Reminds me of when one of our office’s staff left and I ended up being saddled with his job in the interim (for several months) until the office was reorganized. After a month or so, I slapped “Interim Finance Manager” (not quite but very close) into my email signature, and none of the bosses in the office said a word about it.

  21. not always right*

    Boomer here. I was told to take typing by a family friend who worked at IBM. She said that I would need the skill for when computers would replace typewriters; however she was concerned about letters on the computer keyboard. Apparently at that time, they were experimenting with keyboards not using QWERTY. I wish I could remember the keyboard letter placements. I thinks vowels were on the top row? Whatever, I am so glad I took typing in high school. I took it mainly for an easy B and because there was no homework as typewriters were not common household items.

    1. Wants Green Things*

      The Dvorak keyboard! All the most commonly used letters are in the “home” positions, resulting in less movement. Apparently people could type so fast on typewriters that way that they’d break the typewriter keys.

      1. Ariaflame*

        Some of my typing (and I’m not an astoundingly fast typist, but fast enough – my mother insisted I do ‘secretarial studies’ as a back up for my science studies, and being able to type my own PhD thesis did speed a lot of things up in the end) I find that even on computer keyboards you can get a ‘sticky’ problem when I don’t release the shift fast enough and get two capital letters at the start of a word.

        1. Daisy Avalin*

          Cosigning this comment – either double capital letters at the start of a word/sentence, or no capital letters after quotation marks, because I’ve released the shift key too quickly! And typing as fast as my brain, but having to go back and add/change letters because I’ve hit the wrong ones!

        2. Mockingjay*

          I wear out keyboards pretty quickly, especially the [A], [Caps Lock], and left [Shift] keys. Oh, and I have a very shiny spot on the Space bar from my right thumb. I got an ergonomic keyboard hoping it would help, but no.

          Might be from my old Adler typewriter (which I still have :) ). Wrote all my college papers on that beauty. Gorgeous font but the keys were a little heavy.

  22. Retired Prof*

    At my university there is no job classification called “secretary”; the category is Administrative Support and you can be an Assistant (ASA) or a Coordinator (ASC). But every academic department has someone they unofficially call the department secretary who might be an ASA but is probably an ASC, and who may work alone or preside over an office full of ASAs and ASCs. So the term “secretary” is reserved for the administrative head honcho in the office – it’s a position of honor.

  23. Jasmine*

    I learned to type in 8th grade on a huge typewriter donated by a local business that updated. It was so hard to push the key down with my pinky finger I thought would sprain it. So happy I learned because it has come in useful for typing reports in school and using the computer now. my only regret is that I never got to learn the numbers because it was a very short course.

  24. Richard Hershberger*

    “Legal secretary” is still a thing. The role is much like a traditional secretary, but with some specialized skills added. We also see “legal assistant.” This is vaguer. My job title is “paralegal.” If someone called me a “legal assistant” they wouldn’t be wrong, but it also can mean “legal secretary” which I am not, though I can fill in in a pinch. “Paralegal” is already the most under-defined job title I know. I know how I spend my day. I don’t know how someone else with the same title spends theirs, even within the same legal specialization. “Legal assistant” manages to be even vaguer. On the other hand this sometimes is a good thing. I often call another office and ask for a lawyer’s assistant, not caring whether this is a paralegal or a secretary. My sense is that in smaller practices support roles often get mingled together, so one person may be doing jobs traditionally associated with both, while in larger practices these roles are more clearly defined.

  25. Amethystmoon*

    Secretary is definitely an outdated term. Even when I temped in the early 00’s, my job titles were things like Administrative Assistant, Data Entry Operator, and Receptionist. Once it was “Records Clerk.” Now it’s “Specialist,” and we do administrative things like data entry, but not traditional secretarial things like scheduling meetings or answering phones for the whole department. But the whole thing about being discriminated against is ridiculous. People should at least be polite and professional to those who call them on the phone, get paperwork from, etc.

  26. Katie Gibbs Grad*

    Are secretarial schools still around at all? How do office managers and “assistants” at various levels get trained?

  27. Adds*

    This is my experience currently. My function is office manager/bookkeeper/person who makes sure the office doesn’t implode and wears 7 different hats. My email signature is office manager/bookkeeper. I refer to myself as either of those.

    My boss/company owner is old-fashioned and will occasionally call me his secretary (or office girl if he’s feeling particularly 1963 Mad Men with himself) but usually his office manager or assistant.

    I will also accept the working title of Friday or Radar and if my boss ever read Wodehouse I’d throw Jeeves in the mix too because who doesn’t like a good literary/pop culture reference.

  28. Can't Sit Still*

    My title is Executive Assistant and I’m in the SF Bay Area. My company was acquired by a company that reserves that title for C-suite support only and they are located far, far away. I explained to our HR rep that if they wanted to keep their current admin support, they’d have to grandfather the titles in. I pushed hard and provided examples of departures from our sister company’s acquisitions. We kept our titles and our annual bonuses, but if we transfer internally, we lose the grandfathered titles and our bonus. However, it definitely makes a difference when I’m dealing with HQ. Even though they know I don’t support the C-suite, they still treat me with more respect than someone with an AA title. It’s very silly, but it does make a difference.

  29. Ailurophile*

    This reminds me of when I worked for a state legislator. The job was temporary during the three-month legislative session, so often the assistants would change every year. (The only permanent secretaries/assistants were to legislators who were major committee chairs, and technically those people reported to the committee rather than an individual.) The legislature thought it was perfectly fine for all the assistants’ email addresses to read DelegateLastName_secretary@state.gov. My boss (we’ll say Delegate Pineapple) thought this was outdated and outrageous, so he made IT create an email with my name and had all Pineapple_secretary@state.gov emails forwarded to it. He also insisted that my title should read Administrative Assistant. He did this for all his assistants for as long as he worked for the legislature.

    Much like LW, this made a huge difference for how people perceived me. I noticed that I could get callbacks from other agencies more quickly than others in the office. People were less likely to assume my email was some type of auto-reply or monitored inbox because it had my actual name instead of a generic title, so I also got more responses with more detailed information than my fellow secretaries. The responsibilities were identical, but the perception made my life easier.

  30. Gina*

    I had to give myself a title at my job. It’s a small office (only 5 of us) but we can have 50 or more out in the field if we have the work. At first there was really no description for my job other than “the girl who runs the payroll”. Turns out the IRS is a bit more picky than you would think! LOL Honestly though they preferred to discuss tax matters with the payroll admin. So did the union benefit funds offices. So tada! I am now the payroll admin/office manager. I’ve also somehow become the estimating coordinator among other things but that’s another story.

    If you don’t have the title you need to do your job effectively it can cause a bunch of time wasting pain the butt issues.

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