No spoiler alert is needed for the observation that a lot of secretaries — “girls” — were unceremoniously shuffled between desks in the latest episode of AMC’s Mad Men. It certainly wasn’t a first on the show. The period drama centers around a New York ad agency in the 1960s and is a fascinating glimpse into just how far we’ve come as a society since then in treating and utilizing administrative staff (and women).
Today, April 23, we celebrate Administrative Professionals Day by recognizing the hard work of secretaries, receptionists, administrative assistants, office managers and other support professionals. It’s an opportunity to show gratitude to your administrative staff, and depending on the culture and size of your company, this can mean taking an assistant out for lunch or sharing gifts with a team of administrators.
The role of administrative workers in the past century has had an interesting progression, and Mad Men captures one of the biggest turning points. (In fact, it’s a telling indicator of this progression to see how fictional secretaries have been portrayed in television and film over the years — from Dolly Parton as Doralee Rhodes in 9 to 5 to Maulik Pancholy as Jonathan in 30 Rock.)
Let’s take a look at the 100-year-old history of the administrative profession.
From Office Worker to ‘Office Wife’
Before World War I, most administrative work was done by men. When men started going off to war in great numbers, women stepped into these roles at offices back home — and stayed.
This changed the dynamic of the work, according to a Corp! Magazine interview with Susan Fenner, the education and professional development manager of the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP).
“It went from being an office worker to being almost an office wife. A secretary was almost a perk of a position. You didn’t have a secretary until you became a vice president or whatever. That person went along with that title. That’s when they started doing everything from picking up dry cleaning to doing the coffee or sending out Christmas cards.”
Professionalization and Certification
But soon secretaries became indispensable office partners, half of a secretary-manager team that worked together up the corporate ladder. Fenner’s organization, the IAAP, was founded in 1942. “Secretaries Day” became a recognized holiday a decade later, when the U.S. Commerce Department gave its official blessing to an entire week of recognition for the employees who keep offices running smoothly.
In the period covered by Mad Men, administrative work increasingly demanded advanced technical and managerial skills. The industry responded by giving administrative professionals more and more opportunities for education and certification.
The IAAP was the first to offer secretarial certification in 1951. On its website, the organization states that the program “set a high bar, and it established that our members were not merely support players. They were and are full, professional members of their office teams. Certification made it clear that being an administrative professional is a career, not just a job.”
Broader Language, More Variety
In 2001, the name of this week’s celebration was changed to Administrative Professionals Day to recognize an increasingly wide range of support professionals.
The word “secretary” had come to sound old-fashioned, harkening back to the coffee-fetching “girls” of the 1950s, and a survey of IAAP membership at the time revealed most of its members did not have “secretary” in their titles anymore. This still holds true, but the trend may be reversing in recent years, possibly a “Mad Men effect” stoked by “a certain nostalgia for the 1950s-era classic image of the American corporate secretary,” according to the IAAP.
Language trends come and go, but the importance of administrative work is lasting. Forbes contributor Lilit Marcus, in an ode to Administrative Professionals Day, describes admins as “the backbone of any company.”
“When an executive signs a multimillion-dollar contract, the executive gets acknowledgment of the work they put into the deal. But without the help of assistants who coordinate schedules and make sure phone calls get returned, most of those big deals wouldn’t happen. It’s fun to get to sign the big contracts and cash the big checks, but someone has to do the legwork.”
How will you be celebrating Administrative Professionals Day this year?
For ideas for sharing your workplace gratitude this week and all year long, download our FREE “Ultimate Guide to Employee Gift-Giving” by clicking the link below.
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