Office design and outfits might have evolved since the Mad Men era, but the most popular job for women is still secretary, according to the U.S. Census. Four million people in the U.S. worked as secretaries or administrative assistants between the years of 2006 and 2010, and 96 percent of those people were female.
How did the job of secretary become women’s work? CNN Money has some answers — as well as an explanation for why women continue to dominate the field today.
The short answer to both questions — why secretarial work evolved as a largely female profession, and why it remains so — is that it’s cheaper to pay women to do the job. During the industrial revolution, when companies generated huge amounts of paperwork and had not digital means for managing it all, it just plain cost less to hire a woman.
Today, when women as little as 80 cents on the dollar as compared with men, it’s still cheaper to hire women to do administrative work. Technology didn’t make the impact on the profession that many people predicted.
“Every time a major new technology showed up, there were always predictions that this would spell the end of secretaries,” said Ray Weikal, spokesman for the International Association of Administrative Professionals, in an interview with CNN. “You saw that with the development of electric typewriters, the personal computer, and the internet, but every time technology gets more efficient, the amount of business increases. You continue to need people who can use those tools.”
Another explanation for the popularity of the job is that it’s an awfully broad category. In the early days of the profession, the category included stenographers and typists, as well as admins; now it encompasses everything from personal assistants to department coordinators to office managers, depending on who you ask.
One thing that has changed in recent years is the term “secretary.” Over time, most companies replaced the term with “administrative professional” or “executive assistant” to reflect the change in attitudes toward this important — if still under-appreciated — job.
The job title might not be on its way out, however. The International Association of Administrative Professionals reported a slight increase in the popularity of the term “secretary” in 2011. Why the sudden boost, after decades of decline? The popularity of Mad Men.
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