I was reading a brilliant article by Lynn Peril the other day called Secretaries: glorified servant or canny career move? Although it is a little old it is well worth a look. Lynn writes about the history of the profession and her experiences as a secretary. I particularly liked her parent’s suggestion of taking a typing class so that Lynn ‘had something to fall back on’. Speaking to assistants a generation or two older than mine I get the sense that some of them took secretarial courses as something to fall back on. Some stayed within the profession because they wanted to but for the vast majority it was the only option to take as there were so few jobs available for women. But for all, the secretarial role gave many women the opportunity to earn a living.
Although the term ‘secretary’ is pretty much obsolete now and the attitude to the profession has improved (albeit not as much as it should have!) I think it is about time we celebrate our fore-sister’s skills . After all some secretary skills are still worth keeping! But,which ones?
We don’t have the typing pool anymore but typing skills are still very much a basic requirement of the assistant role. Should we still have the old fashioned speed typing tests? No, I don’t think so. I have no idea how many words per minute I can type… I haven’t been asked that question in quite a few years. But I do think it is important for assistants to be able to type quickly because, from my experience, many executives still punch at their keyboard with one finger and can take forever to write a simple email. As I’ve always said, saving our manager’s time, however we do it, is vital.
Shorthand / Stenography
I’m in awe of assistants who write in shorthand. I always wanted to learn but never quite got round to it. In the early days of my career I lost out on a few roles because I didn’t have shorthand but, I would say, in the last six years it has rarely come up in an interview let alone in the role itself. We don’t spend hours dictating our manager’s correspondence so it isn’t really necessary anymore. I do think shorthand comes in… well… handy during meetings and minute taking. After long board meetings and with a dent in my finger from hours of writing I wish I had learnt shorthand!
Organising the boss’s cocktail soiree
So I’m guessing that most organisations were not an exact replica of the sophisticated Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce offices from Mad Men but secretaries were expect to organise all types of meetings, events and annual conferences. Back in the day there were no such thing as Event Organisers instead the task landed on the secretary’s desk. It still does. We might not have to serve the actual cocktails anymore but we certainly have to oversee every single aspect of our organisation’s events.
Or as we like to call it these days ‘gatekeeping’. Screening calls is still a day to day task for assistants, in fact it is even harder these days to keep people from stealing our manager’s precious time. If our managers are active in social media, for example, anyone can contact them directly to ask for a face to face meeting or sell something. Assistants will perform this task until the end of time!
The typing pool
With the introduction of typewriters women were finally welcomed into the office environment. With new technology came new opportunities. The male executives did not want to operate such machinery and so the women became the experts. I think modern day assistants can still safely say they are the IT experts in most offices. In my experience, executives still do not usually know how to get the most out of the new technology they are given and so assistants continue to advance their skills in this area. In fact modern day assistants have just as much to gain from new technology as our fore-sisters did with the invention of the typewriter. For example being on top of new apps and social media trends will help our bosses no end.
I also like to think there was a certain amount of camaraderie amongst the typists in the typing pool. Today, modern assistants should work as team and we should help each other when we can. Sticking up for each other is a timeless requirement that started with the secretary and continues with the assistants.