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.

Screening calls

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.

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  • Sara March 26, 2014   Reply →

    Agree with all of these. I never got on with ‘traditional’ shorthand, but I learnt EasyScript and it’s a life saver. I have to produce detailed minutes for a lot of meetings and I don’t know how I’d manage without it; it’s definitely worth a try (and it really is easy!)

    Unfortunately I work somewhere where there isn’t much camaraderie between assistants – well there is but only between those who call themselves EA’s. Us PA’s are the poor relations and we’re never allowed to forget it! I really don’t know why they have that attitude – the only difference that I can see in our roles is that the EA’s get to support one person and we have to support a number of people – if anything we’re the ones with the harder job as everything we do is multiplied!

  • Deborah Zotian March 26, 2014   Reply →

    When I started in the working world, it was unusual for a woman to be anything BUT a secretary. I actually had one boss who told me ‘you do not know how to type’ when I could out type most of the secretaries on the floor. He wanted me to be seen as something other than ‘office help’ in the position he hired me for.

    I, like you, do not have shorthand skills. However, I did take a speed writing class in high school – not for work, but to help me take notes in classes. While I don’t remember all of it, I remember enough that, when my fast-talking boss starts giving me a list of things to do, I can get most of them down without having him repeat it. The best part (well, the funniest) is when someone looks in my notebook and can’t figure out what the heck I wrote in there, but I can read it back word for word.

    As an Office Manager, we’re now part administrator, part secretary, part office mom. Some days the parts fit together nicely. Other times, they are at odds with each other. The trick is learning how to make it all work – without losing your mind.

  • Karen Kohn, CAP-OM March 27, 2014   Reply →

    I am one of those “veteran” admins who uses shorthand on a daily basis. While I am viewed quite regularly as a”dinosaur” for admitting to that in certain circles, it continues to be a skill that I use on a daily basis.

    It remains an invaluable skill for me for taking minutes during meetings. My co-workers (those without shorthand, speedwriting, or other methods such as the EasyScript noted earlier) use digital pens manufactured by Livescribe. Not only do these pens capture all the audio from meetings, they also feature the ability to capture written notes – all of which can be shared. I recommend these; they work very well.

    Beyond that, my shorthand works extremely well to help me garner a few moments of time from my extremely busy executive. I’ve learned to leave a hand-written note (From the Desk of… message pads work well for this) with my name on it – and then a message in shorthand. It is his cue to see me in order to be able to more fully explain a situation or provide a lengthy message. Works like a charm!

  • Galen June 12, 2014   Reply →

    Where is the term “secretary” pretty much obsolete? Not in my part of the world (Southern California). Where I work as a secretary, and in every other office where I’ve worked or applied or passed through, secretaries are still called secretaries, and companies advertise for them as such. If there are assistants, they’re called assistants; the two jobs are clearly differentiated. Like any other secretary with functioning vision, I’m uncomfortably aware that my _role_ as a secretary is pretty much obsolete – or ought to be – and many of the duties I’ve been accustomed to performing in this capacity are blinking out one by one. But so far the term appears alive and well.

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