How many of you out there are or have been administrative assistants? How many of you work with an administrative assistant? And how many think about the broad and deep work that administrative assistants do to keep organizations running? Let’s face it, if an office lacks a capable office manager and/or administrative assistant, the office is not running well. In this post, I address the role of the administrative assistant (AA), the preponderance of women in these roles, and the generally poor remuneration for and recognition of the importance of this job. I also want to think about how many of the invisible tasks and responsibilities of the AA translate to other realms in which these jobs are undervalued.
When I was 10, my mother returned to work after having eight children in eight years and getting us all launched into school. She became a part-time administrative assistant and had responsibilities in two different departments. She soon moved to full-time work and from there became an “executive assistant.” Although I doubt my mother articulated this, I suspect her years raising children prepared her quite well for the spoken and unspoken tasks of the AA role. She was expert at managing the lives of nine people. This meant searching for and shopping for the best bargains at a discount bread store, a meat store, the regular supermarket, and even imperfect dough at a reduced price used for Friday night pizza. (I don’t remember my family ever having a pizza delivered until well into my college years.) In office terms, she expertly operated the budget and did it better than most of us realized.
My mother was on top of nine schedules for nine very busy people at a time when there were no cell phones and when changes on the fly were difficult to effect. She knew the logic of scheduling and the need to remind everyone to get us in the right directions. She alone did the laundry of nine people and knew which uniforms for which events had to be ready on short notice for the next day. My mother and father also parceled out the chores for all the children, which meant understanding how to do so equitably and efficiently. My mother was already managing people—her own children’s work and her interactions with the doctor, dentist, teachers, band directors, and coaches of us all. My mother was also a short- and long-order cook. Her constant and varied grocery shops reflected the need to plan menus for a big group (again, on a tight budget). Nine people multiplied by 21 meals a week for each equal 189 meals a week to be planned for, purchased, and prepared. Two-thirds of those meals were prepared at 5:00 am, before the “official” work day began.
Imagine how easy going to the office must have seemed, compared to all the moving pieces at home. I believe the underappreciated and usually unpaid (unless it’s outsourced, of course) labor of the home needs its own polished resume, one that reveals the high level of function and decision-making necessary and the great potential to move these skills from the home to the office workplace. The updated resume should also make clear that these varied skills are essential in the office workplace and not always easy to come by. Therefore, individuals who can claim these types of experience should be in improved positions to be hired and then to negotiate for higher and more appropriate salaries.
Administrative assistants’ jobs typically include managing the office’s operational budget, event planning, scheduling, communication (on an ever-increasing number of platforms), interactions with multiple people in the office and across the organization, planning meetings, tracking supplies, keeping records and reports, managing business travel, and responding to short- and long-term requests. The personnel management piece must present deep challenges that many administrative assistants seem to overcome time and again with little fuss or fanfare.
According to this CNN article, as of 2011, 96% of administrative assistants and office managers were women. (*See this link for more information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) This convincing statistic means that the underpaid and undervalued work of the administrative assistant is by its very nature gendered. Just as we are often unaware of what it takes to manage a home, we are also unaware of the broad and deep skills required to run an office or an organization. Bleak statistics (e.g. from this 2015 US News report) on administrative assistant salaries confirm the ways in which we consistently undervalue this work.
Many of the skills and responsibilities I’ve listed above form a part of people’s workdays, no matter the profession. As a teacher, adviser, committee chair, writer, and collaborator on research projects, I need and apply many of these skills every day. The labor differential in my profession often falls along these same gender lines, as women pick up the invisible and undervalued chores of the workplace. One male colleague labeled undesirable committee chair work as “mostly clerical, anyway.” I translated this offhanded comment as: “I didn’t do the work because it’s beneath me”; “no one pays us for this work anyway”; “these skills are minor, so it doesn’t matter that I don’t have them”; “if I did have these skills, then of course the job would be important”; and “someone else will clean up this mess.” He was right that we neither value nor compensate well the people—mostly women—who apply these skills in the home or formal workplace.