For generations of women, secretarial, clerical and administrative skills were valued as essential skills that would be advantageous in the job market and help your career. The major shift has taken place in relation to class and gender. Originally, and prior to the 1930’s, nearly all secretaries were men and the role of secretary was deemed in high regard as an executive servant of the government. Clerical work was a male dominated field in which males worked closely with their superiors and were often apprenticed to them; their superior’s success was their success, and they could look forward to a position of management in their later years. After WWII, when the men returned, secretarial and clerical work was seen as “feminized” and clerks were renamed “secretaries” and “typists”. Both the pay and the prestige for these jobs took a significant hit!
Through the 1980’s/90’s, many secretarial roles were rebranded as administrative assistants and more men started to apply for such jobs, though in tiny numbers. Technology evolved – word processing made writing and editing documents much simpler and with the arrival of computers, “typing” became “keyboarding”. Fast forward to 2015, and here you will find that most organisations have ditched the term “secretary” in favour of clerical worker, or administrative assistant/officer, or office professional, to encompass a more executive role.
Universities have adopted the term ‘professional services’ to distinguish staff not having direct academic responsibilities, with the term “administrator” being reserved for staff undertaking clerical or secretarial functions. Currently within Higher Education, there is much debate about the value of junior level clerical and administrative staff, who often consider themselves underpaid, overlooked and invisible.
Yet in the digital age, the roles of clerical and junior administrative HE workers have evolved far more than any job title change suggests. We’ve experienced massive changes (see Part One of my blog), including the growth of information technology, changes in the delivery of higher education and the development of a commercial and enterprise culture in Higher Education. Academic staff have begun to delegate more tasks to clerical/administrative staff and such staff are increasingly playing a role in training and teaching students both informally and formally. Today’s university administrative worker is responsible for a greater array of complex tasks than any predecessor!