The role of secretary: a career with a new future

QUIZ: 1. Who recorded for posterity Hammurabi's famous code of law? 2. Name a job once held by John Quincy Adams, Lyndon B. Johnson, Helen Gurley Brown, and Barbara Walters.

3. Cicero freed a slave who had worked as his .

4. In what kind of job can you use organizational, technical, and mechanical skills, learn public relations, make decisons, and move close to the seat of power?

5. What's the career field with the most job openings for the 1980s?

The answer to all of the above is the job of secretary - a career with a future, and a past.

As scribe, stenographer, or secre-tarius, the job was dominated by men for its first 4,000 years until the advent of the typewriter. In the past 100 years, women trickled in and then flooded the secretarial market as employers discovered that they could get the same work from women at half the salaries of men. And there - or so the images go - secretaries clustered in a pink-collar ghetto with litle opportunity for advancement or satisfaction. Now, say its promoters, secretarial work is emerging from its ghetto image and bad press as a creative, challenging, well-paying career.

There are executive secretaries today, says Candace Louis, spokeswoman for Professional Secretaries International in Kansas City, Mo., who make as much as

But there are also entry-level secretaries, even the optimists admit, who support their families on less than $10,000 by being ''the office wife'' - dusting plants, buying birthday presents for the boss's wife, and bending long hours over a typewriter.

The difference between the two extremes has to do with assertiveness, says Jodie Berlin Morrow, co-author with Myrna Lebov of a book called ''Not Just a Secretary'' (John Wiley & Sons, $8.95), being published tomorrow on Professional Secretaries Day.

''Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of speaking out and standing up for their rights'' and with ''recognizing that a secretarial job is a career, not just a job, and that it includes skills that can be used to grow in the career or to move to other positions,'' says Ms. Morrow.

Marie Kisiel, author of ''Career Strategies for Secretaries'' (Contemporary Books, paperback $7.95), makes this comment: ''What is interesting in the history of the secretary is that the job itself underwent changes when it shifted from being a male to a female profession,'' she writes. ''A man had been valued as a clerk because he could develop an expertise in a certain firm and rise, if he were bright enough, worked hard enough, and developed a certain rapport with his supervisors.

''Not so for women,'' she believes. ''Women's work was regarded as entirely routine and mechanical. A female secretary had the kind of training and experience that any girl in any office could get. She was expendable, replaceable because any other girl could get the same training.''

Actually, says Ms. Morrow (who gives career workshops to secretaries around the country), the same principle applies equally to both sexes. ''Secretaries should recognize the skills that they have - people skills, problem-solving skills, organizational skills - and recognize that these are transferable to other jobs in the company.''

While admitting that ''most companies structure the secretary's job as a ghetto,'' she believes the ''entrepreneurial secretary'' can use his or her skills to get up - or out.

Ms. Kisiel is specific about this: ''Secretaries who have been with an organization for any length of time generally have a very good idea of how a company works. They often have a good idea of the product or service their company markets; they usually are aware of the problems within the organization, '' she writes - invaluable knowledge that pays off in any job.

Ms. Morrow says that secretaries ''have to rewrite the rules'' to get out of their present position. But she also points out that many working as secretaries ''enjoy and are happy to spend their careers in it.''

''In my seminars,'' Ms. Morrow continues, ''I'll often find people who tell me at the beginning that they don't want to be secretaries. But when you get down to it and ask them exactly what they want to do, it turns out that some specific aspect of their job is bothering them - not the job itself.''

In a recent survey conducted by the Professional Secretaries International (a prestigious organization that administers a rigorous test to certify top-notch secretaries), over half of the 3,000 respondents indicated that their long-range career goal is to remain in the secretarial profession.

''It's a good job,'' says PSI's spokesman, ''offering a one-to-one relationship with an executive, a chance to learn, to take on new skills and advance to the outermost limits of your potential, to take on managerial skills, and to develop a loyalty and close relationship with a group of people.''

Comparing the secretary to the coach of a team, she says that to succeed, you have to ''want to be a support person, not an executive making all the decisions , and be interested in the company, interested in advancing the work of the company.''

She points proudly to members who are ''finding more efficient ways to do the work, setting up conferences, doing the scheduling, making the decisions of what kinds of equipment are needed in the office.'' Some of them, to be sure, are also getting the coffee, a task Ms. Louis says ''isn't demeaning in itself, unless it's demanded.''

Caring for a boss may be built into the secretarial position, in fact, though experts say the job is still defined by the person taking it, ''depending on what they bring to it and are willing to put up with,'' says Ms. Morrow.

She adds, ''Look, there's nothing wrong or demeaning about taking care of people, and if you feel comfortable doing that, you should respect yourself for it.''

A lack of esteem is indigenous to the profession. ''A secretary doesn't get much respect today,'' says Ms. Morrow. ''Society underrates her job, her boss underrates it, her company underrates it, and, yes, she underrates it.''

That may change as the demands for secretarial skills increase in the 1980s. The field is expected to leap from 3.8 million positions in 1980 to 5.4 million in 1990, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Already thousands of jobs are going begging.

''This is a fabulous field to be in right now,'' says Ms. Morrow, ''because you can write your own ticket. Employers are particularly looking for secretaries with knowledge of the new office equipment, but all secretaries are in great demand,'' she says.

It's a job with a future.

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