In the late 1970s, Cathy Collette worked for the state of Rhode Island and was the local president of her union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
"In those days, secretaries did typing, answered phones, ran the mimeograph machines and made low salaries," said Ms. Collette, now director of the women's rights department of AFSCME, based in Washington.
"Today, technology has become a much larger part of secretaries' work, with computers, printers, faxes and other sophisticated and difficult machinery -- and they still make low salaries," said Ms. Collette, whose union represents 300,000 secretaries.
The federal government reports that in 1990 there were 3,956,000 secretaries, down from 4,059,000 in 1985.
In the wave of restructuring and reductions in size, secretaries increasingly are being asked to do more work, assume responsibilities formerly held by managers, solve problems, make decisions and be part of team projects.
"What I'm finding is that companies are no longer hiring entry-level secretaries," said N. Elizabeth Fried, president of N.E. Fried & Associates Inc., a compensation consulting and executive search firm in Dublin, Ohio. "They're hiring at the second level or third because they cannot have lesser-skilled secretaries."
But the increased responsibilities are not reflected in their pay: In 1990, the average secretary earned $18,500, Ms. Fried said.
And a lack of respect for the job, which has turned many workers away from the secretarial field, still is rampant, Ms. Collette said.
"I would like to think there has been a change in employers' attitudes toward secretaries, but my eyes and ears argue differently," said the union official. "Secretarial work still is a dead-end job. Once you do it, that's your path for the rest of your life. It's wrong for the economy and the whole nation not to use the knowledge, talent and skills of secretaries."
Some experts, however, see positive changes coming.
"It's time to recognize the transformed role of today's secretary," said Joseph J. Kaminski, president of the Wheaton, Ill., affiliate of Priority Management, an international training company that specializes in developing management skills.
"Secretaries are para-managers who play vital roles in their company's day-to-day operations. They're involved in planning, report writing -- and many run the business."
Mr. Kaminski said the title of secretary is being replaced with the more appropriate title of administrative assistant.
"In terms of development, the career path for secretaries has broadened. But while there are lateral opportunities, there still is no upward mobility," Mr. Kaminski said.
In November, Priority Management introduced its Administrative Assistant's Program, which includes workshops and consultations for secretaries. In the first six months, corporations enrolled 60 secretaries in the program. Fees range from $395 to $495.
"It will take time, it's evolutionary, but more and more companies are boosting the salaries and status of secretaries in keeping with their roles as effective management team players," said Mr. Kaminski.
He says his secretary, Sherry Robertson, does "everything -- organizes workshops, processes orders, marketing, handling phone calls. I couldn't get through my day without her. The business wouldn't work if she didn't do what she does."
Many top-level secretaries are getting the respect and salaries they deserve, said Jerry Heitman, executive director of Professional Secretaries International in Kansas City, Mo. The group has 40,000 members who are secretaries, executive assistants and administrative assistants. Ninety-eight percent are female.
"Status is coming with the new job responsibilities, such as management of information technology," said Mr. Heitman. "Our members average $25,000 a year with benefits, and a larger percentage is making over $35,000 than was five years ago."
Secretaries "have always been operating at a higher level than employers recognize," said Anne Ladky, executive director of Women Employed, a Chicago-based non-profit national advocacy and training organization.