Memo to secretaries: In lieu of raise, a new title 3.7 million secretaries honored today

April 21, 1993|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

After more than 20 years as a legal secretary at Baltimore's Weinberg and Green, Lynette Austin received a "promotion" to the position of "practice assistant" last year.

Sure, the new title -- assigned to all of the law firm's secretaries -- reflected their growing administrative duties. But it didn't bring any cash, Ms. Austin noted.

And that, the down-to-earth Baltimorean said, reflects the life of secretaries.

Instead of an honest title and a raise, they get the artificial holiday of Secretary's Day, which is today.

She's not bitter, though. A career as a secretary "has been good for me," Ms. Austin said, predicting that the hullabaloo over titles and special days will fade. "It's a '90s thing."

Indeed, for America's 3.7 million secretaries, the past several years have brought an array of new titles, stresses and responsibilities -- everything, it seems, except much more money.

The median salary for secretaries, which hit $373 a week last year, has risen only slightly faster than that of the average U.S. worker over the past decade. The average secretary now earns about 84 percent of the median salary of all workers in the United States.

This, despite managers' fast-growing insistence that secretaries master several computer programs and pick up administrative duties left by layoffs.

Just ask Shelly Hubbard, a secretary at the Linthicum office of consultant Booz, Allen & Hamilton Inc.

Layoffs and managers' increasing computer literacy have reduced the number of secretaries in her office, she said. And those who remain, like Ms.Hubbard, don't do much typing.

Instead, Ms. Hubbard calls up her bosses' memos and reports on a computer, edits them for style and grammar and then prints them by using one of several desktop publishing systems in the office. In her free time, she answers telephone calls, goes to the library to research new customers and arranges company picnics and other events.

"I'm proud to be a secretary," Ms. Hubbard said.

But, she concedes, she is one of a dying breed. Many of her compatriots consider the term secretary a stigma that might prevent them from winning promotions into management, even though they often perform managerial duties.

In fact, the number of secretaries has declined by about 5 percent in the past decade, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, while the number of clerical workers -- ranging from typists to administrative assistants -- has grown by nearly 15 percent, to 17.9 million.

The reason is that office managers are dividing their clerical staff into specialties: Some are pushed up to "executive assistants" with many managerial tasks. Other workers are being asked to do rote tasks as "data entry clerks" or "word processors," explained Mary Jo Shackleford, who heads the Manpower Inc. temporary and clerical placement office in Baltimore.

"We have some secretaries taking on purchasing duties," as well as other managerial tasks, "and we've got people who just knock out documents all day," she said.

The confusion these days over just what -- or who -- is a secretary has become so intense that Professional Secretaries International, a professional organization, is considering changing its name to The International Organization of Office Professionals, said Evelynne Thompson, president of the group.

Ms. Thompson said computers have doubled the output of secretaries, and, as a result, secretaries have taken on increased responsibilities.

At the same time, she said, the names of these jobs are proliferating because managers want to find cheap ways of rewarding workers.

"Many times they don't want to give you a raise, so they give a title," Ms. Thompson said.

For Charles O. Monk II, managing partner of Weinberg and Green, transforming a secretarial pool into a group of "practice assistants" was part of the law firm's streamlining.

The firm now allows an average of only one assistant for every two lawyers, half the ratio a decade ago, he said.

The firm changed the job title to reflect its reduced need for clerical help and increased demand for assistance with scheduling lawyers' time, communicating with clients and managing caseloads, Mr. Monk said.

K? "I wish I could say the titles came with a raise," he said.

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