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Katie Johnson, left, personal secretary to the president of the United States, with Barack Obama at the White House in 2009[1][2][3]

A secretary, administrative assistant, executive assistant, personal secretary,[4] or other similar titles is an individual whose work consists of supporting management, including executives, using a variety of project management, program evaluation, communication, and/or organizational skills within the area of administration. There is a diverse array of work experiences attainable within the administrative support field, ranging between internship, entry-level, associate, junior, mid-senior, and senior level pay bands with positions in nearly every industry, especially among white-collar careers.

The functions of a personal assistant may be entirely carried out to assist one other employee or may be for the benefit of more than one. In other situations, a secretary is an officer of a society or organization who deals with correspondence, admits new members, and organizes official meetings and events. But this role should not be confused with the role of an executive secretary, cabinet secretary such as cabinet members who hold the title of "secretary", or company secretary, all which differ from an administrative assistant.[5][6][7]

Duties and functions[edit]

Reggie Love, left, personal aide to the president of the United States from 2009 to 2011[8][9][10]

A secretary, also known as a personal assistant (PA) or administrative assistant, can have many administrative duties. The title "secretary," with its root meaning of "keeper of secrets," is not used as often as in decades past, and responsibilities have evolved in response to the technological age.[11] The duties may vary according to the nature and size of the company or organization, and might include managing budgets, bookkeeping, attending telephone calls, handling visitors, maintaining websites, travel arrangements, event planning, and preparing expense reports. Secretaries might also manage all the administrative details of running a high-level conference or meeting and be responsible for arranging the catering for a lunch meeting. Often executives will ask their assistant to take the minutes at meetings and prepare meeting documents for review.[12] In addition to the minutes, the secretary may be responsible for keeping all of the official records of a company or organization.[6] A secretary is also regarded as an "office manager".

Today, many secretaries also conduct research, briefings, write memoranda, content writing, handle project management, program evaluation, stakeholder management, customer service duties, devise and maintain office systems including data management and filing, carry out background research and present findings, produce documents like white papers and gray literature, carry out specific projects, take on some of the manager's responsibilities, get involved in decision-making processes, handle public relations tasks, and/or logistics and procurement along with a wide range of other duties related to their specific industry.

In a business, many job descriptions overlap. However, while administrative assistant is a generic term, not necessarily implying directly working for a superior, a secretary is usually the key person for all administrative tasks, and often referred to as the "gate keeper". Other titles describing jobs similar to or overlapping those of the traditional secretary are Office Coordinator, Executive Assistant, Office Manager and Administrative Professional.

  • List of job titles synonymous with or similar to secretary: secretary, administrative professional, administrative assistant, executive assistant, administrative officer, administrative support specialist, clerk, military assistant, military aid[13], management assistant, office secretary, program assistant,[14] project assistant, personal aid, body man/body women, personal secretary, or personal assistant.[4]
  • In previous decades, especially in the 20th century and before, at the most basic level a secretary is usually an audio typist with a small number of administrative roles. A good command of the prevailing office language and the ability to type is essential. At higher grades and with more experience they begin to take on additional roles and spend more of their time maintaining physical and electronic files, dealing with the post, photocopying, emailing clients, ordering stationery and answering telephones.[15]
    Secretary at work, photo taken in 2007
  • A more skilled executive assistant may be required to type at high speeds using technical or foreign languages, organize diaries, itineraries and meetings and carry out administrative duties which may include accountancy or financial accounting. A secretary / executive assistant may also control access to a manager, thus becoming an influential and trusted aide. Executive assistants are available for contact during off hours by new electronic communication methods for consultations.
  • The largest difference between a generalized secretary and skilled executive assistants is that the executive assistant is required to be able to interact extensively with the general public, vendors, customers, and any other person or group that the executive is responsible to interact with. As the level that the executive interacts with increases so does the level of skill required in the executive assistant that works with the executive. Those executive assistants that work with corporate officers must be capable of emulating the style, corporate philosophy, and corporate persona of the executive for which they work. In the modern workplace the advancement of the executive assistants is codependent on the success of the executive and the ability of both to make the job performance of the team seamless whereas the job place evaluation is reflective of each other's performance executive secretary for now.

This should be distinguished from the company secretary, a senior role within a company responsible for compliance with statutory and regulatory requirements.

Executive assistant[edit]


The work of an executive assistant (sometimes called a management assistant) differs a great deal from that of an administrative assistant. In many organizations, an executive assistant is a high-ranking position in the administrative hierarchy. Executive assistants work for a company officer or executive (at both private and public company institutions), and possess the authority to make crucial decisions affecting the direction of such organizations. As such, executive assistants play a role in decision-making and policy setting. The executive assistant performs the usual roles of managing correspondence, preparing research, and communication, often with one or more administrative assistants or scheduling assistants who report to him or her. The executive assistant also acts as the "gatekeeper", understanding in varying degree the requirements of the executive, and with an ability through this understanding to decide which scheduled events, meetings, teleconferences, or e-mails are most appropriate for allocation of the executive's time.

An executive assistant may, from time to time, act as proxy for the executives, representing him/her/them in meetings or communications and project managing the production of reports or other deliverables in the absence of the executive. An executive assistant differs from an administrative assistant (a job which is often part of the career path of an executive assistant) in that they are expected to possess a higher degree of business acumen, be able to manage projects, as well as have the ability to influence others on behalf of the executive. In the past, executive assistants were required to have a high school diploma only, but increasingly jobs are requiring a bachelor's degree[16] of any field of study or when complying with educational requirements within their given industry, may require specialized knowledge in a specific fields of study through a bachelor's degree pertinent to the employer's industry or division's role within the organization.


United States Coast Guard military aide Lieutenant Commander Jayna McCarron, left, serving as part of the White House Military Office is seen meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden about Medal of Honor recipients, Wednesday, October 6, 2021, in the Oval Office

In the U.S. Department of Defense, the title of military assistant (MA) or executive assistant (EA) is typically held by Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps colonels, lieutenant colonels, and senior majors and Navy captains, commanders and senior lieutenant commanders who are in direct support of the Secretary of Defense, Deputy Secretary of Defense and other civilian defense officials down to the level of a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, as well as general officers or flag officers.

The Secretary of Defense also has a lieutenant general or vice admiral as his/her senior military assistant.

Like their civilian counterparts, EAs are also a resource in decision-making, policy setting, and will have leadership oversight of the entire military and civilian staff supporting the civilian official, general officer, or flag officer. EAs are often interchangeable with other senior military officers of equivalent rank holding the title of chief of staff in other service organizations headed by a flag officer or general officer. In the case of unified combatant commands and service major commands, the Chief of Staff is often a general officer or flag officer himself/herself, typically at the 1-star or 2-star level, but he or she should not be confused with the 4-star officers holding the title of Chief of Staff of the Army or Chief of Staff of the Air Force.[17]

Education, training, and entering the profession[edit]

During the baby boomers' and some older gen Xers' adult years, it was common for secretaries to enter the profession only having obtained a high school diploma supplemented by on-the-job training with no formal post-secondary education, a higher education degree, or previous professional service experience, unlike successor generations in the 21st century.

Employers have long preferred unmarried women, a notion that resonated with governments and unions when jobs were scarce in tough economic times. During the 1930s in the United States, both a number of states and the federal government attempted to legislate married women out of the labor market, finding support from unions promoting "family wages"—a wage equal to a married woman husband had enough income to support both a household chore wife and a flock of children.[18] All legislative initiatives that wanted to create a legal basis for such discrimination ultimately failed. But even without a legal basis, employers tried to exclude married women from employment. In a 1940 survey, 40 percent of 485 US companies surveyed said they had clear policies barring married women from working for them.[19] The reason given was that married women would soon leave their positions anyway, and if they stayed in their positions, because of their domestic and family responsibilities, they would not give their paid work the attention that an unmarried woman would. Many of the women working in the office therefore lied about their marital status.[20] Until the mid-1970s, when women's career opportunities began to expand, shorthand and typing skills offered them the chance to find a job with those skills, even if they had completed education that would have given them other jobs had it not been for gender discrimination.[21] Compared to working as a nurse or teacher, the entry requirements for the profession of secretary were low: having shorthand and typing skills were the only skills required for the position. After finishing high school or after reaching the allowed age for workforce entry, if needed it was possible take courses lasting several weeks, to learn how to write shorthand and typing, which advanced entry into a shorthand or writing pool secretary position; these schools or private schools offering courses in typing, for example, existed as early as the 1880s.[22] Very quickly, these courses were predominantly attended by women. 25 percent of the students at Chicago's Metropolitan Business College in the school year 1892/1893 were female—in the shorthand and typing courses, however, 90 percent of the students were female.[23]


The role of secretary emerged from European church and state bureaucracies as aspects of the role of chancellor became distinct, and encompassed managing the work of a number of clerks gathered in the chancery. From the Renaissance until the late 19th century, men involved in the daily correspondence and the activities of the powerful had assumed the title of secretary.

Der Gemeindeschreiber (the town clerk), painting by Albert Anker, 1874

With time, like many titles, the term was applied to more and varied functions, leading to compound titles to specify various secretarial work better, like general secretary or financial secretary. Just "secretary" remained in use either as an abbreviation when clear in the context or for relatively modest positions such as administrative assistant of the officer(s) in charge, either individually or as member of a secretariat. As such less influential posts became more feminine and common with the multiplication of bureaucracies in the public and private sectors, new words were also coined to describe them, such as personal assistant.

In the 1840s and 1850s commercial schools were emerging to train male and female students the skills needed to work in a clerical position.[24] In 1870, Sir Isaac Pitman founded a school where students could qualify as shorthand writers to "professional and commercial men". Originally, this school was only for male students. In 1871, there were more than 150 such schools operating in the United States, a number that grew to as many as 500 by the 1890s.[25]

In the 1880s, with the invention of the typewriter, more women began to enter the field and during the upcoming years, especially since World War I, the role of secretary has been primarily associated with women. By the 1930s, fewer men were entering the field of secretaries.

Thomas de Keyser, Portrait of Constantijn Huygens with his Secretary, 1627

In an effort to promote professionalism among United States secretaries, the National Secretaries Association was created in 1942. Today, this organization is known as the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP). The organization developed the first standardized test for office workers called the Certified Professional Secretaries Examination (CPS). It was first administered in 1951.

By the mid-20th century the need for secretaries was great and offices and organizations featured large secretarial pools. In some cases the demand was great enough to spur secretaries being recruited from overseas; in particular, there was often a steady demand for young British women to come to the U.S. and fill temporary or permanent secretarial positions.[26] Several organizations were created to assist secretaries from foreign lands, including the Society of International Secretaries and the Association of British Secretaries in America.[27]

In 1952 Mary Barrett, president of the National Secretaries Association, C. King Woodbridge, president of Dictaphone Corporation, and American businessman Harry F. Klemfuss created a special Secretary's Day holiday, to recognize the hard work of the staff in the office. The holiday caught on, and during the fourth week of April is now celebrated in offices all over the world. It has been renamed "Administrative Professional's Week" to highlight the increased responsibility of today's secretary and other administrative workers, and to avoid embarrassment to those who believe that "secretary" refers only to women or to unskilled workers.

In the 20th century, with the spread of the typewriter, shorthand saw competition from steno-typing. Typing thus became the prerogative of women, widows or relatively well-educated young girls, originally from the middle class or the petty bourgeoisie, then from working-class backgrounds with the rise of the profession between the two world wars, which saw the women seize these innovations.[28][29]

Secretary typist in 1951

Until recent years, the profession of secretary in the original sense was often subject, in the collective imagination, to stereotypes and pejorative connotations. Indeed, secretarial work was easily associated with low-value, thankless, and badly paid tasks, such as serving coffee to superiors, making photocopies or filing menial documents. In addition, the profession was once exercised almost exclusively by women and considered a pink-collar job in previous decades, but in the 21st century many employers began re-classifying many entry-level positions, including white-collar jobs historically held by men in decades past, as secretary, administrative assistant, or program assistant roles.[28][29]


The term is derived from the Latin word secernere, "to distinguish" or "to set apart", the passive participle (secretum) meaning "having been set apart", with the eventual connotation of something private or confidential, as with the English word secret. A secretarius was a person, therefore, overseeing business confidentially, usually for a powerful individual (a king, pope, etc.). As the duties of a modern secretary often still include the handling of confidential information, the literal meaning of their title still holds true.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Three Wellesley alumnae tapped for Obama administration". The Wellesley Townsman. Wellesley, Massachusetts: GateHouse Media. January 20, 2009. Retrieved January 22, 2009.
  2. ^ "Three Wellesley alumnae tapped for Obama administration". The Wellesley Townsman. Wellesley, Massachusetts: GateHouse Media. January 20, 2009. Retrieved January 22, 2009.
  3. ^ Parnes, Amie (June 16, 2011). "White House staffers depart for Harvard". Politico. Retrieved June 21, 2011.
  4. ^ a b "Example job description and person specification for a school library assistant". CILIP Guidelines for Secondary School Libraries: 121–122. doi:10.29085/9781783300303.017.
  5. ^ "Secretary Job Information | National Careers Service". Nationalcareersservice.direct.gov.uk. January 27, 2012. Retrieved February 3, 2014.
  6. ^ a b Robert, Henry M.; et al. (2011). Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised (11th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press. pp. 458–460. ISBN 978-0-306-82020-5.
  7. ^ Robert III, Henry M.; et al. (2011). Robert's Rules of Order Newly Revised In Brief (2nd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press. pp. 142–151. ISBN 978-0-306-82019-9. Archived from the original on August 16, 2017. Retrieved December 6, 2015.
  8. ^ Staff report (April 21, 2011). "Two-sport athlete charged with DWI". Duke Chronicle. Archived from the original on March 1, 2013. Retrieved August 16, 2013.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  9. ^ Martin, Nick (February 4, 2015). "Love details time with President Obama in new book "Power Forward"". Duke Chronicle. Retrieved December 20, 2016.
  10. ^ Kantor, Jodi (November 11, 2011). "Leaving Obama's Shadow, to Cast One of His Own". The New York Times. p. A24. Retrieved April 23, 2014.
  11. ^ Smith, Noah. "Secretary Jobs in the Age of AI". Noahpinion. Substack. Retrieved February 19, 2024.
  12. ^ "Secretaries and Administrative Assistants : Occupational Outlook Handbook : U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics". Bls.gov. March 29, 2012. Retrieved December 8, 2013.
  13. ^ Military aides still carry the president's nuclear 'football', USATODAY.com
  14. ^ content.external (April 11, 2022). "Program Assistant Job Description". Recruiting Resources: How to Recruit and Hire Better. Retrieved February 8, 2023.
  15. ^ "Secretaries/typists". NHS Careers. Retrieved January 1, 2012.
  16. ^ Rampell, Catherine (September 9, 2014). "The college degree has become the new high school degree". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 6, 2016.
  17. ^ Military Assistant/Executive Officer Handbook. Retrieved on 11 June 2013.
  18. ^ Lynn Peril: Swimming in the Steno Pool. Kapitel Single Secs, Married Secs, and the Looping Shadow of the Office Wife. Ebook-Position 2515.
  19. ^ Lynn Peril: Swimming in the Steno Pool. Kapitel Single Secs, Married Secs, and the Looping Shadow of the Office Wife. Ebook-Position 2531.
  20. ^ Lynn Peril: Swimming in the Steno Pool. Kapitel Single Secs, Married Secs, and the Looping Shadow of the Office Wife. Ebook-Position 2449.
  21. ^ Lynn Peril: Swimming in the Steno Pool. Kapitel So You Want to Be a Secretary. Ebook-Position 529.
  22. ^ Lynn Peril: Swimming in the Steno Pool. Kapitel So You Want to Be a Secretary. Ebook-Position 685.
  23. ^ Lynn Peril: Swimming in the Steno Pool. Kapitel So You Want to Be a Secretary. Ebook-Position 702.
  24. ^ Mullaney, Marie Marmo; Hilbert, Rosemary C. (February 2018). "Educating Women for Self-Reliance and Economic Opportunity: The Strategic Entrepreneurialism of the Katharine Gibbs Schools, 1911–1968". History of Education Quarterly. 58 (1): 65–93. doi:10.1017/heq.2017.49. ISSN 0018-2680.
  25. ^ Weiss, J (1981). "Educating for clerical work: The nineteenth-century private commercial school". Journal of Social History. 14 (3): 416. doi:10.1353/jsh/14.3.407.
  26. ^ Scot, Barbara (September 29, 1967). "Secretaries wanted across the Atlantic". The Glasgow Herald. p. 9.
  27. ^ Seebohm, Caroline (July 19, 1971). "English Girls in New York: They Don't Go Home Again". New York. pp. 34–38.
  28. ^ a b Sténographie, sténotypie ou dictaphone ?, fiche des Archives nationales françaises
  29. ^ a b Jean Lebrun, « Histoire des secrétaires », émission La Marche de l'Histoire sur France Inter, 16 janvier 2013
  30. ^ "Secretary – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". Merriam-webster.com. August 31, 2012. Retrieved February 3, 2014.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]