A New Kind of Helpful

Fifty years ago, offices had “secretaries,” almost always female, who played certain limited roles such as placing calls, taking dictation, and taking care of paperwork. Today, we have both female and male administrative assistants who do much more.

Melba J. Duncan, who heads up the Duncan Group, a recruiting firm for professional assistants, tells the New York Times, that nowadays “assistants are expected to perform as managers.”

Not only do assistants need to plan meetings and sort emails; they must also, according to theTimes, “synthesize large amounts of data.” They’re the people “on the front lines when a company adopts new technology.” And they see themselves as professionals, as is underscored by the existence of a group such as the International Association of Administrative Professionals.

Peter Drucker didn’t write the Times article, but he could have, for Drucker touched on nearly all of these points in his 1973 book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “It is no accident that yesterday’s ‘secretary’ is rapidly turning into an ‘assistant,’ having become the manager of the boss’s office and the boss’s work,” Drucker wrote. “Within two or three decades, knowledge technologists will become the dominant group in the workforce in all developed countries, occupying the same position of importance that unionized factory workers held at the peak of their power in the 1950s and 1960s.”

Photo credit: David Rees

Drucker agreed with those who view assistants as skilled employees. “The most important thing about these knowledge workers is that they do not identify themselves as ‘workers’ but as ‘professionals,’” Drucker wrote. “Many of them spend a good deal of their time doing largely unskilled work. . . . However, what identifies them in their own and in the public’s mind is that part of their job that involves putting formal knowledge to work.”

Finally, the emergence of a non-gender-segregated workforce of assistants would have been no surprise to Drucker.  he noted. “Knowledge workers, whatever their sex, are professionals, applying the same knowledge, doing the same work, governed by the same standards, and judged by the same results.”

What changes to the role of “assistant” have you seen in your workplace?