Why Executive Assistants Are Being Held Back
I have been an Executive Assistant, or E.A., as we are colloquially known, for 24 years, or exactly half my life. (I actually stopped typing when I wrote that, as I had not done the math until I created that sentence. Excuse me now, while I open a bottle of wine and down it in order to continue writing this piece and earning a living.) When I write about my experience in my profession I tend to be very snarky. I never wanted to be an E.A., and I have a lot of internalized anger for not breaking from this career path earlier in life.
Recently, I shared a piece I wrote on how I became an Executive Assistant with an E.A. group on Facebook. I used Administrative Professionals Day, the one day a year that E.A.s are celebrated by their bosses and companies, as the catalyst for my storytelling and contempt. I attempted to write with humor, and ended my opening paragraph noting this work holiday is my annual reminder that “something has gone horribly awry with my life.” One of the page members told me she stopped reading after that because she felt I was insulting the profession and thus, personally insulting her. My goal as a writer is to build community and not to alienate, so I am going to attempt to leave the self-loathing inspired snark behind. However, that does not mean I will not critique my profession or hold back in calling out dynamics that I think must be addressed.
If I am being honest, a lot of what I hate about being an E.A. is how misunderstood our role is — by bosses, managers, and strangers alike. Some executives see having an assistant as wasteful. Other executives fear an assistant will create a barrier between them and their employees. Many executives know they need assistance but have no idea how to go about asking for help. If the executive hires the wrong person, or worse, hires the right person, but is completely resistant to change, you end up with what’s called a “revolving chair,” because no assistant stays in the position long enough to actually be effective.
If I am being totally, completely, and brutally honest, especially with myself, what I hate most about being an E.A. is how I have been treated by people when I tell them what I do for a living. As a feminist, woman, and generally empathetic human, I know sexism and misogyny when I hear it and see it, and I have heard, seen, lived, experienced, and internalized a lot of misogyny over my nearly quarter-century as an E.A.
At a dinner party once, a male lawyer asked me what I do, and I said, “I am the E.A. to the founders of a boutique investment bank,” and he very casually stated how much respect he had for the “girls in the typing pool,” and how he was in awe of how fast their fingers moved. This was in the late 1990s, not the 1950s, in case you were wondering. In the early 2000s, at a gathering with friends, I mentioned how busy I was at work, and one of my friend’s girlfriends asked in response to the litany of projects and tasks I rattled off, “but wait, aren’t you like some sort of secretary or something?” She was unable to understand why I would have so much responsibility. In 2013, on the second day of my new job supporting the COO of a large, multinational corporation, one of her direct reports made a point to ask me, “what exactly is it that you do, anyway? I mean, what is the point of an assistant?” He later went on to become head of Human Resources for the company.
Lest you think my experience is some sort of anomaly, or that I have simply had a string of bad luck, let’s look at the history of the position and how the term “Executive Assistant” is defined.
Where do Executive Assistants come from?
According to Lynn Peril, in her book Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office¹, the modern executive assistant evolved from the predominantly male “clerk” role of the 19th Century, into the predominantly female typing pool and secretary roles of the late 19th and early-to-mid-20th centuries. Ms. Peril explains, “[a] nineteenth-century clerkship was a sort of business apprenticeship that allowed the clerk to see how a firm ran from top to bottom; if he got along with his boss and performed his duties well, a clerk could reasonably expect to move up the ladder into a solid management position, perhaps even into the boss’s chair after he retired.” (Peril, 11)
Women were not allowed to work in offices at the time, so, of course, a clerkship was not an employment option for them. However, due to male employee shortages during the Civil War, Ms. Peril notes that women began to enter the U.S. office workforce in 1862, when the U.S. Department of Treasury began to hire women to fill roles vacated by men who left to become soldiers. “With most of the men he would otherwise hire facing each other on the battlefields surrounding Washington, D.C.”, Ms. Peril writes, “Treasury Department Head Elias Spinner took the novel step of hiring women to trim paper money. ‘A woman can use scissors better than a man,’ he told his boss, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, ‘and she will do it cheaper.’” (Peril, 11)
The typewriter was invented later that century, and it was aggressively marketed to women in the early twentieth century, along with the significant fact that managers were able to pay women less than men to do some of the more menial office work. Thus, the male clerkship began to disappear, and the female typing pool was born. As executives began to grab talented typists from the pool to assist them with their work and personal errands, the secretary was born. In the 1980s, the term “secretary” began to disappear in favor of “administrative assistant,” and as administrative assistants took on more responsibility, they became Executive Assistants.
What Is an Executive Assistant?
According to Google, an Executive Assistant is a “person employed to assist a high-level manager or professional with correspondence, appointments and administrative tasks.” I wish it were that simple. It is true that much of my day is spent answering emails and scheduling meetings for whatever executive I support. I also do administrative tasks like completing time sheets and expense reports. Before the COVID-19 pandemic halted air travel and moved us from our cubicles to our dining room tables, I also answered my executive’s office phone and booked their business travel.
Beyond those more “traditional” tasks, I also do much more. I make sure my executive follows-up with their direct reports on projects, so I help move departmental and organizational work forward. I manage projects, like vetting, choosing, building, and rolling out new office software to increase efficiency and work sharing. I advise executives on professional and personal matters. I make sure they are prepared for every meeting, whether it’s a budget meeting, a weekly one-on-one, a call with a Board member or dinner with a major donor or client. Because I am involved in every aspect of the organization, I am strategic about how I plan their days, so they aren’t constantly shifting from one business area to the next. I am also the “eyes and ears” of the office, observing office dynamics and raising issues often before they are brought to my executive’s attention. I have done personal work, like plan family vacations, schedule doctor’s appointments, and worked with household staff on personal and business events held in my boss’ homes. Previous positions also included uncounted hours of unpaid emotional labor, managing some of my boss’ volatile moods, and representing otherwise rude and aggressive executives in a positive light to clients. I know other assistants who have approved company expenses, drafted budgets, run departmental reports and managed the year-end review process for their boss’ direct reports. So, Google might get some elements correct in its basic definition, but it’s hardly comprehensive.
It’s not Google’s fault it can’t create an all-inclusive definition of an E.A.. I often have a hard time explaining what I do, and I’ve been doing it for twenty-four years!
Job descriptions and requirements, not to mention pay scales, differ by region and industry. In New York City, an E.A. to the CEO of an investment bank needs a bachelor’s degree, must work “CEO’s hours,” and often makes a six-figure salary. A similarly listed position in suburban New Jersey for an E.A. to the head of a small pharmaceutical company requires a high school diploma, works much closer to a 40-hour week, and makes a mid-five-figure salary, or is paid hourly.
Different Types of Assistants
In David Finkel’s 2017 essay, “4 Types of Personal Assistants (2 of Which You Need to Avoid)²,” Finkel attempts to define different types of assistants for executives who are “tired of doing their assistant’s jobs,” and to help them hire the right assistant for the tasks they need. The author breaks down assistants into four levels, from the lowest level, “The Gofer”, to the highest level, “The Chief of Staff”, with “Administrative Assistant” and “Executive Assistant” in between. He states that most executives need an “Executive Assistant” or “Chief of Staff” but hire “Administrative Assistants” or “Gofers”, who can’t handle the job description. According to this author’s rather insensitive definitions, I fit somewhere between an Executive Assistant and a Chief of Staff, as do many talented E.A.’s, especially in smaller organizations. While blurring that line can lead to exciting projects and potential career growth, in the wrong company and with the wrong executive, it can also lead to exploitation. The line between potential growth and exploitation is where my feminist curiosity gets piqued, and my frustration often grows.
How Ingrained Sexism Leads to Career Stagnation for Women and E.A.s
The pandemic laid bare the sexism that still informs much of women’s, and by proxy, men’s roles in our society, and women are suffering for it. The pandemic shone a light on how much unpaid labor women provide to make the U.S. and world economies work. The sexist cultural expectation that women should (and will) sacrifice sleep, downtime and even their jobs to care for their families and homes leads to women performing roughly 4.5 hours of unpaid work daily, compared to roughly 2 hours per day for men. The number of women with college degrees continues to outnumber the number of men with college degrees, but men still get paid more and do not do, nor are they expected to do as much housework or childrearing. Despite decades of feminism and many socio-economic gains (especially for white women), women are still responsible for more work at home and are expected to be responsible for more at home.
The sexist ideas of what women and men should be bleed into the workplace and also contribute to assistants remaining largely unrecognized and unrewarded for our work. I want a study that shows how much unpaid emotional labor assistants perform managing office personalities, covering for, and enabling abusive bosses. I want a study that compares how long male assistants remain in their roles, how often they are promoted, and how much more they are paid. How much additional responsibility do female assistants take on because they want to be “helpful” or a “team player” without a raise, title change, or advancement (and because that’s what “good girls” do)? How much more work do we take on, so we won’t be considered “just an assistant?”
Assistants are supposed to be the behind-the-scenes masters of our executives’ lives, helping them achieve greatness, while staying in the shadows. I want people to reflect upon how much of that “behind the scenes” concept is actually necessary to the role, versus how much is baked-in misogyny that tells us men are leaders and women are there to support them, whether they are wives, childcare workers, or assistants.
There are many Executive Assistants with successful side hustles, podcasts, their own businesses, and who lead seminars that promote all of the great skills someone needs to be an “exceptional E.A.” Why must we start our own businesses and run our own seminars to advance? Human Resources leaders and managers don’t recognize our skills and promote us like other employees in other areas of their businesses. Why? If E.A.s are so indispensable, and we “make the world go ‘round,” why don’t we have an official career track in traditional H.R. systems?
What Could the Future Hold for Executive Assistants?
What if we began to model the high-level E.A. position after the clerkship of yore? High-level Executive Assistants, especially in the c-suite, are exposed to every aspect of the business they are in. They come to understand what is needed to run departments and entire companies — often filling in the gaps where their executives don’t. What if H.R. managers recognized this, and instead of being afraid to promote a talented E.A. away from their executive, they provided them with the coaching and growth opportunities they offer other high-performing employees? What if they created an executive entrepreneurship track for high-level E.A.’s who want to advance in their careers and in their companies? This could lead to a whole new crop of female managers, executives, CEO’s, Presidents, and Board leaders. Simultaneously, you can maintain a pipeline of future E.A.’s so executives are always well-staffed, and these new E.A.’s get the great exposure and experience they need to advance.
Are E.A.’s overlooked because their role really is “behind the scenes” and doesn’t call for executive advancement? Or is it because women have traditionally been assistants to men, and it literally hasn’t occurred to managers that the women in these roles are capable of more? No amount of confidence-building, boundary setting, or creative self-promotion is going to counteract deep-seated, entrenched sexism and misogyny. Unless we care enough to examine these questions, we cannot implement true change.
- Peril, Lynn. Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making It in the Office. W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.
- Finkel, David. 4 Types of Personal Assistants (2 of Which You Need to Avoid). Inc.com, 19 April 2018. https://www.inc.com/david-finkel/the-4-kinds-of-personal-assistants-which-do-you-need.html. Accessed 27 June 2021