They are the gatekeepers. Frequently shrewder than those they serve and always more knowledgeable, office secretaries are back in vogue. New evidence suggests that, spurred by powerful role models in the US TV series Mad Men, an increasing number of personal assistants, executive assistants and office managers are reviving the traditional job title.
A survey of more than 3,000 office PAs worldwide by the International Association of Administrative Professionals found that the number of administration staff who consider themselves "secretaries" has nearly doubled over the past two years. It attributed part of the shift to screenwriter Matthew Weiner's depiction of Mad Men's secretarial staff as powerful, attractive and emotionally astute, with inner knowledge of the workings of an office and constant access to the boss. According to the study, the number of secretaries had risen from eight per cent to nearly 15. The show, the organisation said, appears to "stoke nostalgia for the classic image of the American corporate secretary".
Despite working in an ego-fuelled office full of sexist pigs, Mad Men's Peggy Olsen wins numerous promotions during the first series. Joan Holloway is the shrewd head secretary who wields more power and commands more respect than most of the executive board. And Megan Draper's emotional intelligence in the current series has made compelling viewing. This Wednesday is the 60th anniversary of Administrative Professionals Day and comes amid new evidence that the skills of top-level secretaries are now in such demand that the cream can command more than £363,000 a year.
Despite staff cuts in the financial sector, secretaries are becoming more aware of their worth. Figures released this week by the Association of Personal Assistants (APA) next week will show that more than 60 per cent of those working in British companies believe the importance of their role has grown in the past five years.
Gareth Osbourne, director of the APA, said: "The role of secretaries is no longer just confined to filing and managing the diary. Nowadays they have to be responsive to everything, even more so in a recession, where their value has been recognised. And more often than not they are expected to have a microcosm of every single attribute of those that they serve."
Geoff Sims, managing director of Hays PA and Secretarial, said: "Shows like Mad Men have helped office administration to grow in stature. The discipline has evolved from the typing pool to secretaries. An increasing number of staff now work alongside celebrities, managing their lives. And we're seeing more people coming in from other professional careers."