Some regard sexual harassment as 'part of the job' and nearly half of them earn between pounds 6,000 and pounds 10,000 a year, compared with the Council of Europe 'basic decency threshold' of pounds 10,770.
Only one secretary in four is content with the job and career prospects, and nearly 40 per cent want to move into management, according to a survey, Typecast, published by the Industrial Society, an independent advisory body.
Debra Allcock, head of the society's administrative development and author of the report, said her findings were 'a shameful reflection on how organisations manage and utilise their secretarial staff'.
The study says that secretarial and administrative staff are 'the most undervalued, under-utilised and under-developed section of the '90s workforce'.
Around 40 per cent of secretaries, who are overwhelmingly women, believe their employer will promote them. But the society could find few such examples. Secretaries were encouraged to take a back seat, be supportive and take the blame when their boss made a mistake. They were never expected to take over their manager's job.
Long stays in the profession, but short stays in each job, demonstrated how secretaries feel 'trapped and dissatisfied', the study says. Almost two- thirds of the 540 secretaries contacted had been in their current job for less than three years and just 7 per cent for more than 10 years. Three out of four had been secretaries for more than three years and a third for more than 10 years.
The report comments: 'Things must change. In the current climate, organisations simply cannot afford to waste the skills and talents of secretaries, nor can they continue to discriminate against them.'
The society suggests that a change of job title might help to rid the work of female stereotyping. The report mentions business assistant, administrative assistant, assistant to . . . administrator, and executive assistant as possible alternatives.
Nearly half of the 396 managers questioned expect secretaries to have GCSE/O-levels and nearly a quarter require A- levels. Only 2 per cent would not be surprised if a secretary was a graduate, but 14 per cent of secretaries held degrees and 21 per cent A-levels.
Organisations spent less than 10 per cent of their training budgets on secretarial and administrative staff, but half of the managers polled said they would expect professional qualifications and almost half would demand foreign languages.
Typecast, the Industrial Society, Hyde House, 48 Bryanston Square, London W1H 7LN.