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A secretary, personal assistant, or administrative assistant is a person whose work consists of supporting management, including executives, using a variety of project management, communication, or organizational skills. These functions 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.
A secretary has many administrative duties. Traditionally, these duties were mostly related to correspondence, such as the typing out of letters, maintaining files of paper documents, etc. The advent of word processing has significantly reduced the time that such duties require, with the result that many new tasks have come under the purview of the secretary. These might include managing budgets and doing bookkeeping, maintaining websites, and making travel arrangements. Secretaries might manage all the administrative details of running a high-level conference or arrange the catering for a typical lunch meeting. Often executives will ask their assistant to take the minutes at meetings and prepare meeting documents for review.
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.
Since 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.
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 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 the 1880s, with the invention of the typewriter, more women began to enter the field, and 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.
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.
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 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 a personal assistant to a manager or executive. Other titles describing jobs similar to or overlapping those of the traditional secretary are office coordinator, executive assistant, office manager and administrative professional.
In Belgium, a Bachelor's degree in Office Management is ideal for the position. University courses economics, modern languages, and office administration offer great preparation for the position.
In the United States, a variety of skills and adaptability to new situations is necessary. As such, a four-year degree is often preferred and a two-year degree is usually a requirement.
The work of an executive assistant differs slightly from that of an administrative assistant. Executive assistants work for a company officer (at both private and public institutions), and possess the authority to make crucial decisions affecting the direction of such organizations, and is therefore a resource in decision-making and policy setting. The executive assistant performs the usual roles of managing correspondence, preparing research, and communication while also acting as the "gatekeeper," understanding in varying degree the requirements of the executive, and with an ability through this understanding to decide which scheduled events or meetings 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.
An executive assistant differs from an administrative 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 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/majors and Navy captains/commanders/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, general officers or flag officers. The Secretary of Defense has a lieutenant general or vice admiral as his/her Senior Military Assistant (SMA). Like their civilian counterparts, they are also a resource in decision-making, policy setting, and oversight of the 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 service components or combatant commands, but 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.
Sheelah Kolhatkar (April 4, 2013). "Where Have All the Secretaries Gone?". Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved April 7, 2013.
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