We Can Thank The Great Depression, Not Hallmark, For Administrative Professionals’ Week
The holiday that never was (because it’s not officially a holiday) Administrative Professionals’ Week has endured endless criticism as sexist or condescending but came from a very real need in the United States, post-World War II.
Today’s critics call it another Hallmark holiday, marked with gifts of chocolates, flowers, and cards in many cases. They accuse that it is leftover sexism from the 20th century, adopted with dog whistle nomenclature.
Perhaps, but for many administrative assistants, the week where their boss takes them to lunch is the most recognition they receive all year.
1942; The Shortage
After the depression and the second World War, even before the end of the war, the U.S. suffered a dearth of talent. The support staff, which had previously buttressed our executives graduated to higher positions, retired or worse, perished.
We had a gap in our talent pool, but not necessarily because of population gaps. The pool was thinner, but there were enough able-bodied candidates. We only had to convince them of the opportunities.
At the time, we called them secretaries, even though many assistants did not function in that exact role as we know it today.
In 1942, the United States founded the National Secretaries’ Association, with a goal of pumping some energy back into the field. The team was made up of men and women, all of professional backgrounds.
It would take ten years before they were able to roll out the new unofficial holiday.
1952; National Secretaries’ Day
The first one was a Wednesday. That day, employers booked restaurants from New York to Los Angeles.
To alleviate this, the National Secretaries Association later decided to create two events, Professional Secretaries’ Day and Professional Secretaries’ Week. That way all the bosses had a full week to wine and dine their assistants.
The nation’s restaurants let out a collective sigh of relief, then counted the profits every year as nice bump post-Easter. This is a bit of an exaggeration. The unofficial holiday wasn’t quite this successful, not at first, but it didn’t hurt any restaurant’s either.
It also didn’t fix the problem. By 1957, we were still talking about the tiny pool of talent. A 1957 Time Magazine article said of the situation (cringe), “The Secretary Shortage: They’re Either Too Pretty or Too Old.”
Employers, desperate to ensnare talent, leveraged benefits like, “your own office,” and “handle TV stars” to lure potential applicants. They offered profit-sharing, health insurance, and other fringe bennies.
What finally filled the gap was the baby boomers coming of age.
2000; International Administrative Professionals’ Week
By the ’70s, the advocates for change grew in volume. Secretaries demanded more respect from their employers. Time magazine labeled them “rebel secretaries.”
In ’72, the state department responded, ordering executives to change their behavior to assistants.
The National Secretaries Association changed their name to the Professional Secretaries International in ’81, then the Association of Administrative Professionals in ’98. They even adopted an acronym, the IAAP.
The key to both of these adaptations was the international element. This was no longer a U.S. party. Assistants around the globe were going to lunch on the boss every year.
Today’s regard for support staff is widespread, internationally celebrated. It may still suffer from a perception of condescension, but the pushback does beg the question: Who in their right mind would give up free lunch?