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Where Have All the Administrative Assistants Gone? The Real Explanation for the "Womancession"

How the worker speedup is creating the “womancession”

In April, Katherine Hook was laid off from her job as an administrative assistant, a title she’s held since graduating from high school in 1968. Now 60, Hook had worked at CenterPoint Engineering in Mechanicsburg, Penn., for 11 and a half years. One day, she was assisting a group of professional engineers and designers. The next, she was told to clear out her desk. “We had no clue, no idea that there was anything wrong,” she says. "I jokingly said to the president, 'You should fire the marketing department,' but he said, 'Oh no, they’re the ones getting us work,'" she recalls. "If they’re getting us work, why am I being let go?" Her duties have now been handed off to one of the designers.

Since the recession technically ended in 2009, all of the weak growth in jobs has gone to men while women’s employment has declined. Men have gained 805,000 jobs, but women have lost a total of 281,000. The percentage of women who have a job hasn’t been this low since 1988. Cuts to state budgets help explain why women are falling behind: In the face of large budget shortfalls, women have lost 343,000 public-sector jobs, accounting for 70 percent of the cuts between June 2009 and June 2011,

But while cuts to government workers explain much of the difference between recoveries for men and women, that's only part of the story. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that women were also lagging behind men in virtually all private-sector industries. Men gained more jobs than women in almost all industries, and when some areas lost jobs, men lost fewer than women. This even held true even for traditionally female-dominated industries like education and health care. Pew couldn't find an explanation for this mystery, concluding "[i]t is not entirely clear why men are doing better than women in the current recovery. An analysis of employment by sectors offers no definitive answer.”

Women are losing out across industries, but what about across occupations? An industry describes what an employer does; an occupation describes what an individual worker does. Someone can work as an accountant for an oil company, a state government, or a health care company—the same occupation across different industries. Here is how job loss looks across occupations:

Women have been brutally hit when it comes to a category called “office and administrative support occupations," i.e. those who make workplaces run smoothly. In this occupation, which represents over 17 million workers, women have lost a total of 925,000 jobs while men have gained 204,000 since the recession ended. Looking into quarterly data for the individual job categories that make up this sector, it's clear that there have been extensive job losses among administrative assistants, secretaries, and others who support their offices:

It falls on other workers to pick up the slack in offices where assistants have been let go. Americans have been working harder without seeing better pay or even new titles. Mother Jones recently reported that Americans put in an average 122 more hours than British workers and 378 more than Germans. As companies trim budgets, employers are “rationalizing” far more positions than usual. This leaves everyone else to pick up the remaining work. In a recent survey by Spherion Staffing, 53 percent of workers said they’ve taken on new roles. Just 7 percent got a raise or a bonus for doing so. Meanwhile, few people are quitting their jobs in this bad market, destroying one of their few bargaining chips and leaving them no choice but to work more.

When companies decide to lay off secretaries and assistants while making employees pick up the slack, women take the hit. “Our labor force is still pretty segregated by gender,” points out Mary Gatta, a senior scholar at Wider Opportunities for Women. “Women are concentrated in a small number of jobs,” and if the support staff is fired, women who have worked in those roles all their lives will be left high and dry.

Judy Loux was laid off and now has nowhere to turn. Her former employer, Artisans' Bank, brought in outside specialists to increase efficiency because it was losing money. It decided to consolidate jobs. Widowed and 68 years old, she was let go from her administrative job, but no one new has been brought in to take over her workload. She can’t retire because her mortgage, refinanced six years ago, is too high to be paid with Social Security checks. So she’s searching for a job—any job. “Our want ads at one time would be three or four pages. Now it’s maybe one complete page if that,” she says.

She and Katherine Hook are not alone. A few months ago, Dr. Susan Fenner, manager of education and events at the International Association of Administrative Professionals, conducted a training session for administrative assistants, many of who had been with their companies for decades. “Six weeks later I ran into a person in that group, and I could not believe how many of those people had lost their jobs,” she says.

Fenner says many jobs that involve booking the boss’s travel and scheduling meetings could be gone forever. “It’s a do-it-yourself world,” she says. “But the kinds of things they could be doing, should be doing, are higher order jobs,” such as working with budgets and maintaining websites. That will require training these women and investing in them, not eliminating them.

But while these careers are shifting in the long term, a stronger job market right now would go a long way toward alleviating women’s dismal employment picture. If the economy were creating a large number of jobs, workers would have more opportunities and leverage to demand a balanced workplace in which they only do their own job, not several others, too. That would not only put administrative assistants back in demand, it would make all workers more sane – men and women alike.

Thumbnail image via Flickr user cushinglibrary.

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