Women Are Secretaries, Men Are Truck Drivers

BY Cristen Conger / POSTED February 8, 2013
Hammerbrook - City can this really be true?
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Administrative assistant is the most common job for American women. (michael_hadassah/Flickr) Administrative assistant is the most common job for American women. (michael_hadassah/Flickr)

Widely circulated U.S. Census data have revealed that the most common job for American women in 2010 was the same as it was in 1950. Although more commonly referred to as administrative assistants, secretarial work has remained a staple of female employment, with 4 million women comprising 96 percent of the industry sector. CNN Money traces the trend back to the Industrial Revolution when companies realized that they could pay women less to sift through paperwork, simultaneously giving birth to the longstanding gender wage gap that still pays women 78 cents to every $1 a man earns:

Secretarial schools offered professional training, which made it possible for many women to enter the career without a full college education.

It wasn’t until 1950 that it became the most popular job among women. Back then, 1.7 million women worked in a category the Census defined as “stenographers, typists or secretaries.”

Since women are earning more college degrees than men these days, some see the continued popularity of administrative assistant jobs for women as a sign of undervalued potential, and the average salary is less is $34,304. At the same time, administrative jobs — for better or worse — remain abundant, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects their availability will grow in the coming decade. And while some might reflexively sniff at the stereotype of secretarial work as little more than menial pencil pushing, this blog post over at Scientific American is a useful reminder of the myriad, important tasks administrative assistants attend to, like attending to the daily functions of the Brown University physics department that discovered the Higgs boson:

My mom does many things. She types and proofreads manuscripts with intricate technical formulas. She keeps tabs on research expenses. She publicizes visiting speakers. She organizes departmental events. She tracks large undergraduate classes. She Xeroxes tests. She schedules meetings. She answers the questions of undergraduates, graduates, faculty, and staff. She writes newsletters. She sorts mail. In sum, she helps professors attend to their research.

Job satisfaction likely is much higher in the most common female occupation, compared to the job American men fill most often: truck driving. In 1950, most men were worked in manufacturing, no doubt with plenty of female secretaries helping keep the factories afloat, as agriculture had begun its steep decline in employment numbers. Today, women make up just over 5 percent of U.S. truckers, which interestingly means that there are more female truck drivers than male secretaries. And speaking of administrative assistants, the trucking industry also is flush with open positions. But in June 2012, CNN Money reported that long haul trucking companies were having trouble hiring because of time-consuming licensing and life on the road.

“Drivers are put under intense scrutiny before they get into the industry, and for good reason,” said Brett Aquila, trucker and creator of the blog TruckingTruth. “It’s incredibly risky putting someone behind the wheel of an 80,000 pound truck with your company’s name on it.”

And when drivers do get on the road, they find the long-haul lifestyle isn’t easy, living for weeks at a time in the cramped confines of the back of the truck.

While the gendered nature of these jobs deserves additional conversation, their job descriptions in the meantime deserve more respect — and earning potential considering how economically vital both are.

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