Sixty years ago, one of the most common professions for women in the U.S. was a secretary or typist. The evolution of American office culture, as well as the Industrial Revolution, created a massive amount of paperwork for offices to sort through. The secretary emerged as the person to get that work done. The job—which originally employed women as a cost-saving measure, since women could be paid much less—remains 96 percent female today and is still the most common job for American women.
The job has always required a specific skill set, but since the 1960s women in the profession have demanded more respect from their employers and are no longer lured to the profession by the promise that they may meet their future spouse at work.
Debra Leonard-Porch has been an administrative professional for over 35 years. She’s currently the office manager of Incapital Holdings in Chicago, and a long-time member of the International Association of Administrative Professionals. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Leonard-Porch about how she became an administrative professional and why she remained in the job for all these years. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bourree Lam: What do you do for work and how did you get into it?
Debra Leonard-Porch: I have been some sort of administrative professional most of my adult life. It didn't start out that way.
I went to school to be a meteorologist. I was in college, and my counselor at that time said, "Oh dear, I don't think that this is where you want to be." At that point, she meant there were no colored weather people, she suggested that perhaps I should be a teacher or nurse. I was like, "Wow, that's kind of stinky."
I thought about it, and my other passion was actually journalism. I thought, "Okay, if they don't have any meteorologists that are African American, they're probably not going to have that many journalists, so I'm still not going to wind up with the job." As most administrative professionals, I lucked into this job because I knew how to type.
Lam: What year was this?
Leonard-Porch: It feels like it was 1902. It was the '70s. It was an interesting time to be young and African American I suppose. Long story short, I went to school but did not graduate because I was working and going to school, and then the money got very good. I went to school at night for a while, but then I became very involved in work. I started out as a receptionist; I mastered that very quickly. They tried giving me other duties to perform; I really started liking that. It just snowballed from that point on.
Lam: How did you learn how to type?
Leonard-Porch: I learned in high school. Back in the day, you either took typing or you took home economics. I had known how to cook since I was seven or eight years old, so that wasn't something I was interested in. I took a typing class, and I actually quit because the teacher would make all of the females cut their nails. You had to hold your hands up every week, and if your nails were past a certain point, she would actually cut your fingernails.
That wasn’t going to work for me, because I was kind of vain. If I had spent all that time painting my nails, I wanted everybody to see my nails. I had the basics [of typing] down and I just kept doing it. I took some self-study classes, and my sister had taken the same class and she taught me. That's how I learned how to type.
Lam: What was your first job as a receptionist?
Leonard-Porch: I started my receptionist career at an in-house magazine for a nonprofit organization that helps struggling communities. I worked as a receptionist for about a year. I outgrew the position and there was no place else to go. Then I moved on to another position at Cook County Hospital as a floating secretary. I went from department to department, wherever anyone was out or needed assistance. From there, I became an assistant in the Department of Cardiology.
[After some months,] I answered a random ad in the newspaper and got a position with the National Parent Teacher Association. I think that's really when my love affair started, because I was an administrative assistant and I was in charge of my own little department within the National PTA. Then, a friend of mine was at a PR firm, she said, "We have a position you might be interested in." From that point on, every position that I have ever gotten has been through another administrative professional. [People in the administrative world] knew my values and my work ethic. My career just progressed from that point on and I spent 11 years at my last position at Edelman, a public-relations firm.
Lam: You’re an office manager now. Is that a natural continuation of what you were doing?
Leonard-Porch: Yes. I'm the office manager for the Chicago office and the office facilities manager for our other offices that need assistance with managerial things. It's just another iteration of administrative professionalism.
Lam: You mentioned your work ethic. How does that relate to what you've been doing all these years?
Leonard-Porch: I put 190 percent into what I'm doing. Being a little OCD really helps when you're an administrative professional.
I truly care about what I’m doing and I always want the product to be the best possible product that it can be, which has served me very well. One of my biggest mentors is Judy Silverman-Wax. She taught me about presentation and how a letter can be the most mundane letter in the world—but how it looks on paper will affect how it's perceived. She taught me all about proofreading. I love to proofread; I can proofread until the cows come home. It feeds a need in me; for perfection I guess. Well, not perfection, but semi-perfection.
Every position that I have ever held has been a progressively more detail-oriented position. I am not only the office manager, I like to say that I support the entire office. I started out as the executive assistant to the president and CFO. When he left, I became the office manager and I support any person that needs assistance in the office, including our CEO and the director of national accounts. It could be something as simple as booking tickets or finding a restaurant for dinner, knowing people's likes and dislikes.
Lam: Do you feel pride in your support work?
Leonard-Porch: I do. I'm a behind the scenes kind of person.
I know that I have contributed when someone has gotten exactly what they need to do the best that they can [at their job]. The funny part is throughout this entire process, people always say, "Oh, you talk too much. You're so friendly." Actually I'm very introverted, I am a lifelong stutterer. I have always been the kind of person that wants to fix problems instead of talk about them.
When I joined the International Association of Administrative Professionals 15 years ago, I immediately fell in love with the organization. It was like, "Okay, I found my people." They were administrative professional at all different walks of life, stages of their profession, and it was just very interesting. I decided that I was going to be more than just a member; I was going to actually part of the association. It pushed me out of my comfort zone. I had to learn to speak in public. It's been very beneficial, so I am proud of what I do, what I have accomplished, and what I still have yet to do.
Lam: There's the old saying that secretaries really run an office. Do you think that's true because they are the ones that make things happen in a way?
Leonard-Porch: I believe that's true. My husband has a saying: “I wear the pants, but my wife picks them out.” That's how I feel about work sometimes. If you want something done, if anybody wants something done, you go to the person who knows how to get it done. Nine times out of 10, it's the support person—the person that's in the background doing the grunt work. We know who to talk to, and how to make the end result flawless from the outside. You’re not supposed to know what people are juggling. The goal is to get your executive to where they're supposed to be, fully informed, on-time if not early, and back the same way.
One of the people that I support travels constantly. I'm constantly juggling schedules for her, car services, making sure that she gets every place that she needs to go in a timely fashion. She has a teenage son. So I can send her home with five or six different travel itinerary, and [her son] says, "Wow, they're color coordinated and you know what color your meetings are going to be and what time they're going to be." I tell her what the dress code is, because I never want her to show up not correct, especially as a woman. It's very important because perception is the first thing. If you come in late, or everyone has on formal attire and you have on tennis clothes, people are going to think that you're not prepared.
Lam: What are some of the challenges of your job? It sounds like you’re maintaining many work relationships all at once.
Leonard-Porch: My goal is to help as many people, make their day as easy as possible throughout the day. I do tend to have long days, and I'm always attached electronically to something. You can reach me by phone 90 percent of the time: I have a work phone, a personal phone, a work laptop, a personal laptop, so I'm accessible. It doesn't bother me. I don't feel like I'm so important that you have to reach me at all the time, but I like to be available if you need me.
That's how I try to train my front desk staff: we are all interchangeable cogs in a wheel. If I'm not here, I need you to be able to pick up and work for anybody. I tell them all the time, "If you come and you work with me, you may not like me when you leave, but I promise you can always get a job anywhere doing anything." That's my goal. I share what I know with other people, because I want you to go to the next step.
I may not go to the next step, but I want you to be able to go out there and make your living and be proud of what you're doing. I don't think many people start out going, "I'm going to be a secretary when I grow up." It's a thing that you build your way into as life goes on. And that's okay, because as long as you have a passion for it, it's okay.
Lam: Behind-the-scenes jobs are sometimes seen as thankless jobs. How do the people you support make you feel credited and valued, to help you take pride in your work?
Leonard-Porch: Sometimes as little as saying, “Thank you.” I had one boss; he thanked me every single day he came to work. My philosophy has always been I apply for my job every day. I come in to apply for my job, because it could easily go to someone else. They can get someone younger. They can get someone cheaper. They can get someone with a better education, but they will never find anybody who will work as hard as I do.
Lam: How does your work relate to your personal identity?
Leonard-Porch: I have a strong sense of who I am as a person, so it doesn't really matter what my job title is. I like what I do. Someone gave me a great opportunity to do something different, and I knew I could learn something if I took that job. I don't get any more groceries at the grocery store from being an executive assistant than I did when I was an administrative assistant or a receptionist. My self-worth comes from knowing who I am as a person. That's all I've got. My family, that's where my life really is.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a national convention organizer, a travel agent, and an event planner.
This article is part of our Inside Jobs project, which is supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.