Be sure to check out our Magnum Photos gallery saluting office workers from the 1950s to today.
Maybe part of the problem is that in the 50 years since the holiday began, the duties of a secretary have been farmed out across the office, and the job definition is no longer clear. A secretary used to be the woman who answered phones, took dictation, typed, picked up dry cleaning, and stole your husband, if she was really good. Now she (or he) might give PowerPoint presentations or build a Web site. Meanwhile, someone else might do the typing and filing. The confusion over who qualifies as a secretary creates social anxiety about either over-celebrating the holiday or under-celebrating it. One Secretaries Day, a former advertising-sales assistant and co-worker of mine got lovely plants from colleagues who rushed to point out that they'd gotten her a gift even though she wasn't really a secretary. She got the impression they thought she might be offended by being lumped in with the admin staff. The holiday forces workers, like it or not, to evaluate how they stack up. Mail-room guy, copy clerk, typist, receptionist, administrative secretary, executive assistant—are you low enough on the totem pole to merit a gift? Or are you too low?
In some industries, Secretaries Day is less apt to cause confusion. Schools, for example, have it easy—it's obvious that the lady in the front office with her glasses hanging by a chain is the secretary. But in many workplaces, administrative positions are rife with ambiguity. What about legal clerks at law firms and sales assistants at magazines—when you cut them, do they not bleed Wite-Out? In the media business, assistant positions are often a stepping stone to greater glory. Still, assistants perform the same duties as secretaries. And even if most of them don't do it for long, every publication has a guy who's been an editorial assistant for 15 years. He can write a dozen screenplays and freelance hundreds of album reviews for the local indie paper, but he's still going to be an assistant 10 years from now. Does he deserve the same Benihana gift certificate that the publisher's secretary gets? Of course he does. He just lacks the magic title.
Perhaps my impatience with Secretaries Day springs from job dissatisfaction, as an executive assistant at a New York-based magazine suggested when we mused about why the holiday creates bitterness. True—in my mind, I should be the boss. And I resent being reminded of my slow progress up the chain of command every year. * Those of us who yearn to be professionals, not administrative professionals, tend to bristle at the idea that we're just boosters for the big boys and girls. (Don't get me started on the perversity of National Boss Day, Oct. 16.)
Some bosses feel compelled to take their secretary, assistant, or whoever out to lunch on Secretaries Day. It's a nice gesture, but who wants to sit through that awkward meal? Anyone who has seen the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode in which Larry David takes his maid on a squirm-worthy lunch date at his country club knows the potential disaster of forced boss-employee conviviality. Instead of Secretaries Day, why not just chip in for a big cake on the Friday before Labor Day and toast everyone in the office—wouldn't that be kinder, not to mention easier? I'd much prefer that to a holiday that's a catch-all for "attagirl," "I'm sorry for being an insufferable employer," and "we should talk about that raise."