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Why is 'secretary' still the top job for women?

(MoneyWatch) The floor of my office is covered with women's magazines from 1963. I collect old magazines like Good Housekeeping and Ladies' Home Journal, and recently I've been studying the ones from exactly 50 years ago. The times they were a-changing then, with Betty Friedan's articles causing consternation in the letters-to-the-editor sections, and time-saving articles starting to acknowledge that some women actually worked outside the home, too.

What job did many of them have? Secretary -- the most common job title for women in the 1950s and 1960s. Although a lot has changed since then, it turns out that secretary and administrative assistant remain the most popular job titles for women, according to the Census Bureau.

Why is that? Some of this is just the nature of how the Census Bureau tracks jobs. An administrative assistant is a general title. You could be called that working in the oil industry or in a hospital. Some other female-dominated titles are also pretty broad: Elementary and middle school teacher for instance (no matter what subject or where you teach), or registered nurse (no matter whether you handle labor and delivery, pediatrics, hospice, or any other specialty). This is one reason women are more concentrated in fewer job titles than men.

Yet it also still speaks to a broader perception of what women are viewed as being well-suited for in office environments. Women can play support roles (some 96 percent of administrative assistants are women) but not leadership ones. Only about 32 percent of managers are women, the Census Bureau reports, and less than 20 percent of chief executives. With women earning the majority of all college degrees for decades, and now the majority of graduate degrees, it's unlikely this is because women are less qualified, in general, to be managers.

The biggest problem with this female ghetto is that administrative assistants don't tend to be highly paid. There are exceptions, of course; the secretary that a company-hopping CEO insists on taking with him is going to do well. But on average administrative assistants earn around $33,000 a year. This is less than what retail managers make, less than what truck drivers make, and less than the national median full-time salary of around $40,000. As women become about half of the workforce, one of the things that keeps the median family income down is the high proportion of women in lower-paying jobs.

Everyone is free to pursue whatever jobs they like, but it can be helpful for young people to peruse the tables produced by the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics on the median incomes for various jobs. Actuaries need a degree and to pass certain exams, but on average they earn $105,000 a year. Engineering occupations tend to pay well, with engineering managers averaging $113,000.

There are far more women capable of passing the math and science courses necessary to earn an engineering degree than actually do. But 50 years after Friedan's seminal feminist book, "The Feminine Mystique," it seems we still view women as being good at organization and support, not running and making things.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user bethcoll

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