Why does Warren Buffett still have a 'secretary'?

The hit AMC period drama 'Mad Men' reflects the stereotypes associated with the secretary of the 1960s.

Story highlights

  • Term "secretary" faded in an effort to distance profession from smutty stigma
  • As secretaries' duties expanded, many felt the title no longer fit the role
  • Debbie Bosanek, Buffett's longtime secretary, has never publicly questioned the title
  • Many executive assistants and administrative support staff say the title is meaningless

If the word "secretary" doesn't conjure up an image for you, just run a quick Google Image search.

The pencil in the mouth is a recurring motif, as are beaming women in headsets seated in front of computers. Images abound of women in low-cut blouses, legs crossed under tiny skirts, alongside head shots of Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton. The women of "Mad Men" hold their ground next to bondage shots of Maggie Gyllenhaal from the movie "Secretary."

Given its cultural baggage, the term "secretary" has been jettisoned over the past three decades. It's why we won't be celebrating Professional Secretaries Day on April 25, but rather, Administrative Professionals Day. Retiring the term made way for the "administrator," "assistant" and "support staff" of today. (It's tucked away with the word "stewardess.")

Then why is it that billionaire Warren Buffett still has a secretary -- with a higher tax rate, as we heard over and over again this week -- and not an executive assistant?

Also on CNN: 'Secretary' title is a blast from the past

"It's a generational difference. Older people are used to the word secretary because that's what everyone used to be," said Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. "You can chalk it up to changing conventions and how words over time become associated with practices or habits that become out of date."

Buffett is 81, and became chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway in 1970, just as the term was starting to fade. Tannen has an assistant, but if she'd had a helper 30 years ago, she probably would have called her a secretary, she said.

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Debbie Bosanek, Buffett's longtime secretary, has never publicly questioned the title, and has garnered a bit of fame from her workplace in Omaha, Nebraska. She even attended the State of the Union as a guest of the White House this year.

"The word secretary, for many people, is associated with an earlier time when those jobs were held exclusively by women and women were limited to jobs like that," Tannen said.

The National Secretaries' Association was founded in 1942 as a professional network for the growing number of women entering secretarial ranks during World War II. There were limited job opportunities for women, and the title of secretary could have some cachet. But to be a secretary was still seen as women's work over which the glass ceiling loomed large, spokesman Ray Weikal said.

By 1998, the organization had evolved into the International Association of Administrative Professionals to encompass the growing variety of job titles and to recognize the advancing role of administrative support staff, said Weikal, who, by the way, goes by the title communications specialist.

"Over time, being a secretary became increasingly more complex and secretaries were expected to master a range of very technical jobs. In many cases, they were the ones pushing for the adoption of electric typewriters and fax machines, and they were very often the ones integrating those kinds of technology into the office," he said.

"People who had those jobs increasingly felt the title frankly did not represent who they were as professionals, so you started to see the development of other job titles."

The shift was also about overcoming stigma, said Lynn Peril, author of "Swimming in the Steno Pool: A Retro Guide to Making it in the Office."

"The term secretary really did not have much positive connotation by the mid-1970s because so much cultural baggage had been attached to it by that time," she said.

What kind of baggage, exactly? Peril has a Pinterest board dedicated to the topic, and anyone who has seen an episode of "Mad Men" knows the markers: typists who take dictations and write memos but also serve as buxom eye candy and objects for an extramarital fling.

It's the kind of baggage that made secretaries the subjects of pulp novels with titles like "Office Affair" and "The Schemers" and the purported case study, "Sex and the Secretary." A more Nancy Drew-ish book series "Private Secretary" drew upon themes of small town girls looking for love in the big city.

"Not every secretary was a feminist," Peril said, "but one of the things they realized from the feminist movement was they wanted to be treated with respect and one way to achieve that was to jettison the title 'secretary.'"

That's not to say the title is gone. By day, Peril is a legal secretary, and says she doesn't mind the title.

Of the 22,000 members in the administrative professionals' association, 15% identified as secretaries in 2010, up from 7% in 2009, Weikal said. He has no real explanation for it, but speculates it might be driven by nostalgia.

"I call it the 'Mad Men' effect. I don't have concrete evidence for that, but anecdotally, there's evidence to suggest there may be a culture shift to use the title secretary."

Perhaps a better question: Does it matter? Not according to several secretaries we talked to.

"I think everyone is on their toes about being politically correct. But I don't think it matters," said Jasmine Garnes, a 30-year-old executive assistant at a commercial real estate company in Atlanta. Her responsibilities run the gamut from scheduling meetings to organizing conferences. As long as the paycheck clears, "It's basically the same job with a different title. It means you have a job."