To Miryam Drucker the phrase "just a secretary" triggers a private fantasy.
"I dream that one day all the secretaries in the world just stop working," says the Washington School for Secretaries director. "The world would grind to a halt, because secretaries run businesses.
"It would take something drastic like that to illustrate how vital secretaries are. For once people would stop and ponder the importance of the professional secretary."
Drucker's dream underscores a quiet rebellion, rooted in the tradition that once considered secretarial work one of the few careers for women. In a modern age of women doctors, lawyers and construction workers, women in secretarial jobs face an image problem.
As Drucker says, "An unfortunate byproduct of the women's movement has been to make women feel guilty about pursuing traditional roles."
Automation -- which has the potential to transform the office into a computerized business factory -- also promises to revolutionize the secretarial field. In response to the increasing number of businesses adopting sophisticated office machinery, clerical workers across the country have begun to organize in order to have a strong voice in the use of this technology.
They are also demanding respect, responsibility and raises.
Two disparate themes for this year's Secretary's Week -- highlighted by today's observance of Secretary's Day -- present striking evidence that the '80s will be a crucial decade for secretaries.
"Secretaries are forever" is the slogan of the National Secretary's Association whose spokeswoman declares, "No machine will ever replace the secretary."
"Race Against Time," an alarming report on office automation marks the observance of Working Women/The National Association of Office Workers. "The secretarial function we honor today," warns director Karen Nussbaum, "may well be obsolete in the next decade."
Despite their differing projections, both groups agree on one thing: There is a severe shortage of secretaries.
"Secreatrial work has been one of the fastest-growing areas in the labor force," according to the Bureau of Labor Statistic's Stephen Ginter. "The demand for secretaries, particularly well-qualified ones, is intense."
Although an estimated 20 percent of all secretarial openings go begging, Ginter says men aren't noticeably moving into the field and represent just 1 percent of all secretaries.
Stereotyping still goes on. "What man wants to be called a secretary," sneers a male executive, "unless it's secretary of state."
Fewer women are choosing the secretarial field, says WSS's Drucker, because "they are being told by parents and counselors that any job which was traditionally female -- secretaries, nurses, teachers -- is something they shouldn't do anymore.
"Women began to think being a secretary is something less than what they should be. If I thought I wouldn't have responsibility, wouldn't make money, [would] be sexually harrassed and pour coffee all day, I wouldn't want to be a secretary either.
"But that's not the case for the professional secretary who is trained and prepared to run an office and can assume great amounts of responsibility. They have too much to do and their salaries are too high (their graduates start at $11,500 to $16,000 annually) to be waitresses."
There are two basic types of secretaries, says Drucker. "Those who want to be secretaries and those who want an entree to management positions." Either way, she says, a trained secretary assumes power, responsibility and job satisfaction.
Secretaries to top executives "can often wield a great deal of power and learn a lot about business by osmosis," says executive secretary Mary Ann Danner, president of The Seraphic Society, an exclusive organization of about 200 secretaries and administrative assistants to the top chief executives in New York City.
"Some secretaries know more about the organization than the vice presidents," adds NSA board member Sylvia Cash, who takes particular pride in adding the initials C.P.S. (certified professional secretary, earned by passing a rigorous exam) to her name. "I'd always wanted to be a secretary; I've been one 20 years and I wouldn't do anything else. It's exciting and challenging."
Not all secretaries, however, paint this rosy picture.
"In my first secretarial job I was confronted with disturbing attitudes of the men I worked for," says Boston secretary Maureen O'Donnell. "They'd continually comment on my physical attributes -- what we now call sexual harassment. It devalued my work and made me feel very uncomfortable in my work environment."
Other subtle slights at secretaries -- including one administrator's jeering remark that a supervisor who would type his own letter "will stoop to anything" -- led her to join her local chapter of 9 to 5. One of 12 nationwide organizations affiliated with Working Women, an 8,000-member national organization for office workers, 9 to 5 is part of a growing movement to unionize clerical workers.
"Secretaries are so isolated," says O'Donnell, who now chairs 9 to 5. "Oftentimes they feel they're the only ones experiencing problems. They think it's a personal issue, when in reality many people share their concerns.
"And it rankles you when you're doing a good portion of your supervisor's job and making a fraction of what he makes."
The average weekly salary for secretaries in the Washington area is $243, slightly above the $240 national average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Working Women's "office workers' bill of rights" includes demands for respect on the job, comprehensive written job descriptions, compensation for overtime work and work not included in job descriptions and defined regular salary reviews and cost-of-living increases.
Some of these concerns will be featured in a movie "9 to 5" -- starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton -- to be released in December. Fonda, who is scheduled to speak at a Working Women press conference today in Los Angeles, got the idea for the movie after talking with unionizing clerical workers while campaigning with husband Tom Hayden.
But a major push to organize, says Working Women organizer Anne Hill, comes from the potentially grim impact of automation.
"Clerical workers in the '80s face a situation similar to what industrial workers faced in the '30s," she claims. "They are lowly paid and facing office automation which may be hazardous to their health."
According to their "race-against-time" report:
10 million minicomputers will be in operation across the country by the end of this year.
Job functions targeted for automation -- file clerk, bookkeeper, secretary, typist and bank teller -- are all at least 90 percent filled by women.
Women office workers will be paid less for doing more work, in jobs which are monotonous and which offer fewer opportunities for advancement.
Office automation will integrate stress-causing equipment directly and permanently into clerical jobs. (Some may be health hazards, too, say Working Women organizers, citing reports of eye- and muscle-strain caused by use of video display terminals.)
Clerical workers rank second-highest as victims of stress-related diseases, and women clerical workers with children and blue-collar husbands are almost twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease than men.
Despite these grim predictions, NSA and other secretarial professionals insist secretaries are here to stay.
"I haven't yet seen a word processor that feeds itself," notes Drucker, who stresses the difference between a trained professional secretary and a less skilled typist, receptionist and file clerk.
"Automation will free the secretary to assume greater responsibility and utilize time writing, setting up conferences, traveling. The field is going to be even more exciting."
Secretary Barbara Buhl agrees. "It's a challenging field for those who want to remain as secretaries, or move up in the work world," says the president of the Washington Association of Black Executive Secretaries.
"But there's just one thing I'd like to change. I'd want to take the just out of just a secretary. I'm a professional in a meaningful job, and I'd like the respect I'm due."