Cindia Cameron

(WOMENSENEWS)–Peek inside almost any business or organization, big, little or somewhere in between, and you will almost certainly see a woman stationed at the front desk, greeting visitors and answering the telephones. Wander down the halls and you will inevitably come upon more women, of all ages and ethnicities, fetching coffee, sorting mail or hustling to schedule flights for their superiors.

More than one in four women in this country have clerical or administrative jobs, according to 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women, the Atlanta-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to strengthen women’s ability to work for economic justice.

What is even more troublesome is that of the approximately 3 million African American women employed in private industry alone, more than half were employed in support jobs in 1999, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The 10 top jobs for approximately 8 million African American women in the labor force also are those that are female-dominated with low wages, including secretaries, cashiers, bookkeepers and administrators.

Why is it that these predominantly female jobs are largely held by African American women?

Cindia Cameron, national organizing director for 9 to 5, has a few theories:

“I think very likely it’s a combination of both racial and gender discrimination that makes it harder for African American women to move out of traditional jobs that organizations and companies sort of “see” them in,” she says. “It’s not so much that there is something wrong with so many women, African American and otherwise, in clerical positions, but are these positions ones with a career ladder?”

Women in Clerical Jobs, No Matter What Their Color, Probably Will Remain There

Cameron says that if one were to think about a comparable, traditionally male job, a mechanic, for instance, one would find that the job tends to have career advancement opportunities. Women in clerical positions, no matter their color, will probably remain in their same positions for the duration of their employment.

When Cameron started with 9 to 5 in the early 1980s, the organization’s African American female clerical workers were first generation.

“Being employed in these positions was a huge step when you compare the jobs that had been open to their mothers,” she says. “In the 1940s and 1950s and into the early 1960s, the single largest dominant category for African American women was housekeeping, both in corporations and as domestic service.”

As a result of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, more jobs in the public sector were open to African Americans. Black women found themselves in clerical positions because this was the bulk of what was available in the local government. These positions, while not viewed as particularly prestigious today, afforded black women greater career and financial opportunities at the time.

Explains Cameron, “One hindrance for many African American women is the unfortunate fact that so many, in larger numbers, tend to be single parents,” she says. “This is often a hindrance to their professional growth. It’s next to impossible for a female single parent to have a professional job because the positions demand such significant amounts of time. Most of the women who have achieved CEO status don’t have children,” she adds.

Women Train for Clerical Jobs That Provide Steady Employment

Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C., suggests another reason for the trend.

Heidi Hartmann“Many clerical jobs used to be performed by men. However, when businesses began to grow as a result of marketing and worldwide advertising in the 20th century, the demand for clerical workers increased. So while the continuance of this trend does encompass elements of discrimination and tradition, it’s also supply and demand.”

Hartmann adds that the continually expanding clerical job market suits many women’s needs.

“Women realize that they may end up with more of the family responsibilities, and they may go in and out of the labor market more often. They choose to train for these kinds of clerical jobs because they know they will always be able to find employment.”

A woman’s education, or lack thereof, is also a factor when it comes to the types of jobs that are available. While it may appear that support workers have not acquired the same levels of education as their professional counterparts, this is frequently not the case.

Clerical and administrative positions may range from file clerk to office manager, but for lots of these jobs, an individual has to have at least a two-year business degree to qualify, and computer skills and multitasking abilities are imperative.

“Lots of economic theorists point out that if an employer had to hire a man with these skills, the employer would have to pay him a lot more, simply because a man’s structure of opportunity is greater. A man with the skills to be a clerical worker can be a manager or a salesperson. He can earn more because more occupations are easily available to him,” says Hartmann.

Keita Wells, an African American executive assistant for a chief operating officer of a mid-sized nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., is one of those whose level of education rivals that of her managerial counterparts. Wells earned a bachelor of science degree in business administration and marketing from LaSalle University in Philadelphia.

Clearly not suffering from a lack of credentials, she said her reason for taking the administrative job was to learn what was involved in running a business so that when she decides to start her own she will have a plethora of first-hand knowledge.

One Highly Qualified Executive Assistant Says She’s There to Learn the Ropes

“I know there is no career advancement for me here. In my opinion, there rarely is in these kinds of positions. I’m just here to learn what I can,” she says.

In 2001, it seems archaic that women are still seemingly confined to these traditionally female jobs. It may be the proverbial glass ceiling or it may be that there are still those traditional barriers erected by people who prefer to hire people like themselves.

“Overwhelmingly, in managerial and professional jobs, the people who are hiring are still taking the traditional routes, except when they are challenged by affirmative action measures,” Cameron explains. “Many of these people have a discomfort with people who may have different styles and different methods, and this works along both racial and gender lines.”

Hartmann agrees and says that she witnesses racial discrimination as a culprit within the confines of a field already suffering from the pains of gender discrimination.

“Within the clerical field, black women and white women often have different jobs. More women of color are employed in back office jobs, doing a lot of data entry. Even in 2001, there is a lot of separation when it comes to the positions in this field.”

Wells says she witnesses yet another cause for the prevalence of the trend.

“I think it’s hard for many black women to believe that they can be more than a clerk or administrative assistant. A lot of them don’t believe they fit into the managerial and executive mold. Until more black women recognize their self-worth, I don’t think much is going to change.”

Deborah Rouse is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C., who regularly covers minority issues.

For more information:

9 to 5 National Association of Working Women:

Institute for Women’s Policy Research: