After President Obama mentioned "Warren Buffett's secretary" in a speech on his new tax proposal, the Oracle of Omaha's aide has suddenly become a symbol of middle-class workers getting screwed: She supposedly gets taxed at a higher rate than her boss. MoveOn.org quickly released a video of everyday Americans talking about their everyday problems, all saying "I am Warren Buffett's secretary."
Catchy, maybe, but the question of what to call someone in that role is actually a somewhat fraught one. As several journalists noted on Twitter during and after the speech, the phrase secretary has a distinctly retro ring to it, as if Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had come up with the hook.
Secretary's Day was turned into Administrative Assistant's Day long ago, and most corporations refer to the position officially as "executive assistant." It might be easy to laugh those terms off as a remnant of the eighties and nineties ultra-p.c. era — and for speechwriters looking to make a visceral folksy connection, "executive assistant" is awfully vague.
But it's not just feminist journalists taking umbrage on their behalf; actual people employed in those jobs aren't so wild about the term. A corporate lawyer of our acquaintance, who'd assured Intel the secretaries at his firm weren't super-offended by the terminology, sheepishly forwarded along the following e-mail.
Actually, I don't like the term "secretary" although corporate America refuses to let it go.
When computers became our future and took over typewriters, "administrative assistant" should have replaced the word secretary.
Thanks for asking!
Another friend, a female investment banker, told Intel that at her firm, "only older men refer to them as secretaries."
As Annie Lowrey reports in Slate, the actual real-life Buffett secretary in question is one Debbie Bosanek, a 55-year-old Omaha redhead. Howard W. Buffett, grandson of Warren, told New York yesterday that Bosanek has "been around as long as I've been alive." As for the question of terminology, "I didn’t know secretary was a bad word, but if it’s getting phased out, um, you know, he’s also kind of old, so . "
Additional reporting by Dan Amira.