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The Difference Between a Personal Assistant and an Executive Assistant

April 22, 2019  |  4 min read

Similar principles, totally different roles – why it’s so important to know the difference between a PA and an EA.

Shakespeare once said – what’s in a name? Well, well it comes to job titles, quite a lot. One of the most common questions we’re asked is ‘what’s the difference between a Personal Assistant and an Executive Assistant”. The main confusion comes from the word ‘executive’ because it can have totally different meanings that vary, not just from industry to industry, but business to business. Sometimes it’s a lot more senior, sometimes it means junior – you see what I’m getting at. When it comes to a Personal Assistant and Executive Assistant, the roles have certain similarities, but they’re not quite the same.

Why It’s Important to Know the Difference

There’s a bit of a problem where the title of PA or EA is used so interchangeably, and the confusion can be a lot more harmful for candidates than the having to (annoyingly) explain the difference each time they’re asked about their role. For example, in the United States, Business Assistants can be called Administrative Assistants and sit in extremely senior roles at a salary of up to $200k a year: Whereas, in the UK, an Administrative Assistant is considered a junior role. Often, the role of a Senior PA or EA can grow to the point that they’re basically a Chief of Staff or Head of Operations, except they don’t get the new job title or salary to reflect that.

Often, when a man is in this position, they seem to slip into the more senior titles of COO,  Head of Operations, or Chief of Staff more easily, where women tend to be pigeon-holed and kept within the confines of a glass ceiling with the PA/EA title. The root of this? Reverse sexism. In an article in The Guardian, Jessica Williams called out support staff stereotypes:

“There is definitely a problem when an employer expects their new hire to look a certain way or assumes that everyone working in support is female. ‘No, I definitely wouldn’t consider a male PA’ – that comment is ubiquitous.”

This attitude is wrong on multiple levels, but to site two –  a) it’s prejudiced and sexist against male PAs and b) it often means that men hop, skip and jump into more senior roles, because their boss wouldn’t be comfortable having them as a PA. This all comes down to benevolent sexism (yep, there’s more of it) and the assumption that “men are strong and women are kind” which in turn, means that job titles are often based on what’s considered more ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’.

So, what is the role of a PA?

It can vary for every business and individual based on what they need (the clue’s in the title), but typically – besides some outrageous tasks we’ve seen over the years – this is what a PA will do:

  • Close assistance to a particular individual(s) in helping them to achieve their goals (business or personal)
  • Tasks include – diary/calendar management, coordinate meetings, travel management, inbox management, event management, research, project management etc
  • Can often include – personal errands (eg: ordering gifts, booking holidays, handling family matters) and office management.
  • Acts are a personal branding ambassador, protecting and supporting the boss/es in their day-to-day needs
  • Fundamentally the role needs to be flexible to cover anything and everything, directly or indirectly that serves the benefit of the boss/bosses

Okay, got it. And the role of an EA?

An EA typically takes more of a business view and works with one eye on what is best for the business (if/where this clashes with what is best with the individual). Here’s what they do:

  • Tends to handle a higher level of business decisions and project work, on top of dealing with tasks of a PA (eg: inbox management)
  • Often acts as a representative for their boss and step in if they’re not there.
  • Takes more of a business view and works with one eye on what is best for the business (if/where this clashes with what is best with the individual).
  • Tasks can include – business correspondence, financial statements, business reports, personally managing clients.
  • It’s  most common for an EA to have to handle all of the day-to-day admin for their boss/team as well.

Sounds simple right? The thing is, both roles are pretty fluid and a PA can also do all the things an EA does. Over time, either of these roles can evolve to a point where they’re handling huge amounts of business admin on top of personal admin, or take on Chief of Staff/Operations Manager responsibilities in addition to everything else. The issue is that this happens all the time, but job titles aren’t adjusted to reflect the scope of the role.

Depending on the size of company, sometimes PAs and EAs work together – a PA takes care of the more personal tasks (diary management, meetings etc) where the EA takes on project work. It’s also known for PAs to have admin assistants of their own when they’re juggling multiple roles under one job title (see above). Interestingly, we recently had a client who used our flexible Virtual PA service, ibLE alongside their full-time EA.

Even though the roles are different and vary by business, a lot of the principles are still the same – you need to be highly organised, personable and have a good understanding of the business you’re in (and the person you’re assisting). However, the step from PA to EA is a big one and that deserves to be recognised with a title change (and an income boost).

If you (or your PA) want to make the transition from PA to EA, sign up to one of our courses or if you’re looking for a PA or EA, get in touch.

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