Men, Women, and Workplaces

 

June 1949. The American Medical Association’s annual convention was held in Atlantic City, filling the run-down seaside town’s parking lots with out-of-state Cadillacs. One of the main events of the weekend was demonstrating a new tool for training doctors, medical color television, a futuristic-seeming replacement for the tiers of ringed seats of the traditional operating room surgical amphitheater. But TV was too poor a teaching substitute until color came along. After an elaborate luncheon was over, a spokesman for the manufacturer, Smith, Kline, and French, strongly suggested that the doctors’ wives leave the hall, as the live images would be very graphic.

To his surprise, most of the ladies stayed and watched, most of them impassively sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes. (I mentioned it was 1949, right?) Someone explained to the SKF man that the women were, or had been nurses, and had seen far worse. “They met their husbands on the job”. In 1949, that was as common a fact of women’s lives as hats, white gloves, and handbags. For women, getting ahead in life generally involved marriage, with the goal of marrying “up”. It had always been the way of the world.

November 1977. A brave new world for men and women, after the overlapping but different ‘50s–‘70s cultural revolutions associated with Playboy, Cosmopolitan, and Ms. magazines, but far from a completely changed one. Xerox Corporation held its worldwide conference for executives in Boca Raton. The last day was Futures Day, when most of the attendees would finally get their first-ever look at the next-generation office technology that the company had been creating since 1973. To them, the Xerox Alto workstation was a TV you could type on, like the personal computers that were just beginning to appear. But Alto came with word processing (a new term) built-in, networking, and a new invention that played to Xerox’s strengths, the laser printer. Attendees were invited to step forward and spend some time using the new equipment.

The men were moderately impressed. “Interesting” was the consensus, but by and large, they weren’t that excited by seeing what a productivity step like this could mean for business. By contrast, their wives, nearly all of them well-to-do or outright wealthy, jumped right in, folded their Chanel tweed jackets, kicked off their high heels, and started typing and formatting, exclaiming to each other what an amazing thing this was. It looked incongruous, even funny as the rich ladies quickly figured the system out.

But it made sense. Almost all of them had been secretaries. That’s how they met their husbands: on the job. For the 1977 wives, many of the furtive office romances that led to matrimony took place in the Mad Men era, 1960-’70, back in that mixed time that fell between Playboy and the phenomenon we’d come to call, simply, the women’s movement. In 1974, New York Magazine did an issue about the world a quarter-century back. The lead article was titled 1949: Feminism’s Nadir.

Only a few years later, now forty years ago (where does the time go?), I encountered that “future office”, even the very same networked computer system, now christened the Xerox Star. A friend of mine, a fledgling lawyer, got me a temp job in a large, busy law firm when another job offer fell through and I needed rent money fast. I was there for a couple of months, first as a file clerk, then as organizer of their rapidly growing stock of magnetic media.

The law firm was a well-oiled machine that ran lean and stacked up the billable hours. Think litigation, not Perry Mason. Except for the three partners, the other two dozen or so lawyers spent their long workdays reading documents, dictating into a microphone, or (more rarely) talking on the telephone.

The product of all this endless, day in and day out, talking and dictating and interviewing and deposing was handed off to a large secretarial pool, pounding away at IBM Selectrics. Only the three partners had their own assigned staff; everyone else competed for resources. And if the firm were an army, the officers were all men, and the enlisted ranks were about 90% women. That was pretty typical in those days.

Not one of the lawyers so much as had a typewriter in his office. There were no computer keyboards on their desktops either—not quite yet. By contrast, by 1981 there had already been generations of college women who’d helped their boyfriends by typing their papers. Wives typed their husbands’ ways through law or medical school. That was perfectly normal in those days. Unless they’d been clerks in the armed forces, few men even knew how to type. Many men prided themselves on it.

The costly Xerox Star system was, so far, only used for editing and formatting the most valuable of their legal documents. Only the top echelon of secretaries, the firm’s uncompromising Bene Gesserit, was permitted to work with it, and the elite corps of young women at its three terminals were accompanied by one full time (male) systems technician who I suspected, even 40 years ago, of merely pretending he was needed.

Five days a week until well after five, the two dozen men with fancy sheepskins on their walls were separately trapped in their surprisingly small and un-fancy offices, although making a lot of money. By contrast, the five dozen or so women were all massed in big, noisy open-form offices, a vast, busy, and very social unit that amounted to a female company-within-a-company. They spent most of their work lives typing, correcting, and editing the work product they got on tape from the lawyers. The rivers of talk led to rivers of printed text, which led to rivers of money, which led to all of our paychecks.

The older ladies frequently showed patience while tacitly helping teach newly hired-but-“green” young male lawyers how to deal with the firm’s assembly-line pace. The women weren’t lawyers, and in that era had rarely expected to be. They expected, deserved, and got, respect for the jobs they did choose. So it was with muted, oddly mixed feelings that they greeted a young woman, fresh from a Florida law school, newly admitted to the California bar. This wasn’t a rarity by 1981, but it was still new to most of the lawyers and secretaries.

If this were a Lifetime made-for-TV movie, the women would have stood up as one, proud and sassy, with a big, smiling round of applause for the new attorney. Sure, a couple of unattractive, clueless men in the office might have tried to get handsy with her, but she’d have effortlessly put them in their place. Gestures of sisterly solidarity would have covered her path like rose petals.

In real life, though, it didn’t work out as simply as that. So far as I could tell (admittedly, a real limitation, but there was little to no privacy there), the men didn’t try to hit on her. She got an office and staff support equal to her male coworkers. A no-nonsense sort, she got right down to business. A brisk, successful transition, by all appearances.

But the stereotype-breaker was: the women didn’t like her and didn’t like working with her. Partly it was her chilly personality. She didn’t go out of her way to relate, and she clearly didn’t see herself as being much like the other women. In effect, she saw herself as needing to prove herself as if she were an officer among enlisted ranks; they saw her as a stuck-up snob who thought she was better than the rest of them. Neither was entirely wrong. Despite what the era’s slogans said, Sisterhood isn’t always powerful.

There was another, entirely human and understandable element in the secretaries’ reactions that did track with female dissatisfaction with the workplace, a mixture of only semi-admitted envy and an undercurrent of self-blame: here she was, making the big bucks and giving orders. What did I do wrong?

My temp job lasted four months. The managing partner offered me a full-time gig, which was more than decent of him, but the real job that I’d been holding out for came through. About a year later, out of nowhere, a lawyer sent me an invitation to one of their elite social mixers at the Beverly Hills Country Club, which I was happy to attend.

As the evening drew to a close and I started drifting towards the exit, I fell into the conversational circle of an elegantly dressed woman in her late forties. I’d later learn she was the wife of one of the partners. I was introduced, rather generously, as someone who’d once worked at her husband’s law firm. When I told her I wasn’t a lawyer she perked up. “Oh, thank God!”, she said, laughing. She asked what sort of things I’d seen in my time there and I told her.

I wasn’t surprised that she was conservative; in Beverly Hills, it was not nearly as rare then as it would be now. The boards of directors of L.A.’s other country clubs went after studio chiefs as marquee names; BHCC went after Buzz Aldrin. One of the other guests lit her cigarette while the valet ran to fetch her car. She turned her attention back towards me. “I know you’ve heard lots of bad things about the Fifties, but for me, it was a wonderful time in my life. I liked being an office girl”. She looked amused at my (no doubt) doubting expression.

“Oh, I knew I was luckier than most. There were some drawbacks once in a while. But I met a fine man and married him. Women today don’t get a full picture of back then”.

That old quote came to mind: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”. Its lessons are rarely simple or one-sided. She was talking about her life twenty-five years earlier. It’s been forty years since this conversation took place.

She sighed, stubbed out the cigarette, and donned her fur coat. Blackgama, the best of its time. The valet re-appeared with the car. She smiled and nodded goodbye. The big black Cadillac swallowed her up and she vanished down Wilshire Boulevard.

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  1. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    I suspect relations between people have rarely been as black and white as they are portrayed.  Excellent as always, Gary.

    • #1
  2. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Gary McVey: That’s how they met their husbands: on the job.

    Tried that. A short interview with HR later I think I’m off that path. 

    • #2
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    I suspect relations between people have rarely been as black and white as they are portrayed. Excellent as always, Gary.

    Thanks, Judge. It’s a bit off my usual kind of subject, for sure. I appreciate the review!

    • #3
  4. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    I think it was House of God that coined the term something like, The Nurses’ Stretch: a bed-making position the nurse assumed, performed just as the doctor was passing outside the door, reaching all the way across the bed to smooth the far side, usually augmented with a very short skirt.

    • #4
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: That’s how they met their husbands: on the job.

    Tried that. A short interview with HR later I think I’m off that path.

    In (let’s say) the Forties, there’d have been strict, written dress codes and rules against men dating female staffers. They were often skirted (so to speak) but were still in place for decades, and people did get fired over fraternization. In our own sad, 21st century way, we have strict, puritanical codes of work conduct now, for a nearly diametrically opposed set of reasons. But this was right in between, when the rules were unwritten and rather uncertain. In 1981, a woman couldn’t show up for work in a big corporate law office wearing Daisy Dukes and a halter top. But at least in the case of the firm I worked for, at that time there weren’t specific guidelines about what would get by. The office manager, a woman with the manner and charm of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, had the thankless job of enforcing the vague, vaporous rules on rebellious young women. 

    • #5
  6. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Gary McVey: That old quote came to mind: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”.

    Very true.

    • #6
  7. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Gary McVey: By contrast, by 1981 there had already been generations of college women who’d helped their boyfriends by typing their papers. Wives typed their husbands’ ways through law or medical school. That was perfectly normal in those days. Unless they’d been clerks in the armed forces, few men even knew how to type. Many men prided themselves on it.

    I took typing in high school, foreseeing the need.  I was never very good–35 wpm, and I generally had to look when I was typing numbers–but I typed all my papers in college and law school.

    • #7
  8. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    I knew an oil company in the 1990s that maintained fraternization rules. When it was discovered that a petroleum engineer was dating his secretary, their direct superior asked which of them was going to quit. Soon after, they were married. That was still a common story when I was a kid. 

    Today, I know many women who envy the option of their parents and grandparents to be stay-at-home moms; especially since the rising popularity of home schooling (less for enthusiasm as for want to escape government education). Some are making it work. But it is challenging in an economy that has adjusted to frequency of dual-income households. Also, present culture makes no distinction between parenthood and motherhood. 

    • #8
  9. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: That old quote came to mind: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”.

    Very true.

    Easier to just cancel it. Then repeat it.

    • #9
  10. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    But it is challenging in an economy that has adjusted to frequency of dual-income households.

    We seem to be entering into an economy of zero income households. With any luck we’ll be back to an economy of one income households soon after.

    • #10
  11. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Wonderful post, @garymcvey, and a true walk down memory lane for me.  I started my illustrious (LOL) IT career in “marketing support” for a word processing company (NBI) in late 1979.  I’ve actually used a Xerox Star (whose user interface bred an unsuccessful copyright-infringement lawsuit against Apple for its Macintosh look-and-feel).

    One of my responsibilities was being the “girl at the machine” in customer and trade show demonstrations, as a sales rep (often an ex-IBM typewriter salesman) made cracks about how, if a customer (law partners, engineers, public relations types, advertising executives, etc) bought the system, he’d throw me in for free along with it.  Along with what I came to expect as the usual patter: “Isn’t she lovely!”  “Look at those hooker shoes!”

    Lord.  If I could only, 40 years after the fact, recall the shame and pain this must have caused me, and how it’s ruined my life….#methree.

    Rather, I choose to focus on my satisfaction, the day my principal tormentor came into work with a lump the size of an egg on his head and a black eye, and shame-facedly admitted that his wife had whacked him on the head with a frozen leg of lamb the previous evening.  Or on some of the riotous office parties, in particular, the one where the branch manager and his #1 salesman pushed each other head first into the cake, and then took off their shirts and smeared cake and frosting all over their chests.

    Gary McVey: That old quote came to mind: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”.

    Boy howdy.

    • #11
  12. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    My mother, a highly accomplished woman, used to tell young women that they should never learn to type because it would pigeonhole them into secretarial staff.

    The irony is that my mother wrote countless books and typed as fast as I can think.

    • #12
  13. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    iWe (View Comment):

    My mother, a highly accomplished woman, used to tell young women that they Souris never learn to type because it would pigeonhole them into secretarial staff.

    The irony is that my mother wrote countless books and typed as fast as I can think.

    Your mother, it’s quite obvious–both from inspecting her progeny and her writing–believed that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well.

    • #13
  14. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    This is a fantastic post, btw. I loved it and shared it.

    • #14
  15. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Great post Gary.

    Your observations on the woman associate ring true in the corporate world today, but without the officer / enlisted distinction.  With some people there is this competition that causes, shall we say, tension.

    • #15
  16. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Typecast

    • #16
  17. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Men and women working together is still in its experimental phase. This is not the way of the species and is something from post industrialization. And the Pill. Heck, adequate means to manage menstruation did not happen until the 20th Century. 

    What is amazing is that we ignore so much that is real. High Heels and make up exist to make women more sexually appealing. We allow that as part of the dress code, yet, if a man responds (well if the wrong man responds) with a look, it is considered “bad”. Why do we let women advertise, so to speak, if the men cannot respond? I wish we could actually have these sorts of conversations as a nation, but it is not going to happen right now. 

    • #17
  18. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Great post.  Great writing.  Really well done.  Thanks!

    • #18
  19. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Men and women working together is still in its experimental phase. This is not the way of the species and is something from post industrialization. And the Pill. Heck, adequate means to manage menstruation did not happen until the 20th Century.

    What is amazing is that we ignore so much that is real. High Heels and make up exist to make women more sexually appealing. We allow that as part of the dress code, yet, if a man responds (well if the wrong man responds) with a look, it is considered “bad”. Why do we let women advertise, so to speak, if the men cannot respond? I wish we could actually have these sorts of conversations as a nation, but it is not going to happen right now.

    @bryangstephens is describing exactly one of the features of the cancel culture that we have been openly experiencing, that is, the unacceptability of openly describing facts or conditions that all know to be valid but don’t want to admit. Who here has not ever considered valid what is described above regarding what women do to their physical appearance? Why do they do it and what is the effect? Is the same tactic being used in other controversial issues?

    • #19
  20. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    One of the first industry-specific software companies was ASK Systems, founded by Sandy Kurtzig…the company sold manufacturing software. Sandy was scheduled to show the system to an old-line manufacturing guy, and she met up with him somewhere.

    “So are you the broad with the manufacturing software,” he asked?

    She assured him that yes, she was indeed.  “Well, let’s get on with it,” he grumbled.

    She started the data-entry process for a manufacturing bill of materials:

    ITEM? the guy’s name
    DESCRIPTION: handsome man

    (he smirked)

    And then she started the component detail:

    PART, QUANTITY? arms,2
    legs,2
    heart,0

    Got the order.

    • #20
  21. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Men and women working together is still in its experimental phase. This is not the way of the species and is something from post industrialization. And the Pill. Heck, adequate means to manage menstruation did not happen until the 20th Century.

    What is amazing is that we ignore so much that is real. High Heels and make up exist to make women more sexually appealing. We allow that as part of the dress code, yet, if a man responds (well if the wrong man responds) with a look, it is considered “bad”. Why do we let women advertise, so to speak, if the men cannot respond? I wish we could actually have these sorts of conversations as a nation, but it is not going to happen right now.

    That’s not entirely true, really. Men and women worked together in domestic service for centuries, early textile (and other) factories in the UK and US were often staffed with female workers and male supervisors, cottage industry were mixed gender (though those working together were almost always related in some way), bookkeeping in early modern trading and banking firms was done by women in many instances, etc. 

    As far as the high heels and make-up thing goes, it’s not as though women came up with that on their own. Bosses (mostly male) through the first half of the 20th century and even beyond had a distinctive image of feminine professionalism, and women had to live up to that in order to get and stay employed. There was also stigma, for a variety of reasons, against dressing in a masculine way. At this point, those objects are deeply culturally engrained as markers of female professionalism.

    Also, I think men should be able to be relied upon to show basic respect and self-control in a professional environment; they’re not children, they can very well see a woman in something that highlights her legs or eyes and keep from blurting out every fantasy in their heads. If women can watch a man roll up his shirtsleeves or unbutton a bit of his work shirt and keep from “responding”, men can do just the same. 

    • #21
  22. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher (View Comment):

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    But it is challenging in an economy that has adjusted to frequency of dual-income households.

    We seem to be entering into an economy of zero income households. With any luck we’ll be back to an economy of one income households soon after.

    It’s taken 50+ years for women to become an integral part of the work force, and for their labor to become such a highly valued commodity that it takes a substantial single salary to buy her out. That’s not going to go away overnight, or in 5 years. 

    Frankly, despite the drawbacks, I wouldn’t want it to.

    • #22
  23. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    I worked full-time for a year right after high school and before entering college. An aside, that was 1956 and my pay was $.75 an hour, the then federal minimum wage. Then in 1959 I started my real working career in bank operations at $1.oo/hr (the new minimum wage). I started as a trainee paying and receiving teller, that’s what a teller who took deposits and handled withdrawals and cashing checks was called.

    How does this relate to this post? I once heard that if something didn’t develop to alter things everyone would have to be employed as a telephone operator. Then we got dial phones. Later, I heard everyone would have to be a bank teller. Most of my later work career was engaged in making funds transfers electronically so everyone did not have to be a bank teller.

    Few adults today are aware of what bank lobbies looked like on payday or on the third of each month when Social Security checks were delivered through the mail. Banks employed a lot of people in operations (tellers, bookkeepers, and proof machine operators) in 1960. I suspect many marriages resulted from men and women working together in banks. These numbers have been drastically reduced through automation. 

    • #23
  24. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Percival (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: That old quote came to mind: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”.

    Very true.

    Easier to just cancel it. Then repeat it.

    But only the mistakes. They’ll leave out the good parts.

    • #24
  25. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    David Foster (View Comment):

     

    She started the data-entry process for a manufacturing bill of materials:

    ITEM? the guy’s name
    DESCRIPTION: handsome man

    (he smirked)

    And then she started the component detail:

    PART, QUANTITY? arms,2
    legs,2
    heart,0

    Got the order.

    LOL.  A woman after my own heart, although WRT:

    She (View Comment):
    legs,2
    heart,0

    I’d probably have measured up Mr. In-Between as well.

    • #25
  26. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: That old quote came to mind: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there”.

    Very true.

    Easier to just cancel it. Then repeat it.

    But only the mistakes. They’ll leave out the good parts.

    The sequel is almost never as good as the original; Godfather II notwithstanding.

    • #26
  27. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Also, I think men should be able to be relied upon to show basic respect and self-control in a professional environment; they’re not children, they can very well see a woman in something that highlights her legs or eyes and keep from blurting out every fantasy in their heads. If women can watch a man roll up his shirtsleeves or unbutton a bit of his work shirt and keep from “responding”, men can do just the same. 

    I like this view. This works.

    • #27
  28. Jim Kearney Contributor
    Jim Kearney
    @JimKearney

    Great writing, Gary.

    If you pitch your Ricochet memoirs to a book publisher, make this the sample chapter. Start with Regnery, or risk hospitalization.

    • #28
  29. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Oddly, I don’t much ever remember dressing to please a man, or to get the attention of men in general.  Now that I’m well into a period of my life where any clothing without an elastic waist, and any shoes without a generous toe-box aren’t even considerations on the rare occasions I shop for same (I pass over my Fruit of the Loom smalls in the interest of not venturing into realms of TMI), I do dimly remember buying clothes I thought were pretty and flattering, and shoes I thought were nice (although comfort has always been a factor there for me), just because wearing nice clothes and attractive shoes made me feel more poised, accomplished, and self-confident.*  That, for me, was always a much more meaningful part of gussying myself up that trying to please a man.  I doubt I’m alone among the female sex in that regard.

    *And if I should, somehow, have captured the attention of a nice, smart, interesting man who didn’t mind a smart, capable, not too-bad-looking, self-confident woman, that was a nice side-benefit, but not the main purpose, as far as I was concerned. (I adjudge my life largely successful in this respect.)

    • #29
  30. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):
    As far as the high heels and make-up thing goes, it’s not as though women came up with that on their own. Bosses (mostly male) through the first half of the 20th century and even beyond had a distinctive image of feminine professionalism, and women had to live up to that in order to get and stay employed

    This adds an alternative motivation and gives one more to think about. Are those objects so deeply culturally engrained as markers of female professionalism that they are adopted without much thought? They do appeal to masculine fantasy.

    • #30