Girl Talk Career Blog

May 22, 2010

Women in the Workplace: Welcome to the Jungle Baby!

Filed under: All Things Office — lisalahey @ 11:58 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Girlfriend before you start grumbling about how much you hate your job, how crappy the pay is, how much overtime you have to work and how much you hate your boss, consider women in the workplace in the mid-20th Century and how tough they had it away back then. In the late 1930’s at the outset of the 2nd World War women were necessary at work, in the office and in factories building armaments and anything war-related. They were trained as mechanics, plumbers, electricians, riveters, assembly line workers, you name it, we did it Girlfriend, truly a first in 20th Century history for women of the middle class. Now this is not to imply that women have never worked in factories or performed laborious back-breaking industrial labour. Consider the Industrial Revolution where women worked alongside men and children for up to 14 hour days for a pitiful wage and few breaks. However that is an entirely different era and not one I’m tackling in this blog.

Back to women in the workplace during the war. They worked hard, made superior weaponry and of course earned lower wages than men doing the exact same work even though women were more productive.  Women and beauty remained a significant focus and women had to be encouraged through media propoganda to protect their own safety by re-styling their long, curled hair into what became known as a Gibson roll.  Factories even installed beauty salons for women to have their hair rolled, then released from its pins and re-styled at the end of the day.

After their men returned from the war women were demoted and fired, making jobs available for men and enslaving women into the suburban housewife myth of the 1950s. Women didn’t want to be forced into suburban submissiveness although the American government, their men and the media worked hard at trying to guilt-trip them into accepting the status quo. Many women rebelled however and over time they were re-hired into assembly line work and other low-paying menial jobs.

When women entered the corporate workplace it was typically in the role of secretary or receptionist.  They may have experienced some triumph by re-entering the workforce but their battle had just begun. Let me interject for a moment. Receptionists and secretaries are as relevant to an organization now as they were last century and always will be (see my post Are Secretaries Doomed to Obscurity?)  I have great respect for them especially since I have worked as both over the years and thoroughly enjoyed the job for the most part, as well as learning how integral this role is to an organization. My point is not that secretaries are inferior, rather that women of this era were not hired for responsible, senior positions. They were offered virtually no powerful corporate opportunities. There were no women CEO’s or Presidents which hardly surprising considering both the sexist view of that time and how few women were encouraged to acquire a post-secondary education.  Many men and even women remained unimpressed by the number of women who insisted on the right to work. Americans and Canadians felt strongly that if a woman was married and her husband was employed she had no right to return to work but instead should embrace her role as a stay-at-home housewife.

However once middle-class society got it into its suburban head that women were returning to work propoganda slowly began to encourage the use of women in the workforce, albeit allowing for stereotypes to permeate supposedly women-friendly views. Incredibly office advice for women hasn’t changed much since then. Etiquette is extremely relevant of course but consider this delivery.

Along with women entering the corporate scene the issue of women and men co-mingling over the water cooler became cause for employer and spousal concern.  The notorious office romance began to bloom and along with it corporate problems. Sexual harassment was par for the course and not only was it not considered inappropriate it was blatantly promoted.  Over time the secretary became known as the “office wife” since she managed her male boss’s calendar, often ran personal errands for him such as picking up his dry cleaning and occasionally indulged in an after work drink with him. Uh-oh. For married bosses that arrangement occasionally turned into an office affair although in the 1950’s it was rare that a married man left his wife for his mistress. Divorce was frowned upon , it bore a significant social stigma particularly during the fragile post-war era, hence the higher percentage of lasting marriages.

That gender discrimination continues to exist in the workplace is unmistakable. Unfortunately some women try to overcompensate by working much harder in the same role as men, usually for the same or less money.  Others may behave like office bullies, operating under the mistaken perception that behaving in “tough guy” mode will enable them to maintain job security. That sexual and other harassment continues to plague women is undeniable and although there are many laws in place to counteract this behaviour harassment can be subtle enough or can cause enough jeopardy to a woman’s career that she is reluctant to report it.

However slowly changes are beginning to take place albeit in certain spheres under specific, limited circumstances. Have we come a long way? Undoubtedly. Do we still have a long way to go Girlfriend? You know it.  But next time you’re feeling pissy about getting passed over for a promotion (see my blog How to Be Your Own Change Management Consultant (and a little help from David Bowie)), or feel underpaid and overworked, take a glance back over the workplace history of women and take a little comfort in the opportunities you have educationally, professionally and financially. Had you gone through school and the work force when your mother or grandmother did there is no way you’d be sitting where you are now, and no way you’d be headed down the highly successful corporate path you’re carving out steadily and courageously for yourself now.

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