Mad Men, Women at Work and What (Hasn’t) Changed

I’m a casual watcher of Mad Men, and like most viewers, I’ve been drawn into the show’s compelling style, human drama, and a look at a bygone world of advertising on Madison Avenue where people openly smoked, drank hard liquor and let sexist and racist comments fly at work. As modern viewers, we can watch the show and wince uncomfortably and laugh because it’s not really like that any more, right? But for me, a big part of watching Mad Men is actually to see how much remains the same. Time and time again we see that bygone era really isn’t so bygone.

Recently the website Levo League, which is focused on career inspiration and advice for Gen Y women, published an article “9 Career Lessons from the Women of Mad Men” and, thanks to the click bait-ish nature of the title, I found myself drawn in. The article starts off well enough, with good, standard issue advice about asking for more, doing what makes you happy and not just what’s expected of you, and mentoring young women at the office. However, it soon verges into territory that made a more than a few feminist alarm bells sound in my head. The author of the article suggested that valuable career lessons for ambitious young women include, “Learn to play with the boys” (“Keep up and play nice” “plus men are fun!”) and “Dress for success” (“Stop dressing like a girl and start dressing like a woman”). I’m the first person to tell you that fashion communicates a lot about you and it’s important to dress in a way that makes you feel powerful, but I also feel that that is an individual choice. Also, would anyone ever encourage young men who are looking to strive and achieve in their career to “Play nice with the girls?” I don’t think so.

As much as I could spend this blog entry discussing just how problematic these pieces of advice are, this article points to a larger cultural phenomenon: sexism at work is still rampant for women. I touched on this in my last entry about the “feminine bias” in tech just being another way to say that tech is sexist. Mad Men’s run has also corresponded with the years I’ve been seriously focusing on and developing my career. While it’s true that overall women are a greater part of the workforce and that say overtly that women shouldn’t be educated and be in leadership roles is taboo, but the subtle and not-so-subtle sexist attitudes remain.

When I posted my piece about the “Feminine Bias in Tech is Sexism” on Facbeook my network responded that they saw the same thing happen in their workplaces, regardless of industry – and the industries represented by commenters included PR, finance, law, fashion, as well as tech. Sharon wrote, “I feel like every woman who’s been smart and successful and present feminine AND just don’t care about pandering to men would totally relate. It doesn’t matter how far you’ve come if you still get a door slammed in your face at certain levels of power. HAPPENS EVERYDAY.” Aileen wrote, “I work at a fashion company designing graphics for little girls’ clothes. Even though this company is 90% women and makes products geared towards future grown up women, men are ultimately in charge and address us as ‘ladies’ in a condescending way. Makes me sick.”

Two years ago I decided to leave my career in arts administration largely because of these kinds of sexist attitudes. Besides the low salaries throughout the industry, after nearly 8 years working in museums and a respected national artists services organization, I saw again and again that men remained in the top (and top paid) roles despite the accomplishments, credentials, and results of the women working around them, who often made up the majority of the organization’s staff. I would often look around the office at the artists services organization I worked at, surrounded by smart women with Master’s Degrees, years of professional accomplishments, and robust artistic practices, who were doing the hard, daily work of providing the services and delivering the programs that made up the organization’s mission. The office was organized as an open plan, with low cubicle walls, but with offices reserved for all male directors. As I typed away at emails and answered the phone fielding artists’ requests for funding, I thought, “I feel like I’m living in an episode of Mad Man”

I wrote an Op-Ed for the website Artsfwd, more deeply investigating the phenomenon of the glass ceiling in arts leadership and asking what it will take to move past it, and ultimately decided to recalibrate my career to work an industry that, despite its reputation for bad brohavior and ping pong games, is (in theory) less rigid, more innovative, and holds some promise of change. Not to mention better salaries.

I’ve heard other young women I work with claim there is “no glass ceiling in tech.” I think anyone who claims this is willfully closing their eyes. I felt first hand that as I consciously pushed my career forward I hit against it hard. I worked for nearly a decade to carefully gain experience at work, taking on projects and spearheading initiatives, creating results, and documenting them. I built my skills through extracurricular activities (blogging on arts policy, speaking at conferences like SxSW, mentoring younger professionals, working on freelance projects to build my network), getting a master’s degree in Public Administration to round out my skill set, and constantly excelling at work and talking about it in my performance reviews, only to see men around me be promoted while I remained at the bottom of middle management, just above entry level. While all of these things were important to my career (and my life) in the longer term, I saw women around me act similarly to me (and follow the advice we had been told about being assertive professionals) and encounter the same barriers.

In tech I work in a “non technical” role as a Marketing and Community Manager, though there’s a whole lot of science and quantitative skill that goes into marketing. So often women in positions like mine feel their accomplishments are minimized and diminished, in favor of their “technical” (often male) colleague’s achievements. Danielle wrote an awesome piece about this, describing women in these roles as the “other” women in tech. The dichotomy of how technical versus non-technical roles are valued is another discussion, but this is also about how women, working a technical job or not, are treated professionally.

As women I think it’s important to believe and act as if there is no limits to what we can achieve and to push back against anyone and any systems that would limit us. But we have to go further. We can’t just act for ourselves alone, but have to think about how to break this glass ceiling together, whether we work in “technical” or “nontechnical” positions – we’re all here to contribute to building a successful company right? #talkpay on Twitter did a lot to make more transparent how tech and other industries pay and Lauren Voswinkel’s manifesto around it brought the discussion of equality in pay front and center for May Day. This conversation was genuinely “disruptive” in a industry that prides itself on that overused trope. What would be more disruptive would be to see companies that structure themselves in a way that acknowledges and fights historic inequality.

It’s no surprise to those of us who pay attention that the Tech industry, and our culture as a whole, still has a long way to go towards equality. I think what makes a show like Mad Men so smart is that it is not only a exquisitely well researched period piece, but it actually sheds light on how subtle and not-so-subtle sexism still operates today. We wince and laugh at moments where women are routinely shut out and put down in the office environment because it’s still true.

So as you watch this last season, ask yourself, “How is this still true? And how can I help to change it?”

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