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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Girls In The Office*

I’ve been reading Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women, a collection of essays by the late, great Nora Ephron.

She was a generation before mine. I turned four the year she graduated from Wellesley College -- 1962.

How was it different, how was it the same -- being a girl coming of age in the late 50s versus the early 70s?

There’s the stylistic issues of course. In the 50s we were supposed to be built like Monroe or Mansfield. In the 70s, breasts were out of fashion. Farrah Fawcett and Diane Keaton were the ones to be. Androgynous-ish.

Ms. Ephron and I should’ve switched generations.

She was hitting the working world when I was hitting second grade.

Her first post college gig, after briefly interning in the Kennedy White House, was as a reporter for the New York Post. My first post college jobs, after a third and final season as a carnie, were as an artist’s model and then a copy jockey at a Harvard Square quick printer. Not the same level of prestige (duh) but, I imagine, we both had to deal with biz place bullshit -- from not being hired or promoted solely because we had lady bits versus man attachments to sexual harassment.

Both of us began our labor lives before there was a name for that and certainly before anyone knew you could stand up and loudly, proudly, wave the potential lawsuit flag and say ‘that’ll be quite enough of that shit!’

It’s funny to think how far we’ve come, women and men both, in the past 32 years as well as how far we have NOT come.

I’ve toiled the longest in the printing industry -- a male dominated field. The joint I called my workplace home for the first 20 years was utterly egalitarian. That is, there were women holding management positions on all levels -- in pre-press, the pressrooms, sales, in the retail outlets, copy rooms, human resources, delivery departments and more.

One of the more spectacular mistakes they made during those years, was in who they promoted for the newly created GM (general manager) position. There were two people in contention -- a smart, professional, canny woman and an intelligent, hard working guy who had a thin relationship with good judgement. Dude scored the gig and proceeded to sleep his way through half the women in the company (no, not me **shudder** -- he was way oogie). The company might have tanked anyway but this bright move was the catalyst. This is where their death spiral began.

This was pre-Anita Hill and Clarence Long-Dong-Silver Thomas. Apart from everything else that was flat out wrong about the unfortunately promoted's behavior, just imagine the lawsuit extravaganza if our Copy House Casanova pulled this shit after all that hit the broadsheets and TV news.

In two other companies where I worked, after that long term and previously enlightened firm, you totally had to be a dude to get ahead. You’re a broad? Well, you could be a customer service rep, an accounting drone, a sales rep, MAYBE even a sales manager but don’t you get any ideas about prepress, general management or workflow, Missy!  You’ve taught and managed using Deming’s Process Improvement methods? Doesn’t matter, won’t fly here -- you’re packin’ the wrong plumbing!

Women were there to serve in lower level roles and/or act as pretty sirens to draw customers in. That’s it.

One of those companies is flailing it’s way into oblivion now. The other’s getting by but they could be so much more if they’d just lose the gender hang ups and put the best people into key positions. To be fair, this second joint also promoted based on employee loyalty and seniority -- fabulous but the promotees need to actually have the skills and talents for the awarded gigs. Sadly, not so much.

Nora Ephron entered the working world the very same year that Gloria Steinem wrote about contraception for Esquire, where she argued that women were forced to choose between career and marriage. It was mere months before Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking, second wave feminism  launching book The Feminine Mystique came out.

We’ve come so far and have so far to go.

* The Girls In The Office is the name of the fourth essay in Ephron's book Crazy Salad. You just gotta read this collection!

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