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Working | Moving beyond 'Mad Men'

Office culture has evolved from 'Mad Men' style of the 1960s

Over the years, workplaces have undergone a gradual transformation from a 1960s Mad Men-style environment where sexism, smoking and drinking were pervasive — and accepted.

AMC

Over the years, workplaces have undergone a gradual transformation from a 1960s Mad Men-style environment where sexism, smoking and drinking were pervasive — and accepted.

CHICAGO — Linda Schroyer got pinched. But then, everyone got pinched. All the women, anyway. Pinched on the tush. This was the early 1970s and Schroyer was a secretary at the Illinois Statehouse in Springfield, then in the governor's office. Over the years, though, where she worked hardly mattered — insurance offices, law firms, cocktail lounges. She would always get pinched, patted. Then she would laugh. Everyone would laugh. Nobody thought much of it; or rather, nobody said much. She wore a ponytail and a miniskirt — because she wanted to, she said, because she was in her 20s and that's what lawyers in the Statehouse expected, and because she was looking for a husband.

"It was all a great big game," she said. "And when I got pinched, I even felt like I was getting a compliment. Isn't that funny?"

Then she paused.

"It really was like Mad Men, wasn't it?"

Apparently.

There's nothing unique about her story, either: Schroyer is 58 now, the global human resources manager for Edelman, a Chicago public relations firm with 51 offices worldwide. But she's as good a window as any boomer into the office culture of the 1960s, a culture that didn't completely vanish with the 1960s, though transformed so completely as to be unrecognizable by 2010. In fact, Schroyer's ambition — from secretary pool to corporate executive in five decades — might be described by the patronizing, womanizing advertising executives on that AMC series as "cute."

Smoking, drinking, fraternizing

Seen through the fetid, pastel scrim of Mad Men, which tells the story of a Madison Avenue advertising firm, it was a time when people smoked — when everyone smoked, chain-smoked, at work. And a time when people drank — also at work, and at lunch, and often. Women had women's jobs, men kept men's jobs, the fraternization was relentless and the sexual harassment was harsh and rampant and unidentified as such.

It was also real.

"It was like that," said Melanie Holmes, vice president at Manpower, the Milwaukee consulting agency. "I started working about 10 years after the period of Mad Men, but there was still a lot of fraternization. Gender lines were firmly drawn. And everyone smoked. Nobody seemed to care. Can you imagine someone lighting a cigarette at the desk next to you? In fact, the only thing that bothered me were the full ashtrays."

Manpower itself launched a celebrated White Glove Girl campaign in 1963, requiring all female temps to wear white gloves. Male temps were trumpeted as "Reliables."

For Jerry Hoglund, a Chicago human resources consultant who develops employee handbooks, the period was marked by suburban commuter trains headed for the Loop "so dense with smoke, you walked through the car once and had to get your clothes dry-cleaned."

He worked for Chicago insurance companies back then. He remembers co-workers "who went out at 11:30 for lunch and came back at 2 p.m., plastered. It was very common." He also watches Mad Men regularly, and "all I see are the HR violations taking place. I chuckle because it's so obvious, yet in today's parlance, serious stuff."

Gradual changes

Indeed, to watch Mad Men from a contemporary HR perspective, said John Challenger, CEO of Chicago consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, is "to watch the slow emergence of gender equality."

But also, Schroyer said, you notice that the phrase "work-life balance" does not exist.

She grew up in Taylorville, Ill., and began working at 16, in 1968, a Catholic schoolgirl sorting through insurance claims for Liberty Mutual. Her boyfriend left for Vietnam; they married, had children, then divorced; she embraced the women's liberation movement, then burned her bra. Then she worked as a phone operator, in a room of only women. Later, while working as a cocktail waitress, a state legislator offered her a job as a secretary in Springfield. "Here I was literally chased around desks by lawyers," she said. "Eventually, I married one."

By 1970, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40 percent of adults smoked; and as for the work force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40 percent of working-age women worked. Equal pay and antidiscrimination laws were in place. But Mad Men still dominated.

"There were no women in big roles, without question," said Dan Edelman, now 90. He founded the Edelman firm in 1952, the year Schroyer was born. "Men still came to work in sports coats, and it was very formal," he said. "I wore a three-piece suit. I knew all the guys at the Chicago (advertising) agencies. It was congenial. Maybe too congenial. Change was gradual. It turned out for the better, but there wasn't a moment when the lights turned on and the world was different."

Intrigued by the era

Now the irony.

Because we work more than we did then, and with more of an eye to indiscretion these days, there's some slight nostalgia for the Mad Men era in young offices — at least superficially.

Albert Karoll, of Richard Bennett Custom Tailors in Chicago, which started in 1929, is seeing "an uptick in guys in their late 20s and early 30s trying to move back to professional dress, even if it's an idealization of what they think that era looked like."

Natasha Vargas-Cooper, 26, author of the recent cultural history Mad Men Unbuttoned, said: "Even though I'm liberal, I think what's appealing about a time I was never part of, in terms of office relationships, is that sexual expectations were laid out and made plain."

As for Schroyer, she spent the '80s and '90s as an assistant and office manager at various Chicago law firms, including 15 years with Rudnick & Wolfe (which merged in 1999 with Baltimore's Piper & Marbury and became DLA Piper). She got divorced again in 1981. Then in 2002, though Dan Edelman offered her a job that sounded a little too much like a secretarial position, she accepted on the assumption she would learn a global business and move up.

She did.

The percentage of adult smokers in the country has perfectly halved since she went to work; according to the lobbying group Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights, there are statewide smoking bans that cover almost all workplaces in 22 states. Whereas white-collar minority office workers on the series are basically nonexistent, today around 33 percent are minorities. A recent survey from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business pointed out that female MBAs earn as much as male MBAs these days (until they have children and their workweek shortens). And a study released by the organizational behavior department at Harvard Business School suggested the old-boys networks and fraternizing camaraderie that men build within male-dominated offices generally result these days in men being less adaptive to career change than women.

In other words, if there's anything left in that martini glass of yours, finish it.

When Schroyer watches Mad Men, she sees something beyond the negatives. She remembers "how fun things were — when social skills were just as important as work skills."

Offices, having replaced watercoolers with e-mail exchanges, are quieter places for her now. "Do I feel sad? Well, my youth went with it. But it's better now," she said. "We evolved."

Office culture has evolved from 'Mad Men' style of the 1960s 01/29/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:17pm]

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