AMC’s acclaimed hit show, Mad Men, has returned for its final season to complete its journey through the 1960s. Throughout this era of transition, we see the characters change the style of their clothes, their hair, and perhaps of most interest, their roles in both the family and the workplace. The show’s initial seasons centered around the stereotypical roles of the male breadwinner and the stay-at-home housewife. Now, as the show nears its end, we see divorces, men taking a larger role in their children’s lives, independent women excelling in the workplace, and the clash of cultures as the ‘60s gives rise to the counter-cultural revolution and freedom from various forms of oppression. For me, it’s been extremely interesting to see how the workplace has changed since the debut of the show and to compare it to the workplace today.
What’s Changed — And What Hasn’t
From an HR standpoint, the Mad Men days seem like ancient history, with their overt sexual harassment and bigotry. Indeed, just over half a century ago — within the Mad Men era — employers could legally place newspaper classified ads categorized by gender and even by race or religion. Secretaries were referred to as “girls” and men didn’t pour their own coffee or hang their own coats. Women and minorities were hard-pressed to advance in the workplace — and, some would argue, that challenge persists to this day.
Fortunately, HR has led the evolution in hiring as well as managing workforce issues and addressing the problems of inter-office relations. Any problems stemming from employee misadventures or abhorrent behavior are typically dealt with in a professional and transparent manner. Today men and women are both considered for jobs that may have previously been perceived as gender-specific (anyone in healthcare hiring male nurses?) and organizations offer benefits, such as paternity leave for dads or military leave for women, that may not have been available (or even considered) in the past.
The Evolution of Women in the Workplace
Women in post-World War II America found themselves driven in a full circle. During the war, women were widely employed and highly prized for their skills. “Rosie the Riveter” was no anachronism then — female talent was needed while the men were away at war. With the war over, however, women were expected to return to the home and to the traditional role of wife and mother. The employment gains and professional recognition of the 1940s were largely erased.
By the Mad Men era, women were back in the workforce, but mostly in designated “women’s roles” such as an office secretary or, in healthcare — nurses. Though not unheard of, it was rare for a woman to rise swiftly up the corporate ladder and into management positions as her male counterparts might have.
The character of Peggy Olsen in Mad Men illustrates some of the pressures women faced. Starting as a secretary at the advertising agency and advancing to the role of copywriter, Peggy had to leave her job to get out of the shadow of her male mentor and get a promotion to copy chief. Now in this leadership role, Peggy faces the challenges of having men report to her and working for male clients who often freely express their chauvinistic opinions. While most of her co-workers show her professional respect for the job she has earned, she still faces the questions: Why she is still single? Will she ever marry? Why is she so focused on her career? — as if getting married and leaving the workplace is the goal she should be striving for.
The Evolution of Men in the Workplace
From the Brooks Brothers suit to the three-martini lunch, the role of men in the workplace has largely hinged on their position of power. But in the ‘60s, that power often came at a price — men in high places were expected to devote every bit of energy to the company. As an ad agency partner, it’s part of Mad Men character Don Draper’s responsibility to attend client dinners, play golf with clients on the weekend, and at times find dates for his clients, who were usually married and cheating on their wives while on the road. This commitment to work resulted in less time at home with family while Don’s wife Betty, or another female caregiver, would stay home with the children.
Though the man’s work profile may not have changed as dramatically as the woman’s — today’s workplace is more accepting of everyone’s need for work-life balance. Men and women alike can take advantage of telecommuting or flexible hours in order to spend more time with their family or attend to other personal needs. In one episode, Don’s daughter Sally showed up unexpectedly at his office and the surprised looks on everyone’s faces was a far cry from today’s ‘take your daughter to work’ days.
Acceptance of Differences and Change
The most obvious transition from the ’60s to now is that discriminatory attitudes and behaviors are no longer tolerated. Much like smoking and drinking in the office is no longer accepted, assuming something about a person based on their gender, race, sexuality or other forms of identity is a giant “NO” in the modern world. Elements like Title IX of the ADA and widespread anti-discrimination laws forbid objectionable behaviors towards people who should not be subject to extra scrutiny or unfair prejudice.
Management in general is expected to be accountable for their behavior rather than letting things get “swept under the rug.” Some of the “old guard” employees who enjoyed a lack of oversight in the past may resist moves towards accountability, but in the end most realize that the systems are in place to protect the stability of the organization and employee relations.
The characters in Mad Men even begin to realize the ignorance and stupidity of cutting out most of the population because of the color of their skin or their gender. When Don runs an Equal Opportunity Employer ad as a sick jest, he actually discovers talent in the applicant pool and hires Dawn, who is black. She turns out to be a highly capable worker and she becomes Don’s trusted confidant.
HR as the Standard Bearer for a New Era
While there are many entertaining elements of nostalgia in the Mad Men workplace (The clothes! The hair!), it’s the lessons we learn from the past that influence the decisions we make today and in the future. Whether it’s HR or hiring managers that take the lead, we all need to focus our energy on the things that matter — hiring capable employees who are most qualified for the job, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or identity. As the healthcare industry and the professional workplace in general continue to evolve, HR will set the tone for implementing and upholding workplace rules and etiquette that treat employees fairly and enable employees to achieve their personal and professional goals.
Do you want to learn more about how healthcare organizations, particularly ‘Best Place to Work’ organizations are recruiting and retaining their top talent for leadership positions?