Spoiler alert: This article contains details from the twelfth episode of “Mad Men” from season seven.
We’d be remiss if we lauded the most recent episode of “Mad Men” as the singular depiction in the show’s history of pervasive and systemic sexism in the workplace.
But this episode offers an important lesson for all of us about the strides women have taken towards gender equality at work, not to mention a reminder for how far we’ve yet to go.
Sexism was alive and well during Sunday night’s episode. There was the account man named Dennis assigned to “help” Joan, a former female executive of Sterling Cooper & Partners, with the clients she brought into ad agency McCann Erickson. When she called him out for ruining a call with one of her clients, he responded, “Who told you you got to get pissed off?”
When she turned to senior colleague Ferg Donnelly for help, he rationalized Dennis’ behaviour saying, “He’s not going to work for a girl…What’s he going to say? She’s my boss?”
What’s more, after taking Dennis off her business, Donnelly suggested he and Joan travel together to meet her offended client, saying that he was “not expecting anything more than a good time.”
The clincher, though, was the tense scene between Joan and McCann Erickson boss Jim Hobart, who she confronted about the sexual harassment. During a heated exchange, Hobart informed Joan that he doesn’t care about her previous status as a partner and threatens her, “Other people always say you’re the kind of gal who doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, but no. You’re not telling me how to run my business. Now, find a way to get along, or you can expect a letter from our lawyer.”
In retort, Joan uncharacteristically invoked the women’s liberation movement as a threat:
“I wonder how many women around here would like to speak to a lawyer. I think the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has one.“
Established in 1965, the EEOC is a federal agency that enforces laws against employment discrimination, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The agency’s first complainants were air stewardesses disparaging their airline’s ban on marriage, weight requirements, and age discrimination. But few took the prohibition of discrimination against women seriously at the time, and the EEOC director even called Title VII “a fluke … conceived out of wedlock.”
She continues: “
I think the second I file a complaint I’ll have the ACLU in my office, and Betty Friedan in the lobby with half the women who marched down Fifth Avenue.”
Friedan, infuriated by the lack of response to claims of discrimination against female workers, formed the National Organisation for Women (NOW) in 1966.
In August 1970, NOW organised the Women’s Strike for Equality, a nationwide demonstration for women’s rights held on the 50th Anniversary of women’s suffrage. As part of one of the first major protests of the women’s liberation movement, 50,000 women marched on Fifth Avenue in New York.
“I guess you didn’t see the headlines about what happened at Ladies Home Journal or Newsweek,” Joan said.
In March, 1970, more than 100 feminists occupied The Ladies’ Home Journal’s editorial offices for 11 hours protesting the magazine’s mostly-male staff and it’s depiction of women. The magazine’s editor agreed to let the group produce eight pages in the August issue.
Also in March, 1970, a group of 46 Newsweek staff members filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming they had been systematically discriminated against in hiring and promotion. After filing another sex discrimination complaint with the commission in 1972, Newsweek created timetables for hiring women in 1973.
Later in the episode, Joan’s triumphant moment is cut short when Roger Sterling compels her to accept Hobart’s offer of a $US250,000 buyout — half of her shares. She complies.
There is a moment of victory for women in Joan’s speech, but her ultimate defeat fittingly represents how far women still have to come.
Hobart offered Joan 50 cents on the dollar for her shares in the company, slightly less than the 59 cents on the dollar women earned compared to their male equivalents in 1970. In the 35 years since then, the wage gap between men and women has narrowed by a mere 18 cents — that averages to about half a cent per year.
The glass ceiling for women in leadership is still hard to break, women still get shot down when they speak up in meetings, and we still see not guilty verdicts in modern cases of gender bias in the workplace.
Despite the landmark wins for women we have seen, we still have a way to go.
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