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Sexism in Mad Men--what has (and hasn't) changed

Q: In the hit TV show "Mad Men," which ended its season Sunday, Don Draper becomes the de facto leader of the fictional ad agency, despite his cool detachment, his brusque manner and his brutal honesty. He follows the old adage that it is better to be feared and respected than liked, but he's also fiercely loyal to people who do good work. Does Don Draper pass the leadership test?

I grew up in the era of Mad Men and am completely fascinated with everything "mad," especially the long leisurely lunches and dinners and elegant clothes. But beautiful people and clothes should not and cannot hide the blatant sexism, racism and xenophobia in the post- World War II era represented on the show.

As much as I love watching Mad Men, it is difficult and painful to see the ways in which women and men dealt with each other and with power. It's painful because this behavior is not as far back in our past as we would like to think. Our daughters continually get the messages that power still comes through powerful men. And unfortunately being pretty is still a quality that can get you on the ladder-though it still won't take you to the top.

What has changed is the way in which offices, companies and organizations are managed. Management in 2010 is much less dependent on the fear of Don Draper's "command and control" era. Information is so complex and global that even the Drapers of today are dependent on their colleagues when it comes to decision-making. Power is more dispersed, and good decision-making is dependent on the amount of diversity brought to the table.

In the 1950s, women were 29 percent of the work force and held 14 percent of the managerial, administrative and professional positions. Now we make up almost half the labor force and have tripled our share to 51 percent of the managerial and professional positions. However, women are leaving these middle-management positions. The sexism that plagues the women of Mad Men-even the up and coming leader, Peggy-is quieter, but women still suffer from a lack of voice and respect. This is driving women out of companies and into entrepreneurship or into a search for a company that will do better. Women say they are leaving for work and family, and maybe this is true for some of them. But at a Harvard Conference on Women and Leadership this past weekend, researchers pointed out that when women don't see opportunity and don't feel respected in the workplace, they leave.

So would Don Draper's fear-driven and sexist leadership style translate into effective management in today's climate? The answer is no-we already know that this kind of leadership isn't working when women can't see a place for themselves in a consistently male-led working environment. When diversity is key, and while women still play an integral part of the diversification of the workplace, Draper's "command and control" is not only outdated-it's harmful to our economy and our culture.

By Marie Wilson

 |  October 19, 2010; 11:44 AM ET
Category:  Organizational Culture , Pop culture , Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Respect, not fear, rules the roost | Next: What does it say about today's culture that we've idolized Don Draper?


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I have not watched the current season of Mad Men, but I am not entirely sure that is an accurate characterization of Draper's management style. He was the one who promoted the office girl to copywriter and supported her in her growth as a non-secretarial employee.

In general, what sexism there is has been driven underground. I have heard less about obvious harassment and rapes at the workplace. Because so many women are working, it is not treated as unusual that you walk into an office and talk to a woman who is a professional. Initially, I felt that the inability of male colleagues to listen to me at meetings was a function of sexism until I went to a talk where the CEO of a small internet firm recounted how difficult it was to convince his programmers of anything at all. Sexism certainly exists. I've noticed that men are, in some cases, dragged kicking and screaming into management positions while women are overlooked unless they work very hard on politicking and getting recognition from upper management (which takes time away from actually getting work done, I might add.) Some men are resentful of the competition by women, not realizing they'd still have to compete with other men for those jobs. (Easy to blame the women folk.)

What I do wish is that more women under 25 would watch this and understand what women were up against. Currently, the hipster fad to look like a 1940s-1960s era stripper is really distressing to me. They may think they are empowering themselves sexually, but they are putting themselves in a position of subordination and lack of credibility. The male attention must be nice, but it won't seriously put bread on the table in the long run.

Posted by: felisrufus | October 20, 2010 7:54 PM
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I must agree with SYLVIAB in terms of where the focus should be. I don't dispute the fact that Draper's style of management does more harm than good. But this was merely a symptom of the 'survival of the fittest' mentality which is inherent in our system and I am afraid that probably the same proportion of women as men in these positions exhibit the same tendencies. Ensuring that women have the same access to top positions in corporate America is a worthy pursuit - but it is meaningless if it simply means that a woman has the same opportunities to pursue wealth in an unbridled, irresponsible manner.

Posted by: mxb1 | October 20, 2010 5:40 PM
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Mad Men is giving us all pause to look, once again, at how we do business. The 1950's with its command and control male dominated leadership is still dying a slow and difficult death. Yet, the underlying issues concern much more than how women and men interact, although problems in faulty relationships are centuries old.
Another, deeper issue is gender blind. It concerns the essential or perhaps, the repetitiously patterned conditional ways we have been taught to view human nature, as in the survival of the fittest. We are at the brink of thinking through the roots of what it means to be human in the 21st centry and find a way past the survival mentality locked in the lower areas of the brain. Maybe now is the time to realize that both the physical and emotional health of a whole community, or country, is more important than the opportunity for the few to become rich.
These two aspects link with a leap of faith into new ways of organizing the human enterprise.Perhaps, like dinasaurs, we are ready for smaller, leaner, entrepreneurial companies to lead the way and this, again is beyond gender.
In "Don't Bring It to Work: Breaking the Family Patterns that Limit Success" a major hypothesis is that no important change in interactive relationships is possible without an internal change in intellectiual priorities, convictions, and especially in our loyalties.
Let's keep the dialogue going.

Posted by: sylvia8 | October 19, 2010 1:31 PM
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