Mr. Smith, Take a Memo

from Womankind (1971) The intensely sexist world of clerical work as told by an insider. (From Womankind- October 1971)

(Editors Note: Clerical work had one of the largest concentrations of women in the workplace, yet supervisors were usually males who relied on sexist conditioning to divide and rule the workplace.)

I have been doing clerical work for six years now, ever since I graduated high school. I can remember the anticipation of my first job as an airlines reservationist – the excitement of travel, the good pay, and contact with the public – everything a girl could want! I went through the training period and passed with flying colors onto the floor.

But with supervisors standing over my shoulder and calls being surreptiously monitored by the office manager, my excitement soon changed to fear, insecurity, and desperation.

Although more than 80% of the reservations agents were women, at least 80% of the supervisors were men. The division between the supervisors and the agents was very distinct on the job, on breaks, on lunches, and socially; we just never mixed anywhere.

That job ended shortly after an incident between the supervisor and me. I asked him a question and he shouted at me, insisting that I should know the answer to that “stupid” question, making me feel like a complete idiot. I burst into tears and ran from the room. I’d been humiliated and frightened by the scene. I soon realized that there was no way I could fight that kind of treatment – the supervisors could do no wrong. I quit.

I had other jobs, figures clerk at Proctor and Gamble – row upon row of women tallying salesmen’s orders in groups of 10 or so, each group supervised by a man; Playboy magazine, front desk receptionist , glamour job of them all, where men are kings and women are dolls; I had no consciousness of sexist attitudes then, but I knew I spent too much money on clothes and having my hair done every week, and too much time in the bathroom and in front of mirrors trying to look like one of the girls in Glamour or Vogue. My appearance seemed a very important part of my job. The pressures to be beautiful were very great both a social asset and in job progress.

Each job had its own characteristics but I began to notice similarities between them. For instance, in every office the supervisors or their supervisors have been men. There was always a division between the supervisors and the clerical workers. There seemed to be some competition between the women – cliques formed, leaving out the more poorly dressed, the more unkempt. The work women did was always typing, filing, counting – any of the little details men can’t be bothered with. There were always arguments between sections of departments. There was often a social and physical separation between the women who were less skilled and those who could take shorthand or type very well. These divisions were in a lot of ways set up and encouraged by the supervisors and managers. They only considered it a problem if it got in the way of our following orders obediently.

We were all called “girls” too, whether we were 19 or 60. But a girl is a child, and a child doesn’t have enough experience or rationality or strength to originate useful ideas, organize and act. Being called a girl reinforces the idea that women are incapable of doing any but minor tasks in a business. It’s an attitude that serves the needs of a male-dominated society. Men don’t have to compete with women for their jobs because few women seriously think of themselves as competitors. Even if they did, they soon find that no one else did.