We have a lot of impressions of what the professional office was like in the 1960’s and 1970’s. But our impressions probably miss one important characteristic – its civility.
When I began working in 1982 I was the first female engineer in a very traditional office. Men were engineers, designers, draftsmen and managers while women were secretaries. Contrary to the popular myths, secretaries weren’t subservient, didn’t fetch coffee or do other menial tasks for the men. They, in spite of their administrative roles, wielded a lot of informal power.
Secretaries set the rules of conduct for the office. They were a continuous reminder to men to elevate their behavior and they expected men to conduct themselves as gentlemen in their presence. Words such as “please” and “thank you” were always used.
As the female engineer I witnessed how my male colleagues conducted themselves when they were by themselves versus around women. For the most part they were the same. I overheard a few “spirited” discussions in meetings but whenever I was present they watched themselves and toned it down. Any time a man cursed in my presence he turned to me and apologized. Even though I wasn’t offended, I acknowledged the apology and accepted it.
I understood that my presence was also a continuous reminder to men to be their better selves. It was also a reminder for me to set a higher example so I seldom cursed.
As part of their gentlemanly behavior men always opened the door for me so I could enter first. Most of my coworkers were civilians even though I was an Air Force officer so it wasn’t and awkward situation with them or the enlisted force. However, the situation became awkward when I was with more senior officers.
According to protocol, the junior ranking officer opens the door for the senior officers. But since I was a woman the senior officers opened doors for me. This got especially confusing one day when I went running at lunch at the same time as the three most senior officers on base. As we entered the gym I went to open the door for them but one of the officers also rushed to open the door for me. His long arms beat me to the door so I entered first.
Not knowing if this was proper, I took my concern to the base women’s group to discuss. We had an interesting discussion: were we officers first and women second OR women first and officers second? We concluded that we were officers first and women second however, the male officers were also an officer and a gentlemen.
As female officers (all of us very low ranking) we recognized that we were in a more precarious position than our male peers. We needed the male officers to be gentlemen and chivalrous. While most men were well behaved we all witnessed the ugly side of men and knew there could be a time we needed a man to be a chivalrous and intervene in a situation on our behalf. Therefore we concluded that if male officers wanted to elevate Gentleman above Officer we should let them. We expected that as the number of female officers increased eventually we would be seen as just another officer and normal protocols would take over.
Little did we know how things would really change.
For the first 20 years of my career most men acted with the same gentlemanly behavior around me. They opened doors and apologized for any cursing or off-color comments in my presence. My language however deteriorated a bit, especially when I was working out on a construction site. Overall though things were evolving well.
But then it changed.
Suddenly, it is politically incorrect to treat women any different than men. Feminism interpreted men’s gentlemanly behavior as men seeing women as inferior. Opening a door for a woman was equivalent to discrimination and sexual harassment. Women proudly proclaimed “I opened this door myself because I am equal.”
These women didn’t understand that opening the door ourselves didn’t say anything about our equality – it was about encouraging polite and civil behavior to protect women from abuse and harassment.
This misunderstanding created unintended consequences.
Under intense pressure men stopped being gentlemen.
The minimal standard of acceptable behavior was removed. With chivalry gone more crude behavior set in. Men could get away with anything by simply saying “That’s how I treat the guys. You want me to treat you differently?”
Women were put in a difficult position. Complaining about men’s behavior meant you couldn’t cut it as “one of the guys” or be their equal. A complaint was a sign of weakness and inferiority.
In response women also lowered their behavior and increased their aggressiveness in order to become “one the guys” and fit in. Our behavior gave men permission to go even lower because in men’s minds, women should act better than men. Crudeness, aggressiveness, meanness and bullying increased. Dysfunctional and controlling men became more powerful and got away with more. Overt sexual behavior towards women became common.
For my own safety I divided men into two groups – those I trusted and those I didn’t. Early in my career, the men I didn’t trust were the rare exceptions. Later in career, they were the majority and the men I trusted were the exceptions.
Today women are treated far worse in the workplace than they were in the 80’s. It seems more men have no bottom limit to their behavior and see the workplace as a competition where it isn’t good enough to simply beat a competitor – they also have to demean and hurt them.
It is up to women to reverse this situation. We have to go back to asserting ourselves and using the Power of “No” to establish and enforce civil and polite behavior. For centuries, this was our role in society. Even without any legal rights we wielded our power and moral authority to better society and fight for social causes including abolition, temperance, children, the working poor and the rights of women. Unfortunately when we went into the workplace in larger numbers, we left this power behind. That was our mistake. But we can correct it. That’s what our rights and equality are for.
Empowered Women Demand and Enforce Civil Behavior
To learn more about the inherent power of women checkout my new book:
The Woman In The Room: How I Realized the Unique Value of Women in the Male-dominated Workplace