As originally published by SHRM’s “We Know Next,” found here.
Mad About Mad Men
By: Jonathan A. Segal
Sexism is more than illegal. It is immoral and bad business.
There is more than a little bit of sexism in the roles portrayed in Mad Men. So why are so many of us crazy about the show, even though we deplore the sexism that is part of it?
Of course, it is a TV show and not real life. And, the characters are not only psychologically interesting but also physically attractive.
And, there is great writing and acting. The sex doesn’t hurt, either. I hear it sells!
But I think there may be something else going on. But perhaps not consciously.
Today, fortunately, the stereotypic constraints for women (and men) are breaking down. And, that is all good. But it can also be confusing for supervisors and subordinates alike as they try to navigate life at the office.
Obviously, sexism in not entirely gone. Some men still visit strip clubs while away on business. But only a knuckle dragger who has no place in the modern workplace would suggest that women should go along to get along.
But when roles are not clear, and the bias that exists is unconscious or covert, it creates ambiguity. With ambiguity comes anxiety.
While there is psychological complexity in Mad Men, there is not a lot of ambiguity in terms of gender roles. And, perhaps one of the reasons we are fascinated by it is because we are seeking a workplace that’s a little less ambiguous, even though it is deeply flawed in its clarity.
Don Draper is the likeable but the licentious alpha male who pursues and gets what he wants from his workplace, economically as well as sexually. In contrast, Red is well…Red. In addition to how she presents herself in the workplace, she makes sure that the other women “know their place” in the workplace.
All accept their gender-defined roles, except for Peggy. She will not accept the gender role assigned to her. She is ambitious and we will see soon how far her ambition takes her.
But Peggy struggles with her own ambition. And those in the 1960 Boys’ Club around her struggle with her ambition, too.
The ambivalence in and about Peggy still exists in our workplaces today. Yes, it is less conspicuous and often unconscious, but we deceive ourselves if we believe it is not there.
Assertive women still face unfair “Catch-22s” every day. Be directly assertive and you may be branded with Scarlett B. Be more indirect and you may be seen as weak and/or underhanded.
And, many men are confused by the sea change. How should we behave?
I recently gave a talk for executives about gender bias. After the talk, I took the elevator down to the lobby with some of the participants. When the door opened, no one knew what to do. I had a “brilliant” suggestion: those closest to the opening leave first.
So we look with distaste at the sexism and all that which goes with it. But, perhaps, we also yearn, to some degree, for greater clarity. Guess what: we can’t have it.
Stereotypes define roles. We now need to define our roles for ourselves without society unfairly assigning them to us.
The freedom is of course liberating and for the best. But it is not without some anxiety.
But, take a break from anxiety, and enjoy Mad Men this weekend. I know I will.
The author, a partner with Duane Morris in Philadelphia and managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute, focuses on counseling, training and strategic planning to minimize litigation and unionization.
THIS ARTICLE SHOULD NOT BE CONSTRUED AS LEGAL ADVICE, AS PERTAINING TO SPECIFIC FACTUAL SITUATIONS OR AS CREATING AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP.