Dress Codes

[I'm contemplating including in my book stories about how the world for women has changed since I entered the workforce in the mid-1960's.  Here is one story.]

In the late 1960’s, proper office attire for women was still dresses and stockings (and preferably high-heeled shoes).  Remember, this was a time when jobs ads in newspapers were still listed as Jobs for Men and Jobs for Women.  Yes, 21st century women, the world was as depicted in TV’s Mad Men.  But things were changing. 

In 1970 Goldie Hawn – the “giggling dumb blonde (sic) of Laugh-In TV fame – made news by wearing a pantsuit, or more accurately by wearing half of one.  Miniskirts were common by 1970, but pantsuits were still forbidden in most white collar workplaces and up-scale entertainment venues.  Hawn, wearing just such an outfit, was turned away at a posh NYC nightspot – for appearing in pants.  So, she took off the pants, passed them to the coat checker, and went into the club wearing only the top – which passed muster as a dress!

At that time I was working as a lowly computer operator despite having done higher level work in New York at AT&T.  The operator position was one of the few jobs where the employment agency could even get me an interview.  (When I casually mentioned to the agent that my husband had similar experience to mine, her eyes popped open.  She said, “Send him here; we can find him a job!”)

My male colleagues in the small, staid engineering firm in Chicago talked with awe and some fear about local feminist rallies.  They were taken aback by the feminist button I wore on my jacket.  This attitude was reflected in the dress code, which forbade pantsuits for women.  So, since I was just biding my time before starting grad school and was amused and inspired by Hawn’s bravado, I decided to act.  I had such an outfit and would wear it to work the next day.  If challenged, I planned to take off the pants, as Hawn had done.

Unfortunately for my star turn on the corporate catwalk, the firm’s treasurer overheard me sharing my plan with my women friends in the lunch room.  Within an hour, the human relations officer issued a new dress policy – women could wear appropriately dignified slacksuits (the tortured prevailing euphemism for the new attire).  And we did.

Collateral Damage

Collateral damage occurs when an person gets battered as an innocent party in larger actions.  A long career almost guarantees that you will be collateral damage at least once, more often if you are unlucky. 

How bad can collateral damageget?  This example began with a casual statement from the director to the relatively new supervisor of an inconsequential department.  “You should apply for our head of public services,” he said.  The supervisor was intensely flattered, had some doubts about readiness for such exalted work, but did apply.  And, of course could not compete with outsiders with more experience and did not get the job. A valuable lesson learned with only temporary embarrassment.

But the organization was in the midst of a broad restructuring.  And the director then called the supervisor and asked her whether she would like to become head of circulation.  (Circulation in the class system of libraries was not then highly thought of; indeed it was usually headed by a non-professional.)  Knowing about other open positions, the young supervisor said, “No, I’d rather be head of reference.”  Director indicates that a more experienced and highly respected colleague had asked for that position.  So supervisor says, “Then I’d rather keep my current position.”  Director says, “I already promised that to the (non-professional but very good) reserves supervisor.”  This story ultimately has a happy ending although it is not relevant to the purpose here. 

What is illustrated here is that good and very well-meaning leaders can inadvertently injure some of their best people by statements that they cannot follow through on.  If one is really talented and hard-working, collateral damage is more likely to catch you.  When faced with a promising employee, the urge to praise and encourage is strong.  But the line between acknowledging good work and implying promises is a fine one.  And we have all crossed it at one point or other in our career.  Catching oneself in this – especially if you have ever been on the receiving end – is a humbling experience; I know.

Crying at the Dinner Table

Even the most successful career has low points, frustrations, dashed hopes, interpersonal conflicts.  Each person copes differently, usually out of sight of prying eyes.  The worst require getting away from the work site  while the pain lessens.  Some take long walks.  Some wounds have to wait until the end of the day and involve crying at the dinner table.  Some drive sedentary souls to actually exercise.  Yoga works in some situations – relaxing, breathing deeply, focusing on your third eye (the invisible one in the middle of your forehead).  But I recommend avoiding crying at the dinner table if you have children.

The causes of crying at the dinner table may be promised promotions or salary increases that fall through, projects that come to nothing for suspect reasons.  Many of the blows arise from well-meaning, clumsy or thoughtless leadership.  Sometimes the leader wasn’t aware that what he or she asked you to do could not be done; the leaders might not have been familiar enough with the landscape to know where black holes exist.  You may know there are obstacles but hope that your leader has the power to overcome them.  But sometimes he or she finds the political cost is not worth it or it may use up scarce political capital or not even be worth the leader’s scarce time.

These setbacks may be hard to take.  But even harder to take (and humbling) is when you find yourself accidentally inflicting one of these blows on your own staff.  For some unwritten law, you often wound your best people.  They may inspire you to take make some promises or take some chances that you can’t really follow through on.  Once you have been the inflictor, it reduces the bitterness that you may feel at having been an inflictee.