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After reading about the idiots in my state legislature (VA) and their War on Women (Virginia-is-for-Zygote-Lovers-The-Commonwealth-s-Abortion-of-Common-Sense), I got to thinking about the progress we have made in my life. I wanted to remind myself that it is possible for things to change for the better.

So I decided to talk about what it was like to be a woman in the workplace in the late 1970's and 1980's and what it is like now. All of the incidents I describe either happened to me, I personally observed them, or I was told about them by the people they happened to. These are not made-up stories, but, as I am sure the older commenters can attest, the way it really was back then. When I tell these stories to my current co-workers who are under 40, they (both men and women) seem to be universally appalled. Attitudes have changed. Follow me below the fold to see what I mean.

So what was it like back then?

At my first job out of college, my boss told me that I would only get half the pay raise as my male co-workers because, “Women have men to support them and don't need the money.”  I was single, BTW. And a couple of months later, I had a new job making more than the men in the previous job.

The woman I shared my office with had to attend city council meetings at night. After interviewing her, the boss called her husband to make sure that would be OK with him before he hired her.

I went on job interviews where the hiring offical told me that he had been forced to interview me, but there was no chance he would hire a woman for the job. I got asked how many children I had, if I was married, and if I was planning to get pregnant anytime soon. I got told I might be happier in a secretarial position even though I didn't know how to type. In those days women who listed typing as a skill often didn't even get a chance to interview for professional positions, so I had taken statistics instead of typing in high school.

At the next job, I worked in an open space office that had 20 people in it.  A male co-worker pushed me to the ground and tried to rape me in full view of 18 other people. I was told that I would not ever be promoted if I complained and every one of those 18 people (all male) told me they would lie on the stand if I reported it to the police. To this day, I can't sit in a desk in an office if I can't see the people approaching me.

I was supposed to go on a business trip with several colleagues. One of them had a wife who complained that it was immoral for her husband to travel with a single woman. Guess which one of us got taken off the trip. And somehow when the rest of my team went to Spain, I went to Patuxent River, Maryland instead.

When I was a team lead, I had a man assigned to my team who would not work for a women. So they told him that he only officially worked for me and that I could not give him any orders or in any way direct him. They told me that, too, and that if I didn't like it, the team lead position would be taken away from me.

For few years, often when I made a suggestion in meeting, it was ignored until a man made the same suggestion. Then it was taken seriously, often implemented, and the man got the credit.

One of my co-workers who was married turned down a pass from a co-worker. He told her that he would call her husband and say they were having an affair and he proceeded to physically push her around in the hallway. She called HR and only asked if this was harassment (yes, she wasn't sure) and got called on the carpet by the Commanding Officer (we were Civil Service workers in a Navy command) for the complaint she hadn't even made and her routine promotion to the next grade (automatic after a year in a training progression) was delayed by almost 9 months.

At one Navy command we were visiting, the Commanding Officer refused to acknowledge my presence in the room because women should not work. I was the team lead briefing him on the study we were going to do. Even the guy on my team who didn't want to work for a woman (diffferent guy than the one mentioned above and at least by now they told him I was really in charge) was appalled at the disrespect.

The dress code for women was tailored skirts, dresses or suits with skirts. Women were not allowed to wear pants to work even tailored ones. Well it was technically allowed, but everyone knew it was the kiss of death to your promotion chances to wear one. On the other hand, men had to wear ties.

My boss had the gall to call me while I was on a business trip and tell me the “good news” was that a man I worked with had gotten the promotion I was up for.  This same boss tried to break into my hotel room at 2 am on a different trip. He didn't get in and the next day we both pretended it hadn't happened.

I went to one Navy activity where the women were shocked to find out I was a GS-11. At their activity, anytime a women got a job higher than a GS-7, the job was downgraded immediately thereafter. Jobs that were GS-12s at other Navy activities were GS-7's there unless they were held by men. That is a difference of $15.193-$19,747 for a 7 and $26,951-$35,033 for a 12. (GS pay scales) Some of these women had 15-20 years of professional work experience.

I once had the uncomfortable experience of watching a Navy Admiral rant about how women should not be allowed to serve in the military – right in front of 3 senior female civilians and his aide, a female Navy Lieutenant.

At a briefing at one Navy command, I introduced my team and the Department Head introduced his team skipping over the only other woman in the room. I asked who she was (I was getting bolder by then) and he said dismissively, “That's just the secretary.”  “Does she have a name?” I asked pointedly. The secretary told me that she had worked there for years and she had never once been introduced and never once had anyone else asked her name. Turned out she knew where all the bodies were buried and gave our team a whole lot of documentation of things that the Department Head really didn't want us to see.

One of my bosses used a swear word every couple of words. We made a bet with him that he couldn't say a whole sentence without one and he lost.

I knew at least one woman who lost her private industry job for getting pregnant.

Dirty jokes and pictures were common in the workplace.

I once got asked to go down a flight of steps and come back up them, so the man could watch my tits bounce. Yes, he actually said that out loud. I caught my team speculating on my bra size once when they didn't know I was in the adjoining room.

Occasionally I felt safe enough to fight back. Once I was telling my boss that the head of QA would not approve the study if we did what my boss wanted me to do. He said , “Fuck Joe Smith (name changed).” I came back with “I don't want to.” It was a proud moment.

Just in general, work conditions then were interesting, too. I had an office in a room that had previously been the men's room. I knew this because you could see on the concrete floor where the fixture openings had been plastered over. Nothing says class like having to sit right over where the urinal used to be! My desk was older than I was (left over from WWII). The ladies rooms all had couches in them for us to use when it was “that time of the month.” If you were 15 minutes late, you had to take leave.

The copy machine only let you make copies of one page at at time, no automatic feed. Long technical documents were typed on a typewriter. Then copies were made (one page at a time) and collated into documents to be distributed. I can still very painfully remember spending an entire day standing at the copy machine making copies. Somehow the men at the same grade level never had to do the copying tasks.

There was no email and all correspondence had to be approved through all layers of management between the author and the Department Head. By the time a letter was sent it often no longer meant what you orginally said.

There were no personal computers when I first worked (we later got some of the very first IBM PCs ever built) and we did advanced statistical analysis using a teletype connection to a mainframe in another location using a programming language called APL.  Of course there was no monitor to the teletype machine and you couldn't see what you had typed until about 7 lines later.

We did spreadsheets on paper and hand-calculated all the math. If you wanted briefing slides for a presentation, you gave it to the graphics shop at least 4 weeks ahead of the presentation.

In case you are wondering why I didn't quit that second job, I was making more than any of my college classmates (I had attended a women's college) and, being Civil Service, I made exactly what my male co-workers at the same level made. I got to travel for work. The work itself was challenging and extremely interesting. I got a chance to influence Navy policy in my professional specialty. I got training that was invaluable for my whole career. While some of my co-workers were horrible, many were smart and interesting and extremely competent. The sexist conditions were just part of the deal at any job back then. It really wasn't until the conditions started changing after the Taillhook scandal), that I even realized how awful some of this stuff was (yeah, I knew the attempted rape thing was horrible all along) and how much easier it was to work under civilized conditions.

Now? Well now I have a good job doing interesting work (in a different career field) that I enjoy with smart colleagues who treat me with respect. My boss is almost half my age and he is one of the best people I ever worked for. They rebuilt the cubicles for me when I couldn't sit in one with my back to the aisle. They changed the bereavement policy to include unmarried partners when my beloved was dying. They give me credit for my achievements. Many of our managers are female in a male-oriented profession. I directly work with 3 of the smartest ones. I have a PC on my desk more powerful than that mainframe I used in 1979. One with two monitors! I'm trusted to send emails both within and outside the organization without some manager rewriting it. I send the few documents I need paper copies of to the copy machine from my computer and never have to stand in front of it for longer than it takes to pick up the printout. Work hours are flexible and I can work from home when I need to. I wear jeans to work every day. I don't have to listen to off-color jokes or see dirty pictures. And nobody attacks me physically or verbally. And my younger colleagues don't even believe my stories from the past.

Originally posted to HLGEM 1 on Thu Feb 16, 2012 at 04:30 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  oh yeah... (8+ / 0-)

    don't ever tell your boss you type, because you will be expected to.  

    processing the new hire package for my replacement (I was moving to a new location) and discovering my successor starting at 10% more than I was making at the time, because he had a family to support.  

    the guy in the office with the crude sexual humor - when the women pushed back with sauce for the gander, WE got the dress-down.

    I don't miss it.

  •  Excellent summary (6+ / 0-)

    I started work in 1974 and what you describenis very. I remember a project manager suggesting that I ride in the car with our creepy client (wink, wink), that I wear a dress instead of jeans and workboots on a tour of an ash landfill, or being subjected to unwanted backrubs in the office from a male employee whose uncle was a senior VP.  

    I tend to send out "don't mess with me' signals, but the women who didn't were subjected to much more persistent and egregious malfeasance.

    Thanks for reminding us old timers and informing those who were not in the workforce back then that things are a lot better now.

    Some drink deeply from the river of knowledge. Others only gargle. -- Woody Allen

    by cassandracarolina on Thu Feb 16, 2012 at 08:24:20 PM PST

  •  There is a MOST excellent old Doonesbury (8+ / 0-)

    that I have not been able to find in a quick search (I probably have a hard copy somewhere) that speaks to your last sentence. One of the Moms... not sure which, now... is talking with her quite young daughter about how it used to be. Mom finally asks if the daughter understands, and daughter answers "No, I really don't get it". Mom, smiling, thinks "GOOD!"

    I really enjoyed your diary, in a perverse sort of way ;) Lots of flashbacks to the horrid workplace conditions, the pay inequality (b/c men have to support their families!), the casual sexism, dirty jokes, demeaning comments - and most importantly, the fact that they were the norm, not something out of the ordinary at all.

    "Maybe this is how empires die - their citizens just don't deserve to be world leaders anymore." -Kossack Puddytat, In a Comment 18 Sept 2011

    by pixxer on Thu Feb 16, 2012 at 08:41:57 PM PST

  •  In 1975 (9+ / 0-)

    I was an undergraduate in mechanical engineering at Michigan State with a high GPA and was hired by Northrop for their summer jobs program.  After traveling all the way across the country to Los Angeles, the HR guy asked me how fast I could type!  He tried to place me as a secretarial assistant!  I asked a woman I had met to give me the phone number of the VP of engineering and called him up and complained, saying I had given up a lab assistant position at school to take the job at Northrop.  Luckily for me, the US government was starting to track numbers of women and minorities in tech positions.  The HR guy was reprimanded and a position was created for me in Advanced Propulsion design.  After graduation, I returned to Northrop and worked there 22 years -- and the HR guy hated me the whole time.

    Go Bernie Sanders! You are what a politician should be!

    by Former Chicagoan Now Angeleno on Thu Feb 16, 2012 at 10:01:18 PM PST

  •  I remember so well. (5+ / 0-)

    I started working in 1975.  My first job was selling college textbooks for Harper and Row, and one professor literally chased me around his desk.  Another called me at home every evening and threatened to call my boss to tell him to tell me to go to Europe with him.  This didn't stop until my boyfriend went to see him and told him to stop harassing me.

    After moving to the law and tax division of Prentice Hall, I had one lawyer ask my new boss (in front of me) "what did you hire a girl for?" - I was 29 by this point and was in the top 10 out of 400 sales reps.  

    After staying at home with my children for 10 years, I re-entered the workforce in 1993 at the age of 40.  What a difference a decade had made!  I was lucky enough to land an entry-level position with a consulting firm, and can honestly say that my gender and age made absolutely no difference whatsoever to my assignments, my boss, or my team.  Unfortunately, it did seem to bother some of my clients, especially in some of the heavy manufacturing companies - but my company supported me.  When I was harassed at one auto plant, my team lead immediately went to the plant manager and read him the riot act.

    And I still can't type.

    "I'll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there's evidence of any thinking going on inside it." Terry Pratchett

    by kiwiheart on Fri Feb 17, 2012 at 04:25:19 AM PST

  •  Thank you all for writing this diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    nomandates, FlamingoGrrl, VetGrl

    and for the additional anecdotes in the comment stream.

    While things are much , much better these days, they are obviously not hunky-dorey.

    Sexual harrassment and discrimination, like the racial variety, is now generally more subtle and stealthy. The perpetrators usually won't do or say anything unless they are reasonably sure of the leanings of their audience. They know which way the wind blows now.

    Keep telling it like it was, the way it is, and the way it should be. Keep educating.

    Trickle-down theory; the less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows. - J.K. Galbraith

    by Eric Twocents on Fri Feb 17, 2012 at 05:02:26 AM PST

  •  Thank you.... (3+ / 0-)

    For telling it like it was.
    I started working in the 60's, it was a daily gauntlet of assault (emotional as well as attempted physical and the tiresome disgustingly stupid 'jokes').
    I had gone to college, knew how to think and was constantly relegated to jobs that didn't utilize any thought.
    I applied for one job and my prospective employer gave me a completely unashamed long lookover, and told me he thought I'd be 'cough, cough' older and more 'experienced'.  The guy was such a lecherous disgusting old man I got out of the interview as fast as possible and withdrew my application saying I had another job (I didn't).
    There are so many other stories I çould tell, but it wouldn't even be the tip of the iceberg of all we went through.
    It has gotten better, but now I'm being silently harrassed for being an 'older' worker.  
    It doesn't end.

    I think, therefore I am........................... Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose AKA Engine Nighthawk - don't even ask!

    by Lilyvt on Fri Feb 17, 2012 at 06:04:37 AM PST

  •  I entered the workforce in 1974 also. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    VetGrl, Oh Mary Oh

    My dad thought I should take typing in high school so I did.  I excelled in typing class - I played the piano & typing came easily.  But I refused to list typing on my resume or any application because that automatically relegated you to "secretary" status or worse.

    I found work in my career field, commercial art, and didn't end up having to use any of my typing skills at work until computers came along.  Then I was glad I knew how to type.  :-)

    Scott Walker's Wisconsin: in Milwaukee's poorest corners infant mortality is higher than that of the Gaza Strip, Colombia & Bulgaria.

    by FlamingoGrrl on Fri Feb 17, 2012 at 10:39:55 AM PST

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