“Some of our workplace policies look like they are straight out of ‘Mad Men,’” President Barack Obama said at the first-ever United State of Women Summit earlier this summer.
“Mad Men,” celebrating the ninth anniversary of its debut this month, is famous not only for its dramatic look into 1960s corporate New York, but also its portrayal of sexism, white privilege, racism, social mobility, and ruthlessness.
The show finished its seven-season run last year, and it was marketed as a “period drama,” but as President Obama pointed out, many of today’s workplaces aren’t too far off from the unsavory world of Don Draper.
Although outright sexism and cigarette smoking are no longer socially acceptable, gender inequality is still hugely in play, especially for women seeking roles in corporate leadership and boards.
Here are five ways these women’s experiences parallel “Mad Men” and why working to achieve gender equity in the workplace is urgent.
- Sexism and discrimination. In “Mad Men,” most people in power are men and nearly all women are secretaries and wives. Betty Draper struggles as a housewife to the adulterous Don. Hard-working Peggy Olson is a victim of never ending sexism, which is seen as the price for her access to a high-paying job. Joan Holloway is asked to sleep with a client in exchange for a token promotion. Although today’s workplaces aren’t as overtly sexist, barriers to women in leadership are real, according to Broadrooms. The stats are clear — about a third of the Fortune 500 have zero women or only one woman on their boards, according to Fortune. And even though women hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, they are only 14.6 percent of executive officers and 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs.
- Leaders refusing to do the right thing. A conscious effort is needed to resist the past and do the right thing. Several characters from the show ignore or only briefly consider the implications of their actions and continue being unfaithful or unethical. For example, the men of the office resent and patronize Peggy, blocking her from raises despite her excellent work. Similarly, many of today’s corporate boards and leadership seem to operate like secret societies for the select few, mostly white men recruited from a tight-knit social circle. Although they have the power to strive for greater gender equality, they’d rather preserve the status quo. And even when women rise to the top, they find themselves facing the “glass cliff.”
- Trapped in the grid. A major theme on the show is being trapped. For example, the old Sterling Cooper offices, prominently featured box-like details, suggesting an overwhelming feeling of being trapped in the current reality: socially, emotionally, and morally. That trapped symbolism is also constantly felt in the actions of main characters, many of whom are trapped by double lives or double standards. Similarly, women seeking corporate leadership or board positions often feel trapped in lower-level positions. Women seeking corporate leadership or board positions often feel trapped in lower-level positions Click To TweetEven the business world as a whole is at a gridlock: while progress toward gender equality on boards has been made, at the current rate it will take another 40 to 100 years to reach full equality. A century is far too long.
- Performances: the lies we tell to ourselves and others. Throughout the series, the characters perform: perfectly-choreographed dances, soulful songs, and perfect presentations. They are often seen perfectly dressed or attending a polished event, acting the part of perfect wives, employees, and leaders. Ultimately, however, these performances are shown to be lies. In fact, the entire show is based on how companies present themselves in advertising, and the realities behind those images.The gender inequity in today’s corporate leadership and boards reveals that many companies today are putting on similar charades. For example, Land O’Lakes, a Fortune 500 company, discusses corporate responsibility, features images of women in its reports, and generally appeals to women. Yet it does not have a single woman on its boards, according to Huffington Post. Now that feminism is reaching a popular audience — even President Obama says he considers himself a feminist — many companies are trying to market to women and build them up in their advertising. Their failure to actually include women in leadership and boards, however, shows it’s all just another performance.
- Change is unavoidable. The characters in “Mad Men” find themselves in an era of social and cultural upheaval, with the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War protests eroding previous norms. Although they may not agree with these changes and even actively resist them, the progress is unavoidable. For example, late in the show Don Draper’s firm hires its first African American employee, Dawn Chambers. Although she originally faces some racial bias, she is eventually promoted from secretary to director.
Similarly, we are seeing progress toward gender equity on boards, albeit at a glacial pace, according to a 2015 McKinsey& Co. report. The real question is not whether women will be represented on boards. It is, will these companies be part of fiscally and socially desirable progress? Change is happening — will they on the right side of history?
Although President Obama’s comparison between today’s workplaces and “Mad Men” may seem like a clever pop culture reference, it’s also a call for much-needed change. Show creator Matthew Weiner said in 2007 that the show aims to highlight issues, like racism and sexism, that persist today but people are too “polite” to discuss openly.
It’s time to stop glossing over the issue: even though workplace sexism has improved since the days of Don Draper, it’s still a clear barrier to women seeking leadership and board positions. We can’t be satisfied that 52 percent of professionals are women, if women’s representation on Fortune 500 boards has been stuck at 16.9 percent for eight years. It’s time to stop being polite and demand gender equity and the active inclusion of women in corporate boards and leadership.