The era of the sexually charged office

Christine Hendricks as Joan Holloway in the TV series Mad Men walking down the street with four men watching her

Post-war offices were often sexually charged realms, but they were also places where harassment was rife, recounts Lucy Kellaway.

Anyone who has ever watched Mad Men knows that the 1950s and 1960s were the most amount of fun it was ever possible to have in an office.

The booze. The cigarettes. The clothes. Those extraordinary pointy bras, and above all, the sex.

Compare that with our own offices where there is no booze, no fags and so little flirting that when the other day a colleague told me he liked my shirt, he promptly apologised for having put his foot in it.

In the last 60 years or so our attitude to sex at work has moved from denial to delight to disapproval to disallowing.

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Lucy Kellaway
  • Lucy Kellaway is an author and Financial Times columnist
  • Sex and the Office is broadcast at 13:45 BST on 30 July
  • Episode eight, Designing Office Space, is broadcast at 13:45 BST on 31 July
  • The Magazine is running a fortnight of articles based on edited transcripts from this series

The prevailing mood has changed so often that it's been hard to keep up. So how did we come to be so confused?

Human beings have always been prone to a spot of bad behaviour. But when women arrived in the office, the opportunities for misbehaving reached a whole new level.

And the object of desire? The secretary of course.

By the early 20th Century the secretary had become a cultural type. Girls wanted to grow up to be one. Boys thought they'd marry one.

The ideal candidate was someone who could be an "office wife" - matching the duties in the office that the wife did at home.

Early manuals of secretarial skills read like guides to a successful marriage.

"Learn his preferences and obey them even if you do not always agree with his ideas or methods. Naturally a man likes to have his wants attended to, who doesn't? Assume that he is always right."

Actress Lois Maxwell reclining on a desk and holding a telephone to her ear Secretaries can expect more professional atmosphere today

The job was a complicated one. Secretaries had to manage not only their boss, but also the boss's wife.

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"There was this real tension between the wife who's jealous and the secretary who thinks that the wife is spending all the boss's money," says Julie Berebitsky, author of Sex and the Office.

"The office wife has to buy birthday gifts for the wife. Really the question is who does more for this man, is it the wife in office or the wife at home?"

But it wasn't always men sharking after the secretaries, it could be the other way round.

Greetings card from the 1940s

As an office wife you make the grade

You fret and fuss and scold

But after five you're all alone

Small comfort when you're old

One secretary in New York in the mid-1930s was most eager for her boss to kiss her.

"Sometimes on my job in taking dictation, certain terms I associate with sex and make me blush," she wrote.

"Words like 'ball bearing' excite me. My boss sort of interests me, I would enjoy his kisses, but he never comes near me."

Even if Don Draper himself was doing the dictating, I struggle to see how ball bearings could be in any way exciting. But there you go.

Famous office romances

Barack and Michelle Obama
  • Bill and Melinda Gates - Melinda French joined Microsoft in 1986. Met Gates at a press event in 1987 and they married in 1994
  • Barack and Michelle Obama - Michelle Robinson was the current president's mentor as he interned at a Chicago law firm in 1989. They married in 1992
  • Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky - The former president faced impeachment charges in 1998 after an "improper physical relationship" with White House intern Lewinsky
  • John Major and Edwina Currie - Married former Conservative PM had a four-year affair with fellow MP Currie from 1984-1988

Yet even without the help of the steel balls, affairs happened. And sometimes they ended very nastily indeed.

Connie Nicholas was a secretary at Eli Lilly in Indiana in the 1940s. She had a long, tempestuous affair with her boss, which ended when he dumped her in favour of another, younger secretary.

Nicholas wasn't best pleased. So displeased, in fact, that she shot him three times, got into his company car - a white Cadillac - and drove off. She then failed to kill herself and ended up in prison.

Then, as now, companies didn't get their response right. It was decided that the real problem wasn't the sex but the cars - there were to be no more white Cadillacs at Eli Lilly. All executives had to trade in their cars or get them resprayed.

By the 1950s and 1960s, things were beginning to change. The marriage bar - which stopped women continuing to work after their wedding - was breaking down and the possibility of a proper career was opening up.

In industries like advertising and publishing, women were starting to advance beyond the position of secretary. Rona Jaffe describes in her autobiographical novel, The Best of Everything, what it was like working publishing in New York in the late 1950s.

Martinis were compulsory at 5pm and there was the perennial dilemma - when your boss puts his hand on your knee do you smile sweetly and pray for a rise, or do you knee him in the groin?

Helen Gurley Brown, the late editor of Cosmopolitan, knew the answer to that question.

Helen Gurley Brown in 2006 Helen Gurley Brown's 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl broke boundaries

"You see, I don't think it's wrong to use your sex appeal and femininity to get ahead on a job. In fact, I can't think of a better way to do it," she said.

She had worked her way up through 17 different secretarial jobs and ended up as a copywriter on Madison Avenue, the best paid in the business.

'Secretary wives' and polygamy

"A secretary offers the only kind of polygamy we recognize in this country, the chance to have a second wife at the same time you have your first one and not go to jail.

"If you select her carefully, she can be the loveliest of all fringe benefits. And to think, the company pays for her."

Helen Gurley Brown in 1962

Her advice to women: "You get to a man by dealing with him on his professional level, then stay around to charm and sexually zonk him."

Gurley Brown's first book, Sex and the Single Girl, sold two million copies in its first three weeks. In 1962, people loved it and hated it, but reading it now 50 years later it still hasn't quite lost its power to shock.

"Managements who think romances lower the work output are right out of their skulls," she writes.

"A girl in love with her boss will knock herself out seven days a week and wish there were more days. Tough on her, but fabulous for business."

But now I think of it, a newspaper editor said the very same thing to me not so long ago. He loves it when his staff have affairs as they work so much harder.

A manager looks at his secretary as she takes notes

By the 1970s, the women's movement was taking hold. In 1977 a woman's group ran a competition among secretaries to find the most demeaning personal errand demanded by their boss.

Finalists included delivering stolen office supplies to his home address, photographing the boss before, during, and after shaving off his moustache, cleaning his false teeth and picking up his wife and newborn baby at the hospital.

But by then women were starting to do equal work, and unequal behaviour was becoming unacceptable. In a New York court case in 1975, the term "sexual harassment" was heard for the first time - bottom pinching and lascivious remarks were on the way out.

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Office windows

Laws were written making sexual harassment illegal, and companies responded with love contracts - solemn declarations signed by employees, telling them who they could and couldn't date.

No-one took the blindest bit of notice.

But still, it's a long way from the offices that Gurley Brown worked in, which she said were, "sexier than Turkish harems, fraternity house weekends or the Playboy centrefold".

I'm now one of three women on the board of an insurance company and I can assure you that a less sexually charged environment would be quite hard to find.

But there's still a lingering obsession with top women executives who sexually exploit young men. There are plenty of examples in fiction. But real life examples? So far, zilch.

But that's the thing about sex and offices. Unless the jilted underling ends up putting a bullet in the boss's head - or they use the firm's email - you never get to hear about it.

This piece is based on an edited transcript of Lucy Kellaway's History of Office Life, produced by Russell Finch, of Somethin' Else, for Radio 4. Episode eight, Designing Office Space, is broadcast at 13:45 BST on 31 July

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