The Rules Are Different

***Spoiler alert: Contains dialogue transcription from episode 1.10 of Showtime’s Masters of Sex.***

One of my favorite television shows is Masters of Sex. I started watching it mainly because it’s chock-full of favorite actors, but it has a level of accuracy I’ve never seen before in depicting the real culture of the American 1950s, not the idealized version that a certain sort of older folks wax poetic about in their campaign speeches. Granted, I wasn’t there, but I’ve read enough about what it was like to be a woman throughout history and gay in America in the early-to-mid 20th century to know that this is an astonishing level of honesty. We’re all pretty aware that it was a crappy time to be female, homosexual, any religion outside a form of Protestantism, and/or any skin tone but white-as-can-be, right?

Still, even armed with awareness, the show sometimes catches me off-guard with the levels of misogyny and the ease with which it flows through both the male and female characters. Some of the women are as bad or worse than the men, some are fighting it, some are trying to use their awareness of it all as an advantage.

Julianne Nicholson deftly plays Dr. Lillian DePaul, a tough Cornell-educated gynecologist who is the only female doctor in the hospital, fighting to start an outreach program to make pap smears a standard part of women’s checkups, on a mission to get as many women checked as quickly as possible (N.B.: While most of the show is based on a biography of Masters and Johnson, DePaul is a fictional character for the show). When she learns that it has been approved, she tells her only supporter and confidante, Virginia Masters (Lizzy Caplan), that the money is a joke, barely enough to cover a minimum-wage secretary and some mimeographs.

Virginia: “Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither are outreach clinics. You’ll get it funded, eventually.”

Lillian: “Eventually isn’t good enough. I wasted three months on that proposal, laying groundwork, sucking up to the administration.”

Virginia (laughs softly): “I’m sorry, sucking up?”

Lillian: “I’ve been perfectly polite with the board.”

Virginia: “I’m sure you have been polite. You might want to try… being pleasant.”

Lillian: “What does pleasant have to do with women’s health? Cervical cancer isn’t pleasant. Bill Masters isn’t pleasant.”

Virginia: “That’s true, but the rules are different for men and women. Trust me, a little charm goes a long way.”

The scene of the conversation, two smart women ducking and covering during a national nuclear attack drill. Oh, those 1950s!

The scene of the conversation, two smart women ducking and covering during a national nuclear attack drill. Oh, those 1950s!

This conversation highlights a problem I’ve been trying to work out for decades. On the face of it, the advice to be charming is across-the-board good advice to the point of having multiple cliches that reinforce the concept. What does that have to do with gender, though?

There seem to be two main schools of thought when it comes to women’s success in the workplace. One involves taking on the more brutish aspects of “acting like a man” like making cold and heartless decisions just to show power, being ultra-competitive, and even going so far as dressing to hide one’s femininity. If that’s who you naturally are, well, that’s who you are. Lillian DePaul is played as one of those, but we do see these cracks where it is clearly hurting her, to be so closed off. As a female doctor in the 1950s it is easy to imagine that style being absolutely necessary to staying sane, let alone finding any measurable success. My problem is in the concept that this should be something to strive for if it is not natural.

The other school suggests using your feminine wiles to your advantage, much like Virginia Masters. Not sleeping your way to the top (although that could practically be called a third school of its own) but flirting and showing off how feminine you are. Again, not all charmers are even aware of doing this or female, let alone behaving in such a manner on purpose, but I’m talking about making a point of strategically flirting with men you want to impress solely as a competitive advantage.

It’s no secret that women have to work harder at the same job to get the same amount of credit, pay, and perks that an equivalent man gets. It’s not fair and needs to be addressed further in law but the political fight is just one piece. It’s the social aspects that are more worrisome because they can’t be changed with some ink and paper. A socially awkward man might find it harder to advance due to troubles schmoozing, but a socially awkward woman is more likely to go unnoticed, no matter how stellar her work might be. A man who doesn’t conform to workplace norms in dress and grooming might be teased (mostly behind his back) but a similar woman is likely to be subjected to outright and open derision. A man who announces he has gotten engaged or is going to have a baby gets pure congratulations on his good fortune, while a woman in the same position has her ability to continue in her career questioned, whether in whispers or directly. When you do get noticed, “Women are often evaluated for promotions primarily on performance, while men are often promoted on potential,” according to diversity officers surveyed by McKinsey and Company. I could write a book of such examples of double standards, but I suspect you get the gist.

It is very hard to prove that you were passed up for promotion due to gender if you were passed up because superiors ignored the quality of your work or potential all along, due to gender.

The popularity of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is a very good step. Women do need to put more faith in themselves, aim higher, and demand the treatment they deserve. It is also important that we don’t lose our very selves in the process.

Multiple studies have shown that companies with women in upper-level positions, especially sitting on corporate boards and executive committees perform better by all metrics. It is hard to believe that effect could be so strong if all of these women had to shed their “femininity” to get to such positions or if they all flirted their way up and got positions that were not earned in other ways, such as education, hard work, and using their brains and talent. Gender diversity improves a team, and the bottom line, by leaps and bounds.

The old schools of thought made sense in the 70s and 80s, when women were just figuring out how to get out of the social prison and into the workplace in more meaningful ways, to have careers rather than jobs when they did choose to leave the home to work. We owe these women, big time. Even the anti-feminist women who have made careers out of railing against equal rights for women owe a huge debt of gratitude to those they complain about.

“Feminist” may have become a “dirty” word lately, but even women who don’t identify with that word are behaving like feminists, and that is more important than any label. In the developed world women are becoming the dominant recipients of bachelor’s and more advanced degrees, more women are becoming the primary breadwinners even in two-adult heterosexual households, and we’re refusing to let obstacles be anything more than hurdles, en masse. Those entering the workplace now are doing it in a very different world than those who came before and are far more likely to find the support of their families, friends, and colleagues, support that can make a huge difference in confidence levels, which in turn will give younger women far more ability to demand the equality they deserve.

I’m looking forward to a day when someone like Marissa Mayer isn’t a headline (outside of the business media that covers every CEO appointment, naturally), when people don’t squawk in disbelief that a woman could actually be a geek AND a pretty blond AND truly intelligent AND not always easy to get along with AND tough AND a wife and mother AND a hard worker who puts the business first AND be a complex human being that can’t be easily explained in a bio. I’m glad 50% of the new astronaut class is female, but I wish that wasn’t such an aberration that it’s worth even noting. I ache for a time when the successes and failures of women aren’t attributed in any way to their gender, or considered the successes or failures of an entire gender. I’d love to see the professional bio of a working mother that doesn’t include the term “working mother” or the bio of a working father that does include “working father” because, until either variation becomes the norm, even our bios don’t have equality, let alone the human beings behind them.

For now, though, we must celebrate every woman who succeeds in her own way, loudly and with as much enthusiasm as we can, because we need every little girl to know how high she can aim and to see that her choices are her own, regardless of what her parents or teachers or religious leaders or society itself may try to tell her. At the same time, we need to figure out how to prepare them for the reality of entrenched workplace misogyny without discouraging them. I was raised on the idea that I could do absolutely anything, as a child of the late 70s-early 80s, and it is true in many ways. When I entered my first career I was prepared for outright harassment of the Mad Men type, thanks to new laws being a hot topic, not the subtle kind that is hard to pin down and stand up to, the kind that makes you question if your value lies in your work or your body, the kind that is far more pervasive in this litigious age. I brushed a lot of things off at the time that weren’t big deals as single incidents, but were part of a pattern that I couldn’t see without hindsight. Then there is the even deeper problem of unintentional misogyny, the ingrained attitudes that make people act without realizing they are being discriminatory. A few lessons in how to deal with and even succeed such an atmosphere or at least a heads-up of what a woman might encounter could go a long way in salvaging self-confidence and making women stand up more for themselves and others.

It’s very hard to stand up when you are starting out. Who wants to risk a career that is just budding?

If you are working in an environment where you don’t have women above you, who else might have the power to stand up for you or your peers?

Not every woman should or wants to go into a large corporation or a professional field like medicine, I’m just using that type of position here because it is the most studied and written about by experts. Not every woman wants a career at all, either, and that is perfectly valid. The point is that we need to find ways to do what we want without compromising our own morals and values, and we should be working together to make the workplace an environment that is better for everyone, regardless of place on the gender spectrum. We’ve come a long, long way since a female gynecologist was an unusual thing, let’s honor the real-life Dr. DePauls who blazed trails for us by taking this the rest of the way.

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