MT 40: Woman ascending

How did the simpering secretary of the '60s workplace shape up into the confident executive of today? EMMA DE VITA traces her journey.

Last Updated: 27 Jan 2016

Flicking through the early issues of MT, you'd be forgiven for thinking that most women at work in the 1960s and '70s were mini-skirted secretaries who draped themselves over dictation machines whenever they weren't making tea for the boss. 'Don't get us wrong,' says a Dictaphone ad of 1971.

'We've got nothing against stunning-looking girls if they do their jobs properly, but how many of them do? Even when they're around, their minds are someplace else. Like in a discotheque with George.'

Of all the business revolutions MT has chronicled over the past four decades, it is the role of women that has altered most dramatically. The fact that Dictaphone's ad is now met with hilarity is a sign of how much things have changed - British office life of the '60s is as foreign to modern woman as Mars.

MT criticised the female secretary's low status early on. An April 1972 feature 'The Secret of Secretaries' explored the administrative underbelly of the time. The secretary, observed MT, is much more than a typist: 'She is a symbol of rank, a token of office. She is the boss's alter ego, his female batman, his personal machine operator. She variously carries symbols sexual, maternal, connubial; and like her boss is swept up and possessed by these symbolic roles. Part function, part adornment, a drudge and a pillar of strength to her boss, a Sancho Panza, a Madame de Pompadour.'

Admonishing the male manager for the inefficient use of his workday other half, MT espoused the idea that women, who 'seldom get a chance to prove their abilities' at work, should be tasked with more challenging jobs than filing, taking dictation or sewing on the boss's buttons.

This would help prevent the 'passive aggression' that the 'repressed' secretary surely felt - although MT wouldn't be burning any bras just yet, mentioning as it did 'that rare band of first-class secretaries who perform a multiplicity of roles, from ordering a dinner for 12 to planning the boss's safari, often including herself on the itinerary as the bedmate'.

There were exceptions to the rule. Take, for example, the pioneering 'entrepreneuse' Mrs Gina Franklin, who featured in the 1967 article 'The Business of Public Relations'. The formidable Franklin, who had founded an all- female PR firm in 1950, was photographed with her sturdy shoes, pearls and a clasp handbag that could comfortably hide a brick.

An unlikely looking feminist, she'd taken the radical step of hiring only women because 'in a man's world, a woman has to work just that much harder to compete and to become accepted and, frankly, I find women make better public relations officers. They work harder and have a better flair for understanding.'

Her male contemporaries disagreed. In a 1973 Department of Education survey of (presumably male) personnel directors and man- agers, more than 40% thought 'a woman's place was in the home'. In 1974, only 1.8% of UK managers were women. The message from the establishment was clear: as an employee, a woman was likely to be inferior to a man.

MT proved them wrong. A seminal 1977 feature, 'Women in Management', included rare interviews with the few women to have made it into the boardroom.

One was Felicity Green, the Mirror Group's director of publicity who, despite her considerable achievements, found herself 'patted on the head and addressed as the little woman on average once a week'. She confided: 'I think the obstacles facing women are so enormous that it takes a superhuman effort for them to get to the same level as men. The process of elimination on the way to the top is so intensive that only a tiny proportion of women get through. They're ex- cellent - you never get a dud woman in a senior position - but, oh so few in number.'

Without a wife to keep the house, look after the kids and iron her blouses, a career woman was always going to be at a disadvantage. Even if she did reach the upper echelons of management, the rewards were few. 'The unkindest cut of all is that, despite honourable exceptions,' wrote MT in the 1977 feature, 'industry as a whole is a male-oriented, male-dominated bastion of discrimination against women.'

Business may have been a men-only club, but politics wasn't. The arrival in 1979 of Britain's first female prime minister was a key moment in the history of the career woman. Margaret Thatcher trod an alternative path for women, and men had to take note - the female boss had landed. Suddenly, career women were hot property - MT coined its own term for this new species: 'the femanager' (catchy, eh?).

At first, these femanagers were regarded by male colleagues as oddities.

An anonymous female interviewee revealed in 1981: 'When you first start (at a company), you have got to be very, very careful, as you are greeted with a great deal of curiosity, and they (the men) come and look at you and talk to you, to try and find out what you are like ... it's as if they have never encountered the female of the species before.'

Without a business role model to follow, female first-time managers often emulated men - shoulder pads and all - and took them on at their own game. Not only did they have to prove they could do the job without any of the female hysterics expected of them, they had to be seen to do it better. Said one 30-something female executive in 1981: 'If I were a male in my job, I don't think I would suffer so much from self-imposed work overload. I feel, as a woman, I have to prove myself in a career.'

For those who rose to the challenge, success came at a personal price.

Interviewed by MT in 1981, one young manager said: 'It's an advantage at work to be single, as I think you're taken more seriously, especially in terms of promotion.' Married women, especially those with children, were assumed to be less ambitious.

A high-flying woman in a long-term relationship might be susceptible to pressure from her partner to rein back her ambition and put his career first. Said a top female executive, divorced and in her fifties, in 1981: 'I don't think men will ever accept women earning more than them in a relationship. You see, the women don't only leave their husbands behind financially, they leave them behind mentally.'

For some women, setting up their own business allowed them to get ahead without the strictures, discrimination and obstacles of corporate life. It afforded them autonomy, achievement and a means of combining their work life with raising a family. 'If you can't join 'em, beat 'em,' advised MT in January 1985 in a feature that pointed to an exciting 'major revolution in the role of women in business'.

One such revolutionary was ethics girl Anita Roddick. Co-founder of the Body Shop with her husband Gordon, she was unconventional in many respects - critical of the City and an outspoken businesswoman. She also made much of her ethical trading. Interviewed by MT in March 1996, the 53-year-old Roddick asked rhetorically (and now ironically, considering Dame Anita's sale of the firm this year to L'Oreal): 'Who wants another bloody faceless cosmetics company? If I thought I had worked 20 years in this company and it would end up an Estee Lauder, I'd pack up and go home today.'

The female entrepreneur was a phenomenon the business world couldn't ignore - by 1997, a third of all new businesses in Britain were founded by women. Yet the prejudice remained. Interviewed by MT in January 1998, Linda Bennett, founder of upmarket shoe chain LK Bennett, admitted: 'When you are starting out, I think you get taken a lot less seriously than a man would be.'

Isolated, discriminated against, juggling the conflicting demands of home and work, some corporate women had put on their armour and gone forth as hard-nosed Alexis Colby clones, sacrificing their femininity to get ahead in the only way available: on men's terms. Our inaugural 1999 list of 'Britain's Most Powerful Women', for example, included Carol Galley, the 50-year-old fund manager, whose nickname was the ball-breaking 'Ice Maiden'.

Yet by the turn of the century the aggressive Dynasty-style role model was unravelling . Our 1999 list showed that powerful and influential businesswomen defied stereotyping: they were neither just nice and reasonable nor tough and macho. 'You don't need to be completely determined and ruthless,' said Marjorie Scardino, new head of Pearson and the FTSE-100's first female CEO. 'You have to be confident enough to be yourself.' (Seven years later, there are still only two female bosses in the FTSE-100.)

With one of the last symbolic barriers to female progress smashed, breathing space was afforded for a reassessment of the way women were working. Was business success worth the personal sacrifice? Lorna Tilbian, the 40-ish, Maserati-owning, divorced executive director at WestLB Panmure, told MT readers in 1999: 'Money doesn't buy you health, happiness, peace of mind or, for that matter, love.'

Her reservations touched a raw nerve with both sexes. 'Is Your Life Working?', the magazine demanded in the same year. The results of a 2,000-strong survey published in August '99 showed that 60% of women executives frequently felt stressed at work and 50% would be looking for a new job in the next 12 months. And the menfolk were no happier. MT found that senior managers were making big sacrifices in their personal lives to keep up with the rat-race - and many felt unappreciated.

The impending new millennium brought a reassessment of personal lifestyles.

As the vestiges of '80s yuppiedom worked their way out of our collective system, people began entertaining sensitive new concepts such as 'down- shifting' and 'work/life balance'. For men, it was acceptable - even enviable - to jack in your City job for a life on the farm or to go and start up your own

And although 'Superwomen' like City fund manager Nicola Horlick had proved that it was possible to hold down a megabucks job in high finance, raise children and still look happy and glamorous, the shards from the smashed glass ceiling still cut. But could most women really expect to Have It All? Did they even want it all?

MT's first '35 Women Under 35' list of high-flying young businesswomen appeared in 2001, and the feeling was cautiously optimistic. Two years later, the mood was ebullient - a new breed of quietly confident women was emerging, all determined to live a well-rounded life in and out of the office, and unafraid of doing things their way. 'The new woman,' wrote MT, 'no longer leaves her persona at home when she goes to the office.'

This year's list shows a generation of women confident in their ability and their femininity - and conquering new ground. We included a space mission scientist, a North Sea oil rig manager, a haulier, a mining financier, a whisky distiller, an airline airport manager, the head of a stock exchange and the 24-year-old founder of a metal-pressing shop.

The contrast between 1966 and 2006 could not be greater. Where once we complained that 'the thing about Elsie was that she always looked great but her tea wasn't so hot' (a 1968 ad for disposable cups), we now celebrate the achievements of women as business leaders.

And there is much to celebrate. In 1974, just 1.8% of managers were women; in 2005, the figure was 33.1%. In '74, only 0.6% of directors were female; in '05, 14.4%. The numbers are encouraging, but there's a long way to go.

What might the next 40 years hold? MT's wish is for true parity on a professional and personal level - and for 90% of FTSE-100 firms to have women in the boardroom other than those serving the tea and biscuits.

1966: Patronised and marginalised, most office women in the '60s were confined to the typing pool. Their main role was to help the men perform their duties, as this ad in MT reminds us.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Books for the weekend: Daniel Goleman, Jack Welch, Nelson Mandela

Beaverbrooks CEO Anna Blackburn shares her reading list.

What happens next: COVID-19 lessons from Italian CEOs

Part I: Marco Alvera, chief executive of €15bn Lombardy-based energy firm Snam, on living with...

Coronavirus communications: Dos and don'ts

Uncertainty and isolation make it more important than ever to be seen, to be heard...

Leadership lessons: Mervyn Davies, former CEO of Standard Chartered and trade minister

"People talk about pressure – I worked 24 hours a day. There is more pressure...

How to reinvent your career through motherhood and midlife

Pay it Forward podcast: Former Marie Claire editor-in-chief Trish Halpin and BITE managing editor Nicky...