How I Survived the Mad Men Era and Lived to Talk about It

030815_MadmenThose were the days my friend, in the mad, mad world of Mad Men fame. Only for me, it was the financial world of King & Bay Streets in Toronto. The world of Finance, Accountants, Lawyers, Big Tobacco, Advertising, Publishing – the whole gambit.

When I look back on that era in my life, I try not to think about it for too long.

We were Bell-trained, customer service was paramount, and we had to think, multitask and problem-solve. Many of us were good at what we did and hopped to it. The only things missing were the white gloves and the equal paycheque. However, there certainly was a “dark side.”

I literally served tea in china cups with Peak Frean cookies on a tea wagon from office to office in my junior job for an accounting firm every afternoon at 3:00pm. Yup, it’s true. The protocol was to address everyone by the surnames, always. This company morphed into an international company everyone recognizes today.

In those days it was implied, though never stated, you “had” to buy prezzies for the boss’ wife, pick up dry cleaning, run personal errands, etc.

Generally we were expected to have two weeks’ worth of wardrobe changes, including the matching shoes, handbags, jewelry and complimentary outwear. Stockings, garter belts and then, glory hallelujah, pantyhose came on the scene. All on the salary of a secretary, even though it was a respected position, so it was impossible to live on your own. Living at home or marry early were the only choices for most young women.

My inner advocate showed up early as I was the first one to sport a pant suit, circa 1967. I can still remember the fear was so strong that day heading into the office. The only other time I felt this way was refusing to answer questions about my sexual history knowing I could be held in contempt. Imagine that much fear in exercising my right to wear what I wanted within the dress code of my profession. What was the basis for this fear? I didn’t get permission from my boss first.

At this same firm of accountants, I remember asking one of the senior partners if RRSPs were smart to buy with my monetary scrapings as they had just come on the scene. His answer? “Oh don’t bother till you’re about 45. Besides, your husband will deal with that.” Yup – that’s what he said all right.

I was secretary for 11 senior partners. When the other secretary that worked for two was away one day, I was ordered by one of her bosses to type something for him immediately. I assessed the situation and I respectfully said I would get to it just as soon as I finished what I was doing. Lo and behold he started demanding in an abusive voice that I do his work immediately, slamming his fist on my desk. I don’t know where the courage came but I got up and left telling stating I wouldn’t be back until he apologized.

In all my years there was only one man I worked for who was a gem – respectful, considerate and fair. But another finance firm? Yikes. I’d had enough with seven years in accounting.

I decided upon my return to the workforce after having two children, that being a temp was a much better approach. You were a hero wherever you went and there wasn’t enough time to get mired in office politics – or the boss’ emerging attachment or disdain because he was attracted and not mature enough to know how to deal with it.

In one of these instances, when assigned to the president of a high end retailer on Bloor Street, he was walking by my desk one day and dropped a piece of paper. He looked at me with the expectation I would jump out of my chair, walk over to where he was and pick it up for him. Of course I didn’t. And of course I got fired.

Later at a high end ad agency, after screening applicants for a receptionist position, I put forth a few candidates, of which one was gay. After the interview, my boss called me in furiously and fired me. Hmm…and here I was under the delusion there was this thing called equality. Ha ha ha, young woman that I was.

Finally I starting taking ownership of myself and stated during the next job interview “I don’t shop for wives or mistresses, tell stories, or keep track of your whereabouts for them either.” I got the job. But I realized later that I was just a challenge for him. Shortly thereafter, the boss started having an affair with a new Dolly Dimples in an entry level position. He knew I knew and I was fired because my shorthand was, ahem, not fast enough, even though it was 75 wpm and my typing (that’s what we called it in those days) was 108 wpm on a typewriter. Once again, it wasn’t my skills, it was my attitude. How dare I expect equal treatment and the money that should have gone with it.

Moving right along, after working five years for the VP of major mutual fund company, he fired me two months short of my pension being vested even though I had had a good review a few months prior. The reason, I figured later, was it got married over the Christmas holidays and I wasn’t “his girl” anymore.

And this was the same boss that expected me to go for “silver bullets” 3x a week after work, or my work got picked on. Most people drank at lunch and of course after work. Alcoholism was rampant now that I think about it.

And here’s a little ditty from my sister’s experience as stock broker. Walking into the office, on her day off no less but still professionally dressed, she was called into her boss’ office. He stated “I don’t ever want to see you in this office with anything other than a three-piece pin striped suit.” Her retort was, “So does that mean I have to inform you when I have my period too?” She left immediately. And shortly thereafter she left the company too. It must have been something in our family genes. We expected equality and respect – no matter the gender, age or ability.

After a couple of career changes, I finally decided to run my own business. It was one of thee very best things I ever did. I was the best boss I’d ever had. I was allowed time off when I needed, was paid fairly, never felt the need for vacation – and – I didn’t mind “sleeping with the boss.”

– Sharon Danley