The first woman was appointed to a Cabinet position when Franklin Roosevelt was elected President in 1933. The appointment caused a great outcry and much resistance from male counterparts who objected to Roosevelt putting a woman in such an important role, especially when the country was struggling to find a way out of the Great Depression. Roosevelt held firm, and Frances Perkins, a social worker, became Secretary of Labor.
Many people wondered why Perkins would want or accept such a difficult position. Her answer to that question was:
“The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats.”
Her accomplishments during her tenure as Secretary of Labor are legendary. Perkins was concerned about workplace safety, and she insisted on child labor laws and work hour limitations. She established the Civilian Conservation Corps which helped move our country out of the Great Depression, and she is credited with passage of the Social Security Act to support the elderly.
Perkins had to survive–and succeed–as a woman in a male-dominated arena. She had to learn how to work with men who felt she was incapable, who disagreed with her ideas, and who opposed her efforts. At meetings, she took notes on the behavior of the other attendees (ie, men). She called her observations “Notes on the Male Mind,” and she kept these in a red envelope, an image that can’t help but make you smile.
If you, too, work in a mostly male environment, you might want to take a lesson in organizational dynamics from Perkins’s envelope. I am not suggesting you adopt the behaviors you observe or that you change your personal work style, but you do need to understand office culture and colleague behavior so you can learn to manage it successfully. Examples to observe might include the use of sports analogies, conducting business on the golf course or over drinks, or the acceptance of using profanity. You may also see subtle, or even blatant, sexism, pay inequity, anger, competition, bullying, and microaggression,
On the positive side, observe how men conduct business conversations, where they sit in meetings, how they get their ideas across, and how they get a decision they want. Watch how they respond when a proposal is rejected, a budget is cut, an account is lost, or they are publicly criticized. Pay attention to acceptable work habits, use of leave time, and time in rank.
There will be useful lessons in your observations, so don’t just file them away in a red envelope. Instead, use them to better understand your workplace, to grow professionally, and to help level the playing field for women.
And the next time you are in Washington, DC, walk down Constitution Avenue to the Department of Labor Frances Perkins Building and salute Perkins for being such a great role model.