How Sexism Shaped Corporate Culture

From condescending bosses to the perceived illegitimacy of catering and cleaning jobs, a notion of the workplace conceived nearly 100 years ago still influences how Americans interact with their superiors.

A woman being trained as a mechanic at the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1942 (Library of Congress)

When the real-estate startup WeWork recently terminated a contracting agreement to bring its cleaning staff in-house, the company claimed that “every employee is part of the WeWork family.” By using the word “family,” it invoked a longstanding management tradition whose problematic provenance it may not have been aware of. Family metaphors are assumed to have positive connotations, but, as revisionists have long pointed out, family dynamics do not map evenly onto labor justice. Indeed, many people got to work to escape their families.

Consider the hierarchy of labor that exists in a typical family. For the longer part of the last century, women performed the majority of chores and childrearing, and men left the home to earn a living. The work of maintenance and care was designated “reproduction,” as opposed to something more economically crucial—“production.” The divide between work and leisure relied not on a social contract, but a sexual one: The breadwinner’s needs were expected to be met by an implied partner. Today, when men and women have professional opportunities that are closer to equal, time-use data still shows women have less leisure time than men.

So when a company contracts out service work, from catering to cleaning, it reinforces a line separating housework from “real” work, maintaining outdated assumptions about who should do what. Creative jobs are deemed valuable and thus worthy of analysis by budgeting and recruitment teams, while maintenance work is more or less disposable (and, often, invisible to those who benefit from it).

Old notions of domesticity and family have influenced work culture in subtler ways. The original idea of the company as a family can be discerned between the lines of the work of Elton Mayo, a charismatic Australian who taught at Harvard Business School during the interwar years. Mayo was a pioneer in the field of “Human Relations,” a management trend that sought to provide a more caring and empathetic bond between employers and employees.

In the 1920s, he conducted a nine-year study of worker behavior at the Chicago plant of Western Electric, AT&T’s manufacturing arm. Inspired by Sigmund Freud, Mayo regarded the observed “reveries” of unproductive workers in repetitive assembly jobs as evidence of psychological “disequilibrium.” To remedy this, he and his fellow researchers analyzed tens of thousands of employee interviews in order to devise guidelines for supervisors to learn how to listen to workers’ troubles. Alleviating employees’ anxieties was seen as a solution to productivity problems and retention. The whole arrangement—a consoling ear, a desire to impress superiors—resembled a parent-child dynamic.

Mayo’s belief in the talking cure for the neurotic worker was derived from the psychologist Jean Piaget, who is famous for outlining the stages of child development. Applied to the workplace, Piaget’s ideas of cognitive maturity held that the individual was obliged to submit to “the laws of cooperation” and abandon selfish behavior to demonstrate appropriate social integration. Those deemed “uncooperative” by observers could be expelled from studies—which is what happened to two women studied in the Hawthorne Plant’s Relay Room—and ultimately the workplace itself.

Mayo’s theories allowed managers to behave in an authoritative manner “in the guise of a paternalistic interest,” wrote Andrzej Huczynski in his book Management Gurus. The manager as father figure embodied a caring benevolence that rewarded submissive workers. The family metaphor has additional benefits for the firm, as it promotes corporate harmony by making internal competition taboo. (Today, in high-pressure workplaces, this taboo appears to be dissolving. Amazon’s anonymous peer-review system brings to mind children ratting on siblings who misbehave.) Perhaps, in spite of his theories, Elton Mayo saw the limitations of the domestic unit. After all, he lived a continent away from his wife and family for much of his professional career.

Today, the modern workplace ideals of equal opportunity and diversity leave little room for the paternalistic metaphor of the corporate family. Or do they? Unhappy workplaces feature all of the worst aspects of intimate relationships: They are needy (long hours), they punish by withholding love (promotions), they require obligatory felicities (email at any hour) and compulsory socializing (networking drinks). In this context, I can think of two ways the word “family” makes sense in explaining contemporary work: There is no choice but to belong, and the best means of escape is to learn to fend for ourselves.