Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mad Men and Women CEOs

Virginia Rometty has been appointed as the first ever women-CEO of IBM. It is striking how women now sit atop three storied technology companies; HP, Xerox and IBM. The news of Rometty’s appointment contrasts with the picture of men and women at work as depicted in the television series Mad Men. I have been watching the series on DVD starting with the first year of episodes. For those of you who are not familiar with the series, it portrays the members of an advertising firm in the U.S.  at the cultural turning point, when the 1950s become the 1960s. The underlying theme is women’s experiences at home and at work, and how these experiences paved the way for their coming into consciousness and power in the succeeding decades.

What strikes viewers is the amount of drinking and sexual exchange that takes place in the fictional advertising office. Men have no compunctions commenting on the sexual qualities of the secretaries who work for them, and there are sexual affairs between the advertising professionals, all men but for one, and the secretaries. Also, the men drink a great deal of liquor over the course of the workday and smoking is ubiquitous.  The picture is one in which men’s impulses are gratified, through sex, alcohol and tobacco. We might call the setting “de-sublimated.”

Now working in advertising may itself stimulate sexual fantasies. After all, companies use sexual innuendo to sell products. But informants who lived through that time tell me that, in the main, the picture is not exaggerated. We have of course come a long way from these arrangements. Women are much less likely to be treated as sex objects, and they have been welcomed into top teams. Hence the appointments of women to the CEO positions of technology companies, a typically male bastion.

One argument is that the pendulum has swung to far, that a climate of sexual puritanism now pervades the work world, and that political correctness, with its rigid behavioral norms and prescriptions, stifles pleasure and camaraderie at work. It may be dangerous for a man to hug a women colleague in an expression of gratitude and affection, as he might readily do with a male colleague.  I think there is some truth to this argument, but I want to point to a different issue.

If impulses are controlled and sexuality suppressed, it suggests that people are working harder. After all, the decline in overt sexual exchange at work has been accompanied by the disappearance of the "three martini lunch," a lunch that could last 2-3 hours with men returning inebriated and hardly fit for work. One wonders if the puritanism of the work world is one outcome of an increasingly competitive marketplace; one in which companies in other parts of the world take market-share from US companies. After all, the U.S. no longer has enviable living standards, as it did upon emerging as the only economy not devastated by World War Two. Indeed, wealth may no longer be associated with leisure. A study reported in the Wall Street Journal showed that since 1965, upper income professionals have increased the number of hours they work annually, “while total annual working time for low-skill, low-income workers has decreased.” (http://blogs.wsj.com/wealth/2010/09/30/do-the-rich-work-harder-than-others/)

I am led to ask the following. If puritanism suppresses pleasure, does it also suppress creativity?  Freud argued that creativity was sexuality sublimated, in the sense that the passion and urge to create, to be led by one’s fantasies, draws on the internal working model we have of sexual relatedness. We link our skills to our capacity for anticipation, and the excitement it generates, to “give birth” to something new. Or to put it in modern terms, creativity and sexual relatedness draw on the same pleasure circuits in the brain.  It is not uncommon for example, for men and women who work together intensely on projects through evenings and weekends, to have affairs. The intensity of the work and the collaboration stimulate sexual feelings.

One hopes for a climate of what we could call “adult sexuality,” in which sexual feelings are acknowledged but not acted upon. Men and women would take notice and pride in the sexuality of the other, but there would be no affairs and no sexual exploitation. Instead, as Freud suggests, these feelings would fuel the creative process. But this may be a bridge too far, We may be confined to a new puritanism, and if so, one has to ask, what costs does this culture impose?

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