Historical essay
She Works Hard for the Money

She Works Hard for the Money

It is officially summer in Madison. The air is moist, the boats are out, and I, like many other graduate students, have ventured outside of the hallowed halls of the university in search of summer income. For the next ten weeks or so, I will find myself plunked down in front of a computer, working and helping hapless characters who wander my way. (Actually that job description is not much different from my job as a TA except now I have a cubicle!)

It’s been several years since I’ve had a “real” job — before my son, before research, before grad school. It’s been interesting, though, to enter into this experience as a historian.  Few people I work with know or realize that I am a historian and, along with meeting my new co-workers and learning my various duties, I have also come to my job with an historian’s eye towards my workspace and encounters.

I’ve only just started but already I’ve come away with some fodder for my historian’s curiosity.

The first thing I noticed about my new job was the physical environment of my work space. I, like almost everyone else in the department, work in a cubicle – a make-shift office built out of interchangeable partitions. My “cube” is the reception area, so people are always bustling in, out, and around my space and, at the risk of sounding romantic, I am kind of fascinated by the cubicle. A nearly ubiquitous prop in the modern office setting, the cubicle is nothing if not a popular culture icon. The cubicle is a testament to Cold War conformity and productivity, as well as the symbol of the dehumanized employee.

The cubicle as we know it was invented in 1967 by inventor Robert Propst for the manufacturing company Herman Miller. Labelled the “Action Office,” Propst’s invention featured adjustable partitions and furniture that offered an alternative to the previous office arrangement of desks lined up in rows. What fascinates me the most is that while the the “Action Office” was intended to increase worker productivity, it was also intended to give workers better comfort and a sense of privacy. Thus, the cubicle – that symbol of office drudgery – was actually intended to give the worker some sense of autonomy within the corporate machine. Oh, the irony!

Emily’s Office. (Flicker)

While the cubicle orders and conditions my external physical space, it is something else that  affects my bodily space: the air conditioning. Public buildings and work spaces around the country have begun cranking up the A/C for summer in an attempt to keep workers, customers, and visitors cool, dry, and “comfortable.” Out my building windows I can see that, on the outside, my fellow Madisonians are interacting with the warm weather through the seasonal clothes-shedding ritual. As for me, however, I make my way through my workday bundled up like that kid in the snowsuit from A Christmas Story.

It was, for a long time, a mystery to me why businesses assumed that the comfortable temperature for their buildings, especially in summer, was somewhere between “meat locker” and “arctic snow den.” Like most things, the trend towards the chilly office has a rich historical context.

In 1959 two heating and refrigeration engineering groups merged to form the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers. The organization known as ASHRAE was funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Defense and set out to research ways of sustaining life in hostile environments. Naturally, this mission led them to set their sights on the modern office building. Air-conditioning offered a modern solution in the battle against nature: the ability to create a perfectly controlled environment. Office A/C was a weapon against the elements; it was a tool to be wielded and controlled by man. Incidentally, it also catered to a specific, gendered, worker: the besuited male executive.  The bosses were hot in their woolen three-pieces?  Crank up the A/C!  And lo, the frosty office was born.

men in suits
Men in suits.

One final aspect of my job that has piqued my historian’s interest has to do with a single word: multitasking.

As I mentioned, my work station is in the reception cube.  Along with other things, I do some light receptionist duties such as greeting clients, signing for mail, and answering the phone.  I guess one would say my job position requires the ability to multitask, as it is common to have several of the aforementioned occur simultaneously.  One well-meaning colleague made the multitasking requirement clear to me when he introduced himself to me on my first day as someone who had once done my job for one hour — an hour so busy with incoming people, mail, and calls that he vowed never to “help out” with that particular job again. Multitasking, he explained, was not something he could do.

Although I have no idea of the gender record of my office’s reception position, the use of the word “multitask” always raises some interesting questions for me as a gender historian.  It is pretty well documented that we as a society believe women to be better multitaskers than men.  It is one of the stories we tell ourselves to justify keeping men in positions of power (decision-making = singularity of mind) and women in “helper” roles (helping = flexibility as needed.)  When I think about the historical context of the word multitasking, I can’t help but think of the male executive / female assistant gendered division of office labor that emerged in the 1920s and, in large part, has remained to this day.

Personally, I think that most people prefer to focus on a single thing at a time, especially if they are working on something important.  At home, for example, I am infamous for declaring in the midst of a family/work/life crisis: “DON’T TALK TO ME RIGHT NOW I CANNOT DO TWO THINGS AT ONCE!!!!!”

But I don’t think it’s just me.  I think that we all multitask to some extent (um, hello, smartphones), and we all kind of suck at it. The difference, then, is that women are conditioned to accept a multitasking role while men are not.  Men, like my colleague, are allowed to verbally declare that they “Just! Can’t! Multitask!” while women, because they are women, are expected be able to juggle multiple things at once. It’s not that multitasking is in and of itself a bad thing. It’s the association of multitasking with an assumed lack of leadership abilities that make it dangerous.

I don’t believe my colleague was making a gender statement, but rather attempting to acknowledge and commend the hard work that goes into the receptionist’s position. And yet, whether he meant it to be it or not, his statement was gendered. Most people who do receptionist work are women.  Most of the “helper” jobs in American offices are still women. It appears that “multitasking” myth is stuck to American women like a hot Post-It note.  Unfortunately, judging by the relatively low pay of helper positions and the enduring lack of female leadership in American business, I don’t think it is is doing women any favors.

Featured image caption: Narcissa Sullivan. (Wikimedia)

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. Originally from Wyoming, she is now one of the many transplants to call Madison, Wisconsin home. She is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as a mother, a partner, a teacher, and a student of the world. In her academic life she studies midwifery, motherhood, and modernity in the American West. In her home life she studies crayon drawings and the physics of flying kisses.