The Road to the Zombie Office

Barbara Stanwyck and Donald Cook as employees of the Gotham Trust Company in Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face, 1933


If we are what we eat—a notion that seems irrefutable in today’s food-fixated United States—then another corollary, at a time when personal identity often derives more from professional pursuits than private matters, would be that we are where we work. Whether that means a mahogany-paneled corner suite atop a high-rise corporate banking headquarters in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, or a Silicon Valley campus designed to feed the infantile appetites of tech geeks, or a hipster freelancer coworking facility recycled from an abandoned architectural relic of some long-ago economic boom, there has never been more diversity in the settings where American office employees spend their workdays.

In Cubed, his impressive but substantially flawed study of the modern office over the past two hundred years, Nikil Saval—an editor at n+1, where this, his first book, began as an essay—develops two subthemes with particular clarity and power. The first and more important is the increasing participation of women in the office workplace beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, a development that entailed a methodical limitation of tasks, pay, and prospects for advancement of women generally. The resulting disparity was not accidental, but began with, and ever since has followed remarkably closely, a standard established for federal employees as early as 1866, when legislators put an annual salary cap of $900 on female government employees, as opposed to a maximum of $1,200 to $1,800 for men.

For those of us whose professional lives have spanned the rise of the feminist movement from the 1970s onward and who have witnessed significant advances in gender equality over the intervening four decades, Saval’s account of the manifold indignities endured by female employees does not come as news. However, in much the same way that Matthew Weiner’s television series Mad Men dramatizes the tribulations of women who attempted to get ahead in what was during the 1960s still very much a man’s world, such effortful oppression can in retrospect seem astonishing even to people who witnessed it firsthand.

Saval makes little mention of Mad Men, but perhaps he felt there was no need to, given his close reading of two pop-cultural period pieces that cover much the same terrain: Jean Negulesco’s soapy career-girl film The Best of Everything (1959), which, like Weiner’s series, depicts the various ways in which women coped with the sexist, pre–Women’s Liberation workplace (in this movie, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s then-new Seagram Building in Manhattan); and Helen Gurley Brown’s best-selling how-to guides, Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and Sex and the Office (1964), which proposed that rather than trying to fend off the personal advances of male colleagues and superiors, young women should exploit their sexual allure to advance their careers.

In her Sex and the Office, Brown documented some rather…

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