Other Relics Of The ‘Mad Men’ Era That Obama Could Have Mentioned In The State Of The Union


Last night, President Obama set feminist and pop culture-oriented hearts aflutter during the State of the Union when he sounded a call for equal pay for women, declaring “A woman deserves equal pay for equal work. She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship – and you know what, a father does, too. It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a Mad Men episode.”

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was quick to acknowledge the nod, telling the New York Times, “I support the president, and I’m honored that our show is part of a much-needed national conversation.” But it’s a testament to the complexity of Mad Men‘s portrait of work–and a sad reflection on the state of our national employment laws–that policies governing pay and leave for women aren’t the only relics of the Mad Men era that remain in effect in America’s workplaces.

Remember Salvatore Romano, the art director from the old days of Sterling Cooper? Don Draper, who’d previously been relatively neutral on the fact that Sal was gay, later fired him for refusing to sleep with Lee Garner, Jr., a client who was mercurial enough to threaten to pull the Lucky Strike account if he didn’t get what he wanted. Sal would have certainly been helped by advances in sexual harassment law–in fact, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints filed by all sorts employees of the various iterations of Sterling Cooper would have made for hilarious, depressing, and most of all, voluminous, reading.

But President Obama’s Mad Men remarks about equal pay were coupled with a noticeable quiet on another bit of policy that would have protected Sal: the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. It’s astonishing that we still don’t have federal legislation in place to protect people from being fired because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, or to forbid the steering of jobs away from candidates because of who they love or how they identify.

It’s probably easier for President Obama to get a jolt out of Congress and folks at home by referencing America’s problems with women and work, because the U.S. legal protections for women on the job lag so far behind so many other countries. But in the joy of our rush to marriage equality, ENDA remains a shockingly unfinished bit of business. It’s wonderful gay couples can get the legal recognition their marriages deserve, and all the legal protections and responsibilities that come with it. But there’s something harshly dissonant about the fact that those protections fade away on the journey from home to work, no matter how welcoming an office’s individual policies are.

And if Obama wants to continue the Mad Men metaphor out on the road, Sterling Cooper & Partners’ first African-American employee, Dawn Chambers, might guide some of his thinking. It took Mad Men five years to hire a non-white employee, and then they hired a secretary, someone the white owners of the firm believed they wouldn’t have to promote, rather than a creative worker. Given the way that African-American women have benefitted more slowly from the recovery from the Great Recession than members of other groups, Obama might consider parsing paycheck fairness and employment discrimination in a little more detail.

Of course, Mad Men, with its portraits of martini-soaked lunches, Don Draper’s fumbling attempts to build a creative partnership with a woman–Peggy Olsen–for the first time, and the company’s stiff response to Dawn on the occasion of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, are all a reminder of another truth Obama didn’t acknowledge. Policy will do a great deal to make the workplace more fair for women, people of color, and gay and transgender workers. But culture and custom have to shift dramatically, too, to make the job a truly welcoming and inclusive place. If the pace of our progress on law and culture from the Mad Men era to now is any indication, we’ve got a lot of difficult battles ahead.