Sex and work: much the same since 1860

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Is a stenographer’s diploma a “licence to a life of lewdness”? Should female office staff work in cages to protect them from wandering hands? It’s a tough life for a working woman – and the working man doesn’t seem to come off any better.

Office romances are fairly common, and it’s not usually an issue for HR until it crosses the line into inappropriate behaviour – or ends badly requiring awkward interventions from management.

Check out some of these HR disasters from history professor Julie Berebitsky’s Sex and the Office: A History of Gender, Power and Desire:

•    In 1861 a boss at the U.S. Treasury was investigated for running “orgies and bacchanals” in his office.

•    In 1958 a secretary at drugs company Eli Lilly shot her boss in his white Cadillac when she found him carrying on with a newer, younger assistant. The company’s response? Ban white Cadillacs for senior staff.

•    Guidebooks for working women in the 1920s told women they’d likely encounter a “Felix the Feeler”, but it was their job as a modern woman to know how to handle him. If they couldn’t, they would have to quit because men were the “valued employees”, according to the books.

•    In the 1936 film Wife vs. Secretary there’s a woman whose husband cheats with his secretary is told by her mother-in-law: “It’s horrible but you mustn’t be too hard on him. … You wouldn’t blame a little boy for stealing a piece of candy if left in a room with a whole boxful.”
 

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