Women in the Workplace


From Chapter 23: A Woman’s Manners in the Business World of Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette: A Guide to Gracious Living, 1959:

However competent she may be in business no woman should conduct herself in any but a dignified feminine manner. The brusque, unwomanly woman is anything but attractive in or out of business. And, equally, of course, the overly-feminine, coy female is just as uncomfortable to have around.

Business leaders are quite conscious of the fact that women in business are also pulled in the direction of domesticity. Either they are in the marriage market, with few exceptions, or involed in the dual and difficult role of marriage plus a career. Today more married women than single women are in business. They are there to earn their livings or to help out the family income. And most of htem have complete management of their homes as well.

… It’s hard to face this, but no woman can find happiness in putting career above her husband and family. Once she has taken on woman’s natural responsibilities, whatever work she undertakes must be done in a way that deprives the family the least for some deprivation they must endure if she works at all. Once encumbered she must have something very special in the way of talent to offer an employer to make hiring her worth while, at least while her children are young. Everywhere we meet women who seem to overcome the difficulties of the dual role, but the hard truth is that more women with young children fail at making happy homes while working full time than succeed.

With this in mind let us go on to the problems of women in business.

Secretarial schools send forth their fresh young graduates well equipped with elementary rules of office etiquette. As a result the American secretary is usually a well-mannered, poised young woman. The girl who has not gone through business school, however, and who comes to a firm in a junior executive capacity often has much to learn.


Appearance is of primary importance, of course. Neatness and quietness of apparel are important. Conservative hairdressing, makeup, and a minimum of jewelry are equally so. Sunback dresses, evening-sheer stockings, French heels, Mandarin nails, sweaters, and overwhelming perfume are taboo.


Employers are paying for time on the job, so women executives, junior or senior, should get to their work promptly and once in the office start the day with a minimum of primping and coloquy in the restroom. Make-up repair should be in private, never at a desk, except in a private office.

Taking Orders

One of the most important things a woman in business can learn is to take an order and carry it out. This requires listening to the order without interruption, then asking any necessary questions that may clarify it. The woman who cultivates the ability to listen, to grasp instructions, and to carry them out without chatter or argument gets on in a man’s world.

Smoking and Eating in the Office

Most organizations have rules concerning smoking on the job and eating at desks. If smoking is permitted, women should smoke in such a way that it does not interfere with work output. A chain-smoking woman is much more likely to be criticized than is a man with the same habit. Candy eating or coffee drinking, when permitted at a desk, should be done during a work-pause, then wrappers or containers removed from sight.

Telephone Calls

Even a well-placed woman executive limits her incoming and outgoing telephone calls. Social chit-chat in an office annoys other workers and, even when indulged in by an employer, sets a poor example.

Personal Letter Writing and Callers

Personal letters should not be written on office time, unless they are done during lunch hours. Friends and relatives should be strongly discouraged from visiting employees or even top executives. When such a visit does occur it should not be made a general social occasion.

The Woman Executive

A woman who achieves executive status of some kind must guard against being dictatorial at home as well as in the office. Men meet with their frustrations on the way up but not to the same degree, that is, on the ground of sex, as women. Therefore when a woman does arrive she tends to become irritatingly important. When she gives an order she wants action, and never mind the human element. It is very hard sometimes for a woman to continue to be warm and feminine and kindly once she has received business or professional recognition. Actually, she needs all these qualities more than ever if she is to keep on advancing and if her marital chances or relations are not to be harmed.

The very important woman is a tempting target for a jealous male associate. She rubs him the wrong way, threatens his position, overrides his suggestions, and tramples on his pride. She forgets the feminine graces and cajoleries and tries to meet him man-to-man. If women in business would only remember that they are women in businesses they would meet so much less resistance from men. No amount of professional conditioning will ever overcome the very real fact of femaleness.

Attitude Toward Other Women

It has been said many times that women have difficulty as executives because they treat other business women associates as implacable rivals, as if they were competing on a sexual rather than an intellectual level. This does seem to be true, that there is little real solidarity among women. It helps to be conscious of the competitive feeling and thus make an effort to modify it.


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