By Susan Alexander
Inch by inch, we move towards gender equality in a host of ways. When we compare today’s workplace, for example, with the one portrayed on the current TV drama “Mad Men,” depicting a New York advertising agency in the early 1960s, the contrast is striking. Men dominate the agency. They are the decision-makers and the bright creative types (only one woman has broken in so far). All of the other women at the agency (called “girls,” regardless of their age)? THEY TYPE.
What progress have we made since then? “Mad Men” illustrates one of my favorite examples: the enthusiastic adoption by males of what used to be an almost totally female occupation. TYPING.
Typing clearly exemplifies the contrast between then and now. When I was a Harvard law student in the late 1960s (one of the four percent in my class comprised of women), many of my male classmates eschewed typing. Sitting behind a typewriter was beneath them, a chore to be performed by women. Or perhaps they simply never learned to type. So instead of typing their own papers, they employed women who advertised their services as typists on law-school bulletin boards, or they inveigled their girlfriends or wives into doing it for them.
One bright young fellow who broke the mold was my classmate Lance Liebman. A transplant to Kentucky (after spending his early years in Queens, where his progressive school district encouraged boys to learn typing), Lance became a high-school journalist and a crack typist. When he entered the Kentucky state typing contest, he triumphantly won first prize. Gender-stereotyping reared its silly head, however: the Lexington Leader referred to him as “Miss Lance Liebman.”
Lance went on to excel in law school, becoming the head of the Harvard Law Review (a prestigious position later held by Barack Obama), and is now a distinguished professor (and former dean) at Columbia Law School. He believes that his typing ability may have given him an edge. A small minority of our classmates, including Lance, typed their exams, making their exams more legible and probably leading to better grades.
Granted, typing back then was a miserable chore, even for those of us who had mastered the technique in high school or college. I painfully recall typing my first-year moot court briefs on my tinny Royal portable. Moot court rules required five copies of each brief. That meant inserting five sheets of paper into the typewriter, along with four sheets of carbon paper inserted between them. Every time I typed the wrong letter, I had to use a special eraser to correct my error, leading to a hideous result: four smudged-filled copies. Corrections took forever, too. To avoid errors, I wrote everything out in longhand first, then transcribed it into typewritten form.
When I took my first job, as a judge’s law clerk, I was placed behind an electric typewriter. Time pressure didn’t allow writing in longhand first, and pretty soon I was able to type my ideas directly onto the paper. (I remember typing lots of X’s over the mistakes that cropped up, however.) In the early 1980s I learned to use computers for “word processing”—they were scary at first but far superior to typewriters–and never looked back.
Today, every boy learns to type at an early age. In the era of computer technology, it’s unthinkable for them to dictate their words, or write them out in longhand, and expect an underling to input them into the computer. Men in every profession now want and need to use the technology that’s still mainly accessible through typing, and they spend hours sitting in front of keyboards in the workplace and in their homes. Everywhere there’s a computer hookup, there are men busily typing away.
(Only those males fearful of the new technology still cling to the old ways. These men continue to rely on secretaries or “assistants” and, yes, their wives to do the typing. Example: Bill Marriot, CEO of the hotel chain, blogs–but has his secretary type it for him.)
I often wonder how many of us have observed this sea-change in our lives. Forty or fifty years ago, typing was largely done by women. Today both men and women head for the keyboard without even thinking about it.
What a shift!
[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]