“Oh, pause it, pause it!” My mom waves at the TV through her laughter. We’ve been working our way through the first three seasons of The Office, a task which involves frequent interruptions for excited chatter and commentary. Currently we’re groaning our way through Michael’s heavy-handed attempts to flirt with the Barbie-model salesgirl visiting the office. She’s having remarkable success selling purses to an office full of men, a fact which she attributes to their complete ignorance of the subject.
“You know, that is so typical," Mom says. "When I worked for the oil company there were so many men there other companies would always hire these...” she gropes for an appropriate description.
“Yes, these women who would come in to sell things, and they would take the men out to lunch… it was sort of insulting.”
“Lily says they do that with the pharmaceutical reps at doctor’s offices.”
“That was one of the weird things about being a woman working in a primarily male field. It’s like you get to see these things you’re not supposed to. Like, for example, we used to have to go to these schools… you had to do so many training sessions a year, and they were usually in the city. The company would pay for a hotel for a week. Everyone had their own rooms, but you’d spend a lot of time with all these men, like in the hotel bars in the evenings. They had these women who would sell lingerie, who would model it in the bars.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No, these women would come in and out wearing all these different lingerie items, and some men would buy them for their girlfriends and wives, I guess. I always thought that was kind of strange.”
“Really strange. Like ‘Here, honey, I saw this on a hooker and thought of you.’ What the heck? Who would even buy that?”
“It was kind of surreal. I’d be the only woman there except for these ladies walking around in lacy nightgowns, and little skimpy nightclothes… like teddies and things. They’d just walk up to men in the bar and start telling them ‘this is made of pure satin,’ and things like that. They were selling lingerie and sometimes guys would buy things, but it was like that’s not really what the men were paying for, you know? And there I’d be. 'La la la.'”
I am amazed. “That is just so bizarre. I can’t believe stuff like that really happens.”
“Well, it was like I was telling you, when I’d be at the rig sites and I’d walk through and the men would all be watching porn, and I’d just sort of have to pretend I saw nothing.” She parodies shooting uncomfortable glances to either side. “You know, I wonder with all the laws and regulations and sexual harassment charges if they could still do that these days. I mean, in their own private rooms, probably, but in the public rooms like that.”
“Man, I sure hope not. That is crazy.” I shake my head, and the conversation moves on to other topics briefly, before we return to our viewing of The Office. The over-the-top and borderline offensive antics of the chauvinistic male cast members no longer seem so exaggerated. I remember some of my mom’s other work stories. Like how her male coworkers had their initials and last names on their doors while female workers had their first names written out: ‘so that people would know it was a woman.’ Suddenly, the sitcom’s hyperbole is seeming disturbingly plausible.
Mom passes through later, while I’m working on the computer. “You know,” she says, “looking back on it, on the things I would have to put up with, I am amazed at the level of sexual harassment that was—commonplace, back then. I mean, the lingerie thing was kind of funny; it was like getting to see what when on inside of men’s strip clubs and such. I didn’t mind that. But a lot of the other stuff that went on—I just can’t believe what was tolerated back then.”