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Mad Men--Why Gen Y Women Need To Tune In

The third season of the acclaimed AMC drama begins this Sunday. It's sophisticated, glamorous and highly charged, but there's a lesson lurking behind all the smoke, scotch and sex, writes Jennifer Allyn.

india Updated: Aug 18, 2009 18:32 IST

Mad Men, AMC's drama about the "Golden Age" of advertising, begins its third season this weekend. While I love the show's outstanding acting and glamorous fashions, I also believe watching its portrayal of the "old boy's club" has a lot to teach young women today.

Senior businesswomen often complain that younger women don't appreciate how much trailblazing was accomplished by the pioneers before them. This generational tension is not easily resolved, but watching history unfold even through a television drama can help spark a richer dialogue.

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The Mad Men series begins in 1960 when the major milestones of the sexual revolution, Women's Liberation and the Civil Rights movements are still years away. Our heroine, Peggy Olson, enters a glamorous new world when she's hired as a secretary by the advertising agency Sterling Cooper. It's a culture of clearly defined gender roles, where secretaries are expected to be "something in between a mother and a waitress." Creative Director Don Draper and his male copywriters spend the majority of their time smoking, drinking, having affairs and, in between those priorities, creating advertising.

A major pleasure of watching the show comes from our knowledge that the characters' lives will soon be transformed by history. We empathize with Salvatore Romano, the closeted gay art director, and want to tell him that change is around the corner. The same is true watching Peggy cautiously climb the corporate ladder. She yearns to escape the limited gender expectations of her religion and her family. And despite the limitations of the secretarial job, the world of work offers Peggy a chance at freedom, opening up the possibility of self-invention.

Although Peggy faces blatant sexism in the office, she is much more fulfilled than the wives and mistresses around her. Moreover, she is a direct contrast to office manager Joan Holloway, who's reached the top of the administrative ladder by sleeping with the boss and lying about her age. Breaking down barriers--by standing up for her ideas, pitching to a client or even asking for an office--is depicted as exhilarating. Peggy's struggle to find her voice and be treated as a professional is inspirational.

But too often millennial women view female pioneers from Peggy's generation as a cautionary tale, remarking, "I don't think of her as a role model." They consider Peggy's sacrifices too great--she doesn't have a family, she works too many hours, she's too intense about her career.

One might argue this is a perfectly legitimate response from women facing a very different set of workplace challenges, but I believe it's a missed opportunity for cross-generational connection. Because the workplace needs pioneers today who will advocate for more expansive definitions of flexibility, dismantle any remaining stereotypes and embrace the next level of business leadership.

Instead of just treading the long-proven paths, Gen X and Gen Y women need to break new ground, only this time around instead of leaping from the steno pool to junior copywriter as Peggy did; they need to ascend from middle management to the executive suite. Despite the success of women like Shelly Lazarus, former CEO and current chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, just 15 out of the 500 largest companies in the U.S. have a woman CEO at the helm.

Mad Men reminds us that profound cultural change is possible. Corporate America still has flaws, but in hindsight the progress made over the past five decades is indisputable. The third season begins in 1963, five years prior to the iconic advertising campaign whose slogan capitalized on the theme of women's liberation. While some may argue it was just a cynical ploy by Virginia Slims to sell more cigarettes, the spirit of "You've come a long way baby" still rings true.

Now the urgent question becomes: Will Generation Y women grab the baton from their mothers and grandmothers and lead us all the way to the top?

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