Most observers agree that offices are not egalitarian. Someone is at the top, someone else is on the bottom. Various utopian experiments and communal organizations do exist on the periphery of American business, and some are successful. But the overwhelming majority of corporate structures in this country are built hierarchically, with top management, middle management, and support staff.
Some businesses are organized somewhat differently. Professional partnerships like law firms and medical practices, for example, have no investors; the partners share equal power, equal decision-making authority, and equal access to the profits. A small professional office of this type may have no middle management, just the partners and their support staff.
Larger organizations usually have one person at the top, the president or chief executive officer, who reports directly to the board of directors (the investors or persons who represent the investors). These top managers usually depend on middle managers for two main reasons. The business is too large for one person or group to manage directly, and a large business is so complex as to require people with specialized skills or areas of expertise to run various departments.
A company that manufactures a product, for example, would require a chief financial officer to control payroll, ordering and paying for parts, sending bills and recording payments, and maintaining records for auditing and tax purposes. The company would also require a chief engineer--a technical expert in the company's line of business. The business would require shipping and receiving departments and people to head them. Someone would have to supervise all of the factory workers, train them, give them work assignments, monitor their comings and goings, and check the quality of their work. As the company grew in size, this would be too big a job for one person: another engineer could be responsible only for quality control. Breaking down work into smaller jobs is called specialization--which is characteristic of work and business in industrial and postindustrial societies.
Sociologists have long observed the connection between the design of environments and the power relations that determine what goes on there. Whether an office, a factory, or a prison, physical characteristics can tell us who is powerful, who is not; who watches, who is watched; who dictates, who takes dictation.
Even as the nobility and high clergy in feudal Europe, for example, marked their elevated status with their clothing and surroundings, so too twentieth-century culture makes such distinctions. From its beginnings, the office reflected the unequal status of its occupants. Almost anything inside an office can be made bigger, smaller, more expensively, or less expensively than anything else. In the same way, the feudal lord's robes often took hundreds more yards of fabric than the simple garb of the peasant who served him.
Offices reflect status in many ways, including the following:
These are some of the ways in which organizations visually and physically represent the intangible relations of power and authority in the office.
Typical office organization shows three levels of management under the hoard of directors: a chief executive officer, a tier of middle managers, and a tier of supervisors. Actual businesses show great variety in job titles and functions within this basic structure
The first clerical workers were men. Early clerical work was seen as a craft, developed to help business owners keep current records of their enterprises and to maintain relations with the outside world. Apprentices or journeymen craftsmen learned their crafts from master bookkeepers or chief clerks then advanced in the business by promotion. Since clerks often rose into management positions, owners tended to fill these entry-level slots with male family members.
As the office developed in complexity and size, clerical work was mechanized. The skills required to operate a typewriter or take stenography differed increasingly from those required of managers. Women were brought into offices to fill these new "clerical" positions, with firms taking advantage of the supply of middle-class, high school or college-educated women who would work for lower wages than men of comparable education. As women were drawn into clerical work, the jobs' contents changed. The previously masculine job of clerk, the first step on the ladder to a management position, was transformed into a permanently subordinate, and hence feminine, job.
As we approach the twenty-first century, many women have advanced from secretarial jobs to management positions by talent, hard work, and determination. It is fair to say, however, that most clerical positions remain "permanently subordinated." But this is not to say that nothing has changed.
A major difference in today's work world from that of our grandparents and great-grandparents is that women are not limited to a choice between clerical and factory work if they are without education or skills, and between teaching and nursing if they have advanced education. Both men and women work in virtually all the professions.
But again, these changes do not mean that being a man or a woman has no bearing on the kind of work a person will do. When we recall that the overwhelming majority of all professional positions were held by men at the beginning of the twentieth century, women's current career success represents their clear and steady progression into men's jobs. We do not see a similar rush by men to women's jobs, however. "Men's jobs" remain the favored choice.
No one could say with certainty which jobs will be held by men, which by women, fifty years from now. We probably are unable to imagine what the jobs will be, given the rapid pace of technological change in modern life, let alone who will hold them. But certain factors need to be considered when thinking about work in the future.
Technological advances bring changes to the occupational opportunities available to men and women. For example, many professionals now work without secretarial support, using their own computers with word processing capabilities to write correspondence and reports, using the computer to file information that formerly would have had to be stored in a filing cabinet. Telephone answering machines and services already replace receptionists and personal secretaries for many people. These factors would tend to change or affect the traditional hierarchies of offices.
Subordinate work or support work will always be attractive to some segment of the population, if only at certain times in their working lives. Some women will continue to choose family over career, at least for a number of years. Many people work more than one job, or work while preparing for another career, and are attracted to support positions. And as the population ages, former careerists may choose to supplement pensions or augment volunteer work with part-time or temporary jobs. These millions of workers would tend to support the continuance of "noncareer" jobs in the corporate or office structure.
Finally, not everyone can be the boss or a professional, nor do they want to be. If everyone could be in charge, managers would have nobody to manage.
Introduction || Birth and
Growth of the American Office || Office
Office Organization || Global Office || Conclusion
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