How we became professional, part 1 – Mayo’s missing women

Posted on | August 25, 2013 | No Comments

Before joining Intel, I was planning a project on the history of professionalism. Specifically, I wanted to study genres of popular pedagogy devoted to teaching office workers self-management skills. I was interested in two areas, to be explored in the next series of posts:

1. The establishment of human relations as a discipline, particularly the influence of Elton Mayo on the formative curriculum at Harvard Business School.

Mayo was an ex-pat Australian most famous for studies of workers conducted at the Hawthorne plant of Western Electric in the 1920s. What is not often known is that he misrepresented a number of qualifications in the process of securing his position in the US (obviously this is not symbolic of Australians more broadly!). Mayo’s sphere of influence included patrons in business and physiology, which is only to be expected of someone who wanted to conduct scientific research but who dropped out of medicine three times. He was also connected to thought leaders in philosophy (Alfred North Whitehead) anthropology (Bronislaw Malinowski) and child psychology (Jean Piaget). As Abraham Zaleznik explains: “These latter figures provided Mayo with support from the social sciences for his methodology of field work and of his strategy of simple theory and complex fact” (from the foreword to Richard Trahair’s biography of Mayo, commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Harvard Business School).

This intellectual milieu is interesting from the perspective of affect theory. It suggests another legacy to complement those that take their departure from Spinoza, the moment of systems theory, or Freud, for instance. Mayo’s well-documented charisma – his reliance on transference, as Zalaznik quite frankly puts it – seems to have played a role in perceptions of his competence, whether from financiers, protégés or study participants. Mayo’s idiosyncratic interview technique mixed therapy and work, indeed blurred this boundary purposefully, if we are to believe his assistants.

His preference for interviewing women alone is just one part of this history that I would like to investigate further. According to Trahair, at various stages Mayo treated his wife and her sisters for “irrational fears” (112), to the point of having one sister-in-law sent to “a quiet room in a new a hospital” (117) so that he might interview her twice daily. There are many silences in Trahair’s biography when it comes to these diagnoses and details.

Of course, these issues may say less about Mayo himself than the power of men over women at this moment in history. We might wonder, though, why and in what ways the one-on-one interview continues this legacy in the mentoring and performance management practices in the workplace today. Such practices normalise an isolated relationship of power and dependence, a process that served the infantalization of women in previous points in history. On this, my further motivation in revisiting Mayo’s legacy is to ask what happened to the two participants who were kicked out of the original Hawthorne study for what Trahair only terms “uncooperative behavior”.

Explaining the fate of Adeline Bogotowicz and Irene Rybacki, Trahair notes:

The former had married, and after being dropped from the study and taking an assembler’s position elsewhere in the plant, left the company in August. Rybacki had lost interest in her home life and work during the months leading up to Bogotowicz’s marriage. Both girls’ output had fallen, and the other girls teased her about it, and she became irritated. Also, despite the assurance of company officials to the contrary, she began to believe her friends whom she had left in the regular department when they told her that the test-room study was a management scheme to maximize profits. In management’s eyes she turned “Bolshie,” and in December 1927 was asked by George Pennock, assistant works manager, and his associate Mark Putnam to explain her change in attitude. She could not, complained of fatigue, and said she wanted to leave the study. Ten weeks later when Mayo visited the Hawthorne Works, he asked to see her medical report, noticed immediately that she had symptoms of secondary anemia, and suggested referral to one of the company doctors. He put her on a special diet, and a two-week vacation was planned for her in the summer. Her blood count improved, and she regained weight and began to take a positive interest in life at home. She continued as an assembler in the regular department until she quit the company in September 1930 for health reasons about five months after her marriage. (230)

This passage leaves a lot to the imagination. In the absence of further research, one can only speculate on the full story. I wonder what happened to these women; I wonder if they had been friends. Trahair’s somber style gives us nothing of substance to go on. Still, the damning description of Rybacki as “Bolshie” gives a sense of the spirit of the times. It suggests the fate of those who would go against the emergent strain of management theory establishing the relationship between teamwork and productivity.


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