The Business Woman and Her Future
By Jas. H. Collins in Hampton’s Broadway.
SOMEBODY is eternally writing about the Business Woman, either to announce that she has proved a failure and is disappearing, or that her ability is transcendent and she threatens to displace Man.
Her enemies class her with the suffragette. She is pictured as a strong-minded young person who goes into business to compete with men, and stays single to preserve her independence. She is denounced as a peril to home and country, and advised to drop it and get married.
Even praise is bestowed upon her more or less blindly. Some approve her pluck and energy in accomplishing work that, they believe, she was never intended to do at all. Others explain that she brings the refining influence of the home into the savage jungle of office life. Likewise, she is supposed to bring a sense of order. It isn’t so certain that Woman possesses a sense of order, even at home. There is the damaging evidence of her bureau drawer. There is the divine disorder she brings into male existence. But in business she is widely assumed to be a neat commercial housekeeper for heedless Man.
The truth concerning the Business Woman seems to be, that she is in business because she has to be, to earn her living, and -that few people really know much about her. Business itself is just beginning to perceive some of the purposes for which she is peculiarly fitted.
The popular notions are mostly wrong. Compared with the intricate systems upon which business is now conducted, her sense of order is rather a primitive faculty—just as mother’s kitchen is an untidy place compared with a conscientious modern canning plant. Woman’s refining influence is negligible in executive business, but she has other faculties that make her valuable, and which are more distinctively feminine.
As for the belief that business keeps woman from marriage and the home, it is frequently the woman with a considerable
experience of marriage who gets on best in business, and for very obvious reasons.
For instance, there was a girl engaged in the wholly feminine and unobjectionable work of teaching. After leaving normal school she was thrown upon her own resources, but worked her way up determinedly, acquiring by hard study a thousand dollars’ worth of miscellaneous book knowledge for each twenty-five-dollar increase in earning power. At thirty she held a very fair position at a girls’ boarding school, so far as salary went. But her hours were longer than those of the servants. Her days were passed in a world of girlish interests. A grown person was almost a novelty. Occasionally an exceptional pupil came, and it was pleasant to be instrumental in developing a fine mind or character. But just when this exceptional pupil matured into a friend, she was graduated, and a giggling little miss took her place.
This teacher married a man of the type known, as “near-poet.”
He was tall, and strong, and looked like Adonis, and talked like a Shakespearean commentator. His mother had spent half a small fortune in giving him a university education with European trimmings, and then died and left him the other half. It was not enough to live on with any liberality, nor yet so meager as to drive him to work. So from twenty-three to thirty-four he had puttered, dabbling in “literature.” He knew to a comma how literature ought to be written, and wrote vague stuff that nobody would print. He said that the vulgar herd could not be expected to understand it, and talked expansively of his ideals.
He dawdled along, and she believed in him. A little tired and lonely, and genuinely in love, she married the near-poet to help him conquer the “bourgeois” world that was keeping him in obscurity, and realize those ambitions that he made so plausible—in talk—with the gas turned down a bit.
She was the sort of girl to marry a big rough diamond—to be the social developer of a mining king in New York, or the wife of an earnest young sockless Congressman at Washington.
When she undertook to develop the nearpoet, however, he turned out a man of putty. For eight years they lived together on half commons—an energetic, resourceful woman, and a fibreless, sentimental man. With her savings she brought out several of the vague books, and he laid back to pose in the phosphorescent light of a sickly “reputation.” She campaigned for him. But he wouldn’t buck the line. In the end he went utterly bad. For to write, you know, it was necessary to live—to experience everything—to plumb the depths of passion, and so forth. He had that belief common among nearpoets, that a great soul thrives only in black muck. And so there were other women, and eventually a divorce, and the wife was thrown back into the world to make a living.
She was now a woman of nearly forty, with character ripened and ambition in no way dashed—glad to tackle life direct instead of by proxy. She got a five-dollar job in the office of a small concern making machinery specialties. Its head, an inventor, was absorbed in the factory, coming to the office only to read mail and turn it over to an elderly maiden lady who wrote replies. Miss Prime was half secretary, half stenographer, making a profound mystery of shorthand—full of whims, easily offended, and frequently indisposed. The boss, however, considered her an immensely capable person, slightly eccentric.
Within a week the newcomer had both their measures. She studied shorthand evenings, learned the machine during the lunch hour, and two months later volunteered to do Miss Prime’s work in an emergency while the latter was enjoying an attack of nervous prostration. After that it was merely a matter of sitting back and watching the lightning strike Miss Prime.
There was another mysteriously indispensable person in this concern—the sales manager, who sold the product. From the first day she saw him the ex-teacher had the conviction that he was a sneak. Handling the correspondence soon taught her how such business was conducted, and a few months later her acquaintance in the
industry enabled her to look into the methods of this sales manager. Intuition was right. He had been handling sales in a way that threw many of the best contracts to a competing concern. After the lightning struck him, she went out among customers herself, made friends, and organized new sales machinery. Through correspondence and advertising that company was given standing and an individuality it had never had while its head was buried in the manufacturing department.
Three years later this ex-school teacher was general manager.
She is fairly typical of the real business woman.
Thousands of unmarried girls and women are found in business life, earning pin money. The business woman with executive ability is about as scarce, in ratio, as the good male executive. When one is found, though, the chances are about one in three that she Will be a widow or a divorcee.
There is a manifest difference between the girl working in an office to earn dress money or complete her education, and the widow with a child to support, or one who has finally got free from a profligate, shiftless husband. The latter are interested, and have, more fully developed, the particular faculties that make woman successful in business.
Of these, the commonest is patience in working at petty routine and dealing with petty people. As a rule, no woman need go through the divorce court to develop this.
A trust company opened a savings department for small accounts, giving a coin box with each initial deposit of fifty cents. The people who patronized this department nearly drove the regular tellers into a strike —boys and girls, peddlers, foreigners who spoke no English. The boxes were brought in with a dollar or two in dimes, nickels and pennies to be counted and credited, and withdrawals were on the same scale. That department never ran smoothly until women cashiers were employed. They had patience to count the “chicken feed,” and could do it quicker than an experienced man. They could keep a line of people happy under delays, and explain the most obvious thing over and over again, and bear the infinite fussiness of people who knew nothing of banking.
Business first employed Women in such
work largely because she was cheap. Then it discovered that she was good-tempered under annoyances, and put her into the complaint department, to handle the customer who came in with blood in his eye. Then it found that she could sell small appliances for a gas or electrical company just as well as she could manage the man who believes his meter is fast. To-day, the things Business is learning about Woman are perhaps more important than the things Woman is learning about Business. As a telephone operator, for example, she was long valued because she worked quickly, patiently—and cheaply. But now Business has suddenly wakened up to the fact that, far from being a mere cog in a machine, she can be transformed into a producer and saleswoman in such work with a little training, and telephone companies are studying this side of her nature.
The “closer” in salesmanship is usually a high-salaried man who has the art of getting a customer’s signature to a contract or order. One good "closer” often gets results on the work of half a dozen talking salesmen.
In the work of purchasing, too, a “closer” is valuable, and in certain lines the best possible “closer” is a woman.
The purchasing agent for an Eastern company has a woman who closes up every deal involving any detail.' From five minutes to half an hour are given to general discussion of the proposition between purchasing agent and seller. Then the latter is turned over to the woman “closer.” He is almost always a $10,000 to $15,000 man. His time is valuable. The woman “closer” earns about $25 a week, and has all the time there is. She goes through the deal bit by bit, settling qualities, quantities, deliveries, and other details as men seldom do. In the end the transaction is clearly worked out—and if anybody has been crowded a trifle in advantages, it isn’t she.
Women have an instant insight that often proves serviceable in the warfare of business—especially if a little insight is needed into the foibles of other women.
Two large stores in a certain city were fierce competitors. One of them gained a remarkable advantage in the spring trade one season by bringing out a novel line of dress goods. This fabric appeared on the leaders of fashion in that town, and then every woman wanted it. The other estab44
lishment had nothing of similar texture or patterns. Moreover, none could be obtained of the manufacturers, because the first store had contracted for exclusive selling rights.
“Give me two hundred dollars and a few girls,” said a woman buyer in the second store, “and I’ll fix their novelty for them.”
Next week the first store’s sales were larger than ever, because this campaign fund was spent for dress patterns, girls making the purchases to conceal tactics. And the week after that, sales fell off to nothing. For the rival woman buyer, with these goods in hand, had had the beautiful stuff made up atrociously in gowns that appeared on the backs of two dozen honest colored washerwomen, and a little pin money added to the new gowns kept them circulating diligently through the shopping district long enough to kill sales.
From this attention to detail it is only a step to another feminine faculty that can be made of utmost service in business.
One of the vital points in any business is to get at true values—to know what others buy and sell for, and where customers and competitors stand.
Man contrives an institution like the Stock Exchange—where one party goes to really buy or sell, and three more accompany him to bet on his transaction. That is Man’s way of fixing values. He whispers in a dark corner, and puts some hieroglyphics in a big book—and this is dignified as the science of credits.
When it comes to arriving at values, however, Woman is in an element peculiarly her own. For, at bottom, she probably sets world values. Since the days of the tribe she has been the business head of the family when it came to supplies. Turn her into a strange community. In a week she will have all the values whittled down to absolute truth. She will know the incomes, the rents, the lot and acreage prices, the cost of table board, building, butter, and spring hats. Some of this information she obtains by asking, and some by swapping, and the rest by looking at things out of the back of her head. Put her into a busi* ness office. The older she is, the more highly developed and accurate will be this faculty.
Far better, too, than her instinct for money values is her habit of putting a price on all the human values that come her way.
Man can often be wholly fooled by an impressive stock quotation or a fair rating in Dun. With him, it is possible to play a figure so deftly that he will never look at a face. But, Woman always takes into consideration the way a stranger’s hair curls, and wonders whether he is selfish, or good to his wife. The first time she sees him she rates him, and that rating governs subsequently, and is more often right than wrong. Herbert Spencer believed that she learned this in barbarous ages, by watching the face of her hairy husband to see what passion was rising, and dodge. No matter where she learned it, it is useful in business ■—and exercised in business affairs by thousands of wives who are. seldom seen in an office.
A large company bought sixty per cent, of its supplies from a trust that not only monopolized the field, but was high-handed in terms and methods. Every time the president saw a bill from the trust he swore. Yet there seemed no way of getting goods elsewhere. Several tiny independent concerns just held their heads above water. They might go out of business any moment. Then their customers would be punished by the trust. If one of them grew strong, the trust would probably absorb it.
The president’s woman secretary had nothing against the trust. But she disliked the trust’s representative. He wasn’t sincere. He was an old night owl. She detested the very color of his tie, and the way it matched his socks. None of his shortcomings had any direct bearing on business. But she made them a business matter, and never lost a chance to cast a vote again him.
...There was a hard-worked representative of a little independent concern, and she liked him because he looked honest, and as if he was doing the best he could. She believed he would succeed, and felt certain he was not the sort of man who would sell out his friends.
The president pooh-poohed her prejudices for a year. But finally she showed him a way to buy independent goods through an outside party. A small order was placed with the hard-working man’s concern. The stuff was satisfactory. A larger order was placed, then a larger. In a year the company was buying all its stuff in that quarter. In three years this little
independent concern was a real competitor of the trust, and the trust tried to buy it out, and the man who had done the best he could refused to sell. So, wnat began as a woman’s intuition, eventually worked out in sound business policy, and developed exactly what business is ever seeking—results.
Another magnificent trait that Woman brings into business direct from the family is her partizanship.
No matter where you find her, she is forever a party politician. The whole trick, in business or life, is to get her on your own side. Deep down in the very fibre of her being there is an instinct that leads her to stick to her own people. Perhaps she got this in the woods, too—or in the primordial ooze. But she will takes sides, and regard all the world apart as strictly something else, and treat it with either indifference or hostility, as the case may be.
Business itself is naturally of an intensely partizan character. Even in the broadest sense it is a matter of holding your own and getting more. Some of the serious problems of business and industry turn on this very point of partizanship—-the problem of making employes loyal, the problem of 'keeping subordinates interested, the problem of the lukewarm director or partner. In business, as a whole, of course, there are thousands of women and girls engaged in purely routine work. But take a woman of forty, confronted with the task of earning her own living and educating a couple of children. Give her a little confidence, a little authority and success, and a decent salary. She will be on the side of her company first, last, and always, and on the side of the people she works with. She will carry partizanship to a point where it may be necessary to intervene—buying things too cheap, or holding to her side of a bargain until she creates a deadlock.
This brings up the question of her shortcomings. They are not many—chiefly the defects of her virtues.
The one popularly associated with her, and for which business sometimes fears her, is her traditional inability to keep a secret. Business ought to know better by this time. At bottom, probably this tradition rests not so much on woman’s fancied volubility as upon her consummate knack at worming out the secrets of other people.
In business generally, even the routine
woman worker is placed in positions where important matters must be confided to her. Some of the famous business generals have women secretaries. There are nearly one hundred thousand women stenographers at work in this country, and almost as many women accountants. Every woman in such a position knows things that she might easily sell. But the instances in which confidential information leaks out at all are negligible. Woman has a conscience. When anybody wants to buy anything of that sort in business it is best to go to a man. The memorable “Where do I stand?” letter of Mr. Harriman’s, bought and published by a newspaper a year ago, was secured from a male stenographer.
Women’s shortcomings in business seem to be chiefly those of perspective. She can often gauge the conditions of to-day with utmost nicety. But she won’t give much thought to conditions a year from now, and most important business is planned for the future. She has the persistence that the English symbolize in their phrase, “Dogged does it.” With her inborn capacity for suffering, it must be something mighty big and ugly that turns her back.
A widow had been a factory operative before her marriage. When her husband died she turned to that old occupation for support. A factory advertised for help. She answered. The workpeople waiting outside were strange. In her day, operatives had been Americans,. Irish and Germans. Now they were stolid Poles and Slavs.
“What do you want?” they asked, suspicously.
“The place that is advertised,” she replied.
“Do you belong to the union?”
“No—but I am willing to join.”
“Have you served your apprenticeship in this city?”
“No—I have not worked for fifteen years.”
“Well, before you can join the union you must serve an apprenticeship.”
“But I want work! If you will not let me join the union, how am I to get it?”
They shrugged their shoulders, indifferent. “We do not know.”
This woman went away and thought an hour, and then made her decision.
“If I can’t work with those people, I
can boss them,” she concluded. “I’ll look for a place as forewoman.”
And she did, and succeeded, and not only superintended those very people, but eventually rose to executive responsibilties that she might never have aspired to had not opposition roused her spirit.
She strangely lacks audacity in planning As a bargainer she can be sublime up to the point where it may be necessary to break her hold. For her instinct is to leave the party of the second part nothing to wear away—and good business policy recognizes that he ought to have at least a shirt, so that he will come back some day and trade again.
Woman is uniformly a good lieutenant, but only occasionally a real captain. Her will, her energy, and her interest are most valuable in business, and they have to be accepted with limitations that go with intensity. Yet it doesn’t do to be too cocksure about this, but occasionally a woman will manipulate business machinery in a surprising way.
Some years ago a middle-aged woman arrived in New York from the West with a more or less worthless husband and a small invention that seemed to have moderate possibilities. A shrewd business man was interested in the invention. The latter furnished several thousand dollars capital to exploit it. A corporation was formed in regular form. The business man was elected president and treasurer, the husband vice-president and secretary, and the woman was made a director on a board of three. Then the company’s capital was deposited in a bank subjected to cheque, and the business man went away for a rest, leaving the pair to organize plans for introducing the invention. He was no sooner out of town, however, than the woman called a meeting of the board of directors, which was attended by her husband and herself. They made a quorum, and ousted the absent director, elected the husband treasurer, drew the corporation’s funds, and disappeared—a perfectly legal piece of company manipulation, it is said.
The prime shortcoming of all, however, is not one of business or temperament, but deeper than either: she makes friends in business. Then a friend. Then some morning she comes in with what is called ‘a new light’ in her eyes, and tells you that in a month she is to be married.
That completes the cycle. A good thing for Woman but sometimes bad for business. And she doesn’t marry inside the business once in a hundred times—nor marry the boss once in a thousand.
In some quarters there is a notion that business offers a stepping-stone to marriage. So it does, frequently—but not in the way that is sometimes imagined.
“If Reginald should be taken away,” says young Mrs. Reginald, in jest, “I really fancy I should take up business. I should find a humble position—oh, quite an unpretentious place !—at the office with Tom. Or Jerry. They are bachelors. Or at the works with Mr. Markham—he is a widower, and so devoted to business. And I should come down dressed quite plainly— half mourning, you know—and be so resigned, and pathetic, and lonely. One of them would be certain to marry me. Oh, I think business must be simply g-o-r-g-eo-u-s !”
Woman wins many a victory, socially by playing one person against another, by a bit
of flattery in the right place, by setting her stage, and controlling the color scheme or lighting. But business is done in daylight, and with an absence of emotion, mood, sex —the values are surprisingly different. Hiring a helpless widow arouses about the same emotions as taking on a green office boy. Both have to be taught.
When a woman goes into business on a social basis, her time and energy are usually spent seeking introductions. The men of affairs who could be of service to her are not accessible by this means. There is only one way in which she can interest them— by 'being of service herself. She should be attacking the actual practice in a branch of some definite trade or industry—any branch of any business for a beginning. That she is a woman will mean nothing whatever except as she applies her feminine tact, insight, interest, and loyalty to a tangible end. The fact that she is a woman then, however, may mean a great deal indeed.