Five years ago, in a survey conducted by ABC News and People Magazine, I Love Lucy was crowned the best TV show of all time. Given that most attempts to gauge public opinion nowadays uncover sentiments firmly rooted in either the present or the immediate past, the enduring pre-eminence of a series that debuted in 1951 can safely be regarded as pretty amazing.

Why would so many people plump for I Love Lucy? Well, first and foremost, it was funny. In tandem with The Honeymooners, it was the prototypical sitcom. Many of its episodes were memorable for the simple reason that their like had never before been written, produced or seen: the era of multiple channels, countless programmes, and endless plot retreads was still decades away.

Not everyone liked it, of course. Some critics have described I Love Lucy as “pre-feminist.” Some have even accused the central character of lacking maturity and independence, as if her screen time should have been devoted to reciting the early works of Simone de Beauvoir or lecturing Desi Arnaz on the wonders of structuralism.

Yet it borders on pig-headedness to deny that Lucy Ricardo, like The Honeymooners’ Alice Kramden, was a feisty and free-thinking woman – certainly by the staid standards of mid-20th-century mainstream entertainment. And the basic fact of the matter is that a show built around a female lead was unheard of at the time. So it seems reasonable to suggest that I Love Lucy also garnered a few votes on the strength of its standing as a cultural milestone for feminism. As Lucille Ball herself once remarked: “I’m not funny. What I am is brave.”

I mention all of this because of one episode in particular: “Men Are Messy.” Here, in a scenario unashamedly underpinned by a gag about gender, we’re treated to the spectacle of a wife literally splitting a home in two in protest at her husband’s slovenliness. Imposing partition, Lucy declares: “I’ll keep my half the way I want to, and you keep your half any way you please.

Now fast-forward to the present day and transplant this scene from the home to the office. More than 60 years on from this momentous demonstration of liberation and individuality – 60-plus years! – how many women honestly feel their workspace, like Lucy’s share of the living room, is theirs to shape as they see fit?

I first thought about this question more than a decade ago, when a visiting female academic solemnly condemned an array of family photos displayed in the office of one of my colleagues. We had always figured a few pictures brightened up the place and gave it a more “human” touch, but we were told they undermined academic credibility and, worse still, evoked associations that feminists had fought long and hard to challenge.

We were shocked, to say the least. And yet the criticism, regardless of whether it was right or wrong, did make me notice something: I became acutely aware that very few men, especially those in senior roles, had anything remotely similar in their own offices – and that those who did were generally viewed not as hopelessly unprofessional but as nice guys, good citizens and even potential leaders.

When I later carried out research in this area, interviewing dozens of female office workers, it became obvious that many women personalize their workspace within what they perceive to be clear boundaries. Yes, we want to reflect our identities and commitments beyond the sphere of work – but who, deep down, are we really reflecting them for?

Consider, for instance, whether your attitude towards personalizing your own workspace is encapsulated in one or more of the following scenarios.

  • Scenario 1: You do it because you want to

Of course, the decision and motivations might be entirely your own. You might fashion an environment that’s just right for you, with not a thought for how anyone else might perceive it or whether it conforms to a set of unwritten rules. And that’s great.

  • Scenario 2: You do it to reflect your personal life in moderation

Although you would prefer the ideal outlined above, you’re aware that there’s some sort of line that shouldn’t be crossed. Consequently, you’re careful not to go over the top. As one study respondent commented: “I feel it’s the right balance.”

  • Scenario 3: You do it to please your colleagues

You’re conscious of how your workspace will be perceived by others. You might want it to appear cheery or welcoming. You’re pleased when your fellow workers react positively. In the words of one respondent: “I’m a bit of an approval junkie.”

  • Scenario 4: You do it to impress your colleagues

There’s a subtle difference between “please” and “impress.” The latter is more about projecting a certain image – professional, approachable, even “rounded.” As one respondent said: “I’m here to do a job, and I want people to see I’m aware of that.”

  • Scenario 5: You do it because you somehow feel it’s expected of you

 This encapsulates elements of 2, 3 and 4 but is more nebulous. You can’t put your finger on a specific reason: instead you’re driven by a feeling – a sense that there’s an informal, tacit requirement to which you, as a female office worker, ought to conform.

  • Scenario 6: You don’t do it at all, because you don’t feel you should

Someone or something has convinced you that your notion of workspace personalization is all wrong. The pictures of the family, the kids’ drawings, the postcards – with the possible exception of your desk drawer, there’s just no place for them.

Although it would be unrealistic to claim none of the above applies in any way to men, these arguments shouldn’t be dismissed as paranoid – particularly when there’s a wealth of research that underscores how women in the workplace are much more likely to feel “invisible,” to lack a sense of truly belonging and to suffer from “imposter syndrome.” We still struggle to fit in, to adapt, to make our offices our own – and scenarios 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, to various degrees, are all manifestations of these problems.

So what’s the answer? Should we draw lines – not just figuratively but literally, per Lucy? Should women register their contempt, their dismay, their anger, by retreating to their own dedicated enclaves?

I suspect the most effective solution is easy to articulate but tougher to realize: we just have to be ourselves. We can’t be afraid or intimidated. We mustn’t be crippled by unwritten or unspoken rules. We need to acknowledge that each of us is by no means alone and that our fears and inhibitions aren’t unique.

Ultimately, it’s about being in control. These things very seldom happen overnight, as women know only too well, but confidence really does breed confidence – and that’s what it takes to make a difference. To quote Lucille Ball again: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Laurie Cohen is a Professor of Work and Organisation at Nottingham University Business School and the author of Imagining Women’s Careers. The research discussed here was carried out with Professor Melissa Tyler, of the University of Essex.

Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

About The Author

Laurie Cohen is Professor of Work and Organisation. She joined NUBS in September 2012, having previously worked for many years in the School of Business & Economics at Loughborough University. Since coming to Nottingham she has led the redesign of the undergraduate Management programme, and is currently Head of Professional Practice. Professor Cohen's doctoral research focused on women's career transitions from employment to self-employment. Her interests emerging from that include changing careers, careers in emerging forms of organization, and research methods in the study of career, focusing in particular on interpretive approaches and the use of narrative. For many years she has also been involved in a series of studies into perceptions and enactment of management in professional organizations focusing mainly on scientific research establishments. Professor Cohen is currently involved in research projects into public sector careers in the wake of austerity, and into gender equality in university research. Her work has been supported through a series of grants from the Economic and Social Research Council, the British Academy and the Nottingham/Birmingham Collaboration Fund. Professor Cohen has published widely and is on the editorial boards of Journal of Vocational Behavior, Management Learning, Journal of Professions and Organization, and Management Inquiry. Her research monograph, Imagining Women's Careers, was published by Oxford University Press in September, 2014. This has led to an appearance on BBC Radio 4's 'Women's Hour' and to numerous articles in the press. Professor Cohen has taught across the spectrum of years and programmes, including undergraduate and postgraduate taught and research programmes, and she has supervised over 10 PhD students to completion. In addition to her Nottingham role, Professor Cohen is Visiting Professor at the Lund University School of Economics and Management.