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Skeletons in the Corporate Closet: McDonald's


Hiring practices at the burger maker once focused on "flat-chested and unattractive women."


Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's (MCD), was famous for his pithy, inspirational quotes.

''Luck is a dividend of sweat," one "Krocism" went. "The more you sweat, the luckier you get.''

"It's easy to have principles when you're rich," reads another. "The important thing is to have principles when you're poor."

These little nuggets were designed to rally Kroc's troops of hamburger flippers and potato fryers during the 1950s and 1960s. But there's a lesser known quote widely attributed to the folksy franchise magnate: When Kroc finally submitted to hiring females in his restaurants nearly 15 years after the founded the chain, he reportedly insisted they be "flat-chested and unattractive women."

A spokeswoman from McDonald's couldn't verify the precise quote, but she did confirm the essence of it. "He wanted to hire flatter-chested women who would be less attractive to men," she said.

Kroc may have had principles as both a poor man and a rich one, but somewhere along the way he failed to see the importance of gender equality in the workplace, even after it swept the nation. In Kroc's eyes, nice-looking women would have jeopardized the family environment he worked so hard to foster. They would have caused distraction among employees in the workplace and they would have attracted a less desirable clientele.

Brothers Dick and Mac McDonald opened the first McDonald's in 1948 as a hamburger drive-thru in southern California. Kroc, then a 52-year old mixer salesman, met the brothers in 1954 and took over to take the burger joint national as a franchise.

The ban on women originated with the McDonald brothers. Patricia Sowell Harris, chief diversity officer for the company, explains the reasons for it in her book None of Us Is as Good as All of Us: How McDonald's Prospers by Embracing Inclusion and Diversity:

Several people told me that it had its roots after World War II, when every guy who had been a mess chef came out of the Army and started a restaurant. They had a reputation of having a toothpick in their mouths, a pack of cigarettes rolled up in their sleeves, and a penchant for making advances on all the waitresses in the restaurants. Ray wanted to avoid this kind of "hanky panky" and so he followed the lead of Dick and Mac McDonald, who had done away with female carhops in their drive-in days because the teenaged boys they attracted to the restaurant tended to crowd out the family trade.

Franchise owners were allowed to hire women in their restaurants from the beginning, but the corporate-owned McDonald's outlets operated under a strict "no women allowed" policy until 1968. With so many young men being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, McDonald's was forced to hire women out of necessity.

For decades prior to this, however, women had fought and won many battles in the quest for equal opportunity in the workforce. In 1937, women workers staged a week-long strike at Woolworth's, then the country's largest retailer, in order to demand raises, overtime pay, and union representation. The strike received national attention and the women's victory sparked similar sit-ins across the country.

Although the Equal Rights Amendment wasn't officially signed into law, it was passed by Congress in 1972 and had been debated in Congress since its introduction nearly 50 years earlier in 1923. The National Organization of Women was formed in 1966 to help usher the legislation into law.

While women had to fight hard for rights in the workplace generally, they had always had a place as servers in restaurants. Indeed, the first American waitresses date all the way back to the 1600s, when women in New England were granted licenses to sell alcohol and become tavern keepers, according to Hey Waitress!, a history of the profession.

But there isn't evidence that women were particularly bothered by the fact that they couldn't work at McDonald's until 1968. (White Castle, a burger chain and competitor to McDonald's, began hiring females in the 1940s.) Nevertheless, once equal rights for women became law, the company stepped up its efforts to diversify.

Today, according to a McDonald's spokeswoman, around 60% of the company's 1.6 million employees worldwide are women. Several members of its executive team, including its president of its US operations, are women.

As for that hanky-panky Ray Kroc so desperately wanted to avoid, it surely happens to some degree in McDonald's and every other restaurant around the country. But more than 60 years after its founding, McDonald's remains a family-friendly establishment, even with attractive women behind the counter.

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