Obama’s State of the Union Address and Mad Men: Fact-Checking the Comparison

Do today's workplace policies really belong in an episode of the TV show?

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Michael Yarish / AMC

The phrase #madmen was trending on Twitter last night (as MSNBC points out), but not because the show is back on the air. Instead, #madmen became about something much more than a TV show when President Barack Obama made reference to the 1960s-set drama during last night’s State of the Union address. The President mentioned the show in reference to ’60s-worthy workplace policies that “belong in a Mad Men episode” — policies that disadvantage women, whom he cited as making 77 cents on the dollar compared to men.

The line is obviously meant to be a sweeping reference to the idea that today’s employment policies have not caught up with modern ideas about gender equality — not a literal side-by-side numbers thing — and the show is an apt pop-culture touchstone for comparison with mid-20th century America. Still, it’s worth a look: What exactly did those policies look like in the ’60s?

  • “A woman deserves equal pay for equal work,” said the President. In 1960, women made just 60 cents for every dollar men  made, according to Census Bureau data.
  • “She deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job,” Obama added. In 1960, only 19% of married women with young children had jobs, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those who were employed, 63% who got pregnant quit their jobs. In 2008, only 22% quit their jobs due to pregnancy.
  • And finally, “a mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child… a father does, too.” In the early ’60s, about 16% of female workers got paid maternity leave, according to Census data. By 2008, that number had leaped to 51%.

So it turns out that if today’s workplace policies appeared in a Mad Men episode, Sterling Cooper would have been pretty much the most progressive ad agency of its time. (Not that that’s saying all that much — when it comes to this topic, the ’60s were longer ago than you might imagine.)

There’s no question that Mad Men works as a reference point and, as TIME’s James Poniewozik writes, the show’s themes (progress, gender, social norms) are widely relevant to the State of the Union’s concerns. The 77% gender wage gap, by the way, is about the same as it was in 2001, but somehow it wouldn’t have packed the same oomph if Obama had cited Scrubs.

(MORE: Willie Robertson vs. Mad Men: Battle of the State of the Union TV Symbols)