Olivetti’s image was tarnished in 1972 by an unfortunate advertising campaign promoting “brainy” typewriters that were supposed to eliminate the typing errors made by shallow secretaries.

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A TV commercial showed a secretary as a vacuous pin-up girl who found that she could attract men by becoming an “Olivetti girl.”

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This infuriated a group of New York City secretaries, backed by members of the National Organization of Women, a feminist organization, which picketed Olivetti’s headquarters (“Rebel Secretaries,” Time, 20 March 1972).

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“The 2,000,000 U.S. secretaries —nearly all women, many underutilized and underpaid—would seem to be ideal recruits for Women’s Liberation. Yet few so far have joined the cause. Nevertheless, with new pages being turned almost everywhere else, some are being flipped over in shorthand notebooks too.
Last week, responding to complaints from employees, the U.S. State Department ordered its executives to stop treating secretaries as “char help,” to show a little more diplomacy toward them and to encourage independent secretarial decision making.”

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“Six different models each matched to a specific secretarial workload.”

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Olivetti only had to look in-house for a remedy for their tarnished reputation …

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Marisa Bellisario, whose business career began at Olivetti’s computer division in 1960, returned to the company in 1971. Her reappointment was more than just a token. A former Honeywell executive, Bellisario was highly regarded for her business acumen.

By 1978 she had risen to be the head of Olivetti’s information technology division, this at a time when there were few female top managers in the USA or Italy.

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Bellisario oversees the production of the DivSumma 28 electronic calculator, 1973 (above)

Bellisario and Mario Bellini pose alongside an Olivetti ET 201/221 Electronic typewriter (below)

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“She Has Three Years to Turn Olivetti America Around,” Fortune, 22 October 1979

Marisa Bellisario appears to have been successful. In less than two years, she overhauled the company’s strategy, becoming more selective in the product range and offering more advanced products geared to the American market. Typewriter production was moved from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Singapore.

Bellisario also built up a top management team with experience at main US corporations such as IBM, Xerox, Pitney-Bowes and W.R. Grace. She left Olivetti in 1981 to join the giant state-owned telecommunications group Italtel as managing director and chief executive officer.

(Extracts from Quaderni di Storia Economica: European Acquisitions in the United States: Re-examining Olivetti-Underwood Fifty Years Later by Federico Barbiellini Amidei, Andrea Goldstein and Marcella Spadoni, 2010.)

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Marisa Bellisario (9 July 1935 – Torino, 4 August 1988) died of bone cancer, aged just 53.

 

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