It is Monday morning at the Top Girls Employment Agency. Marlene is meeting with a woman named Jeanine. She asks her about her education and her present job—Jeanine works as a secretary to three men who “share [her.]” The job is fine, she says, except she has no prospects, and feels there is no chance of advancement in terms of either position or salary. Marlene asks if Jeanine will take “anything comparable” to her current position, but Jeanine insists she wants more money.
Here, Marlene meets with a young woman who has clear and somewhat lofty aspirations. She knows that she wants to gain more power and enjoy more success in her career, and she is not willing to settle for being an underpaid secretary any longer.
Marlene asks Jeanine how much she is making, and when Jeanine answers her, Marlene remarks that her salary is not bad—Marlene points out that Jeanine is only twenty. Jeanine replies that she is saving up to get married. Marlene advises Jeanine not to tell any potential employers that she’s planning on getting married. Jeanine starts to ask Marlene what she should do if, in an interview, she’s asked about her marriage plans, but Marlene cuts Jeanine off, asking if she has a feel for any particular kind of company. When Jeanine answers “advertising,” Marlene tells her advertising firms are looking for “something glossier.” Jeanine explains that she dresses demurely for her current job; Marlene answers that she means “glossier” in terms of experience, not appearance.
The realization that Jeanine is pursuing more lucrative employment in order to finance a wedding causes Marlene to change her opinion of Jeanine. Marlene knows that marriage—any kind of attachment, really—is a liability. As the play unfolds, Churchill will examine the lengths to which Marlene has gone to ensure that there is nothing standing in the way of her career. Marlene wants to encourage Jeanine to keep her desire for marriage under wraps, as it will hurt her chances of being taken seriously in the corporate world.
Marlene tells Jeanine she might have something for her in the marketing department of a knitwear manufacturer, working as secretary to the male marketing manager. She warns Jeanine not to mention marriage if she goes in for an interview, as the last girl Jeanine sent to him left to have a baby. Alternatively, Marlene says, there’s another company that pays less but is just starting out—if Jeanine starts there now, she’ll grow with the company, and then will be “at the top with new girls coming in underneath [her.]” Marlene decides she will first send Jeanine to interview at this new company, which manufactures lampshades, with the knitwear manufacturer as a backup.
Marlene wants to offer Jeanine the chance not just to thrive, but to actually experience the feeling of being the “top girl” at her new company. She is careful to remind Jeanine, though, that any mention of marriage or plans to become a mother will greatly hurt her chances—this is a man’s world, and Jeanine must sacrifice certain things (or at least appear to) if she wants to succeed.
Jeanine mentions she’d like a job with a travel component. Marlene asks if Jeanine’s fiancé wants to travel; Jeanine answers that she wants to work primarily in London, but go abroad every now and then. Marlene tells Jeanine there’s a job as a personal assistant to a top executive available, but that Jeanine needs to consider whether that’s where she’ll want to be in ten years. Jeanine replies that she might not be alive in ten years; Marlene retorts that Jeanine will have children in ten years.
Marlene is going to help Jeanine, but clearly thinks that the fact that Jeanine is even considering marriage means that in ten years, she will be out of the work force and living an average life as a wife and a mother. Marlene is disdainful of women who choose family over their careers—and as the action continues, the audience will come to understand just how much she looks down on such women.
Marlene tells Jeanine she’s sending her to the lampshade company and the knitwear company, and in doing so is “putting [her]self on the line.” She advises Jeanine to go into her interviews behaving as if she is the best person for the job; if Jeanine doesn’t believe it, Marlene says, the companies won’t. Jeanine asks if Marlene believes it; Marlene replies that Jeanine “could make [her] believe it if [Jeanine] put [her] mind to it.”
Marlene seems to believe that Jeanine is genuinely smart and worthy of the jobs she’s applying for, but still thinks that Jeanine needs to make others believe that she wants personal financial and corporate success as badly as she says she does. She is subtly encouraging Jeanine to pretend to be someone else in order to land the job.