On the set of her 1980 film debut “9 To 5,” Dolly Parton wrote a working-class anthem that called out how workers don’t get compensated and recognized fairly for their contributions: “It’s a rich man’s game no matter what they call it / And you spend your life puttin’ money in his wallet.” Before Parton even begins to sing, we hear the clacking of a typewriter, a familiar drumbeat to office work.
The title track “9 to 5” is still used as an anthem for people waking up with their “cup of ambition.” When Elizabeth Warren announced her 2020 presidential bid this February, she walked out to its familiar strains.
But does the film itself hold up? “9 to 5” starred Jane Fonda (Judy), Lily Tomlin (Violet) and Parton (Doralee) as three working women in New York City who have had enough of being disrespected and underpaid by their “sexist egotistical lying hypocritical bigot” boss, played by Dabney Coleman. They team up to take him down, and in the process become the unseen architects of a happier, more productive workplace.
Copy machines have improved a little since Judy battled a difficult Xerox, but too many of us are pressured to work longer than eight scheduled hours a day, and the film still makes radical claims about what a workplace should look like. “9 to 5” is often labeled as a farce and a revenge fantasy, but it uses those laughs to talk about a harder topic: the rage of not seeing your hard work recognized.
Fonda developed the film with her production company, and said she was inspired by the real frustrations expressed by working women who were members of the 9to5 office workers’ advocacy organization. She wanted to use humor strategically to tell their stories. As she told an Australian newspaper in 1981, “At first we were going to make a drama. But any way we did it, it seemed too preachy... It remains a labor film.”
I had never watched “9 to 5” until 2019, but I found the arguments Violet, Judy and Doralee had with their dismissive bosses and overly surveilled workplaces urgently relevant. Here’s what struck me roughly 40 years later:
There’s no main romance in this workplace comedy, and that’s great
Unlike its later counterparts ― such as the 1988 film “Working Girl,” which stars Harrison Ford as a romantic lead ― falling in love with a business associate is not a main plot point in this film. For these office employees, work is not a partner that loves them back, it’s just employment. Doralee is the boss’ secretary, Judy is the new office secretary, and Violet is the senior office supervisor, and they have a husband, an ex-husband and a dead husband, respectively. They need their jobs to support their lives and families. The job is seen as a necessary paycheck by Doralee, a place of squandered ambitions by Violet, and a new beginning for Judy, who is entering the workforce later in life following a divorce.
Work is pointedly not a place for a meet-cute with a male colleague. The men in power at Consolidated Companies all dismiss and demean the women working downstairs to some degree. Coleman’s Franklin creates a hostile work environment, sexually harassing Doralee and claiming Violet’s ideas as his own to superiors. Even after the company chairman commends the ladies’ work on on-site day care and flexible arrangements for boosting productivity by 20% in six weeks, he balks at equal pay.
It’s notable that it is a man without power in the company, Eddie Smith, a Black man, who subtly notes racial hierarchies play into hiring and promotion decisions for men who don’t have the corner office. “How am I gonna get out of the mailroom prison if they keep hiring people from the outside?” he says, exasperated, when he finds out the company has hired Judy, a white woman who, as Violet puts it, has “never worked in her life.”
‘He does have a family to support’ is still used to justify mens’ promotions
Fonda said that in her research for the role, she found that secretaries know the work they do is important, but “they’re not treated with respect. ... They have to put gas in the boss’s car, get his coffee, buy the presents for his wife and mistress” ― personal errands that are not part of the job and are thankless tasks that women still have to put up with today. Violet does Franklin’s errands even though she explicitly states they are outside of her job mandate, all in the hope of getting promoted.
But playing by the rules does not help her get ahead. In an infuriating exchange with Franklin, Violet is denied a promotion. Instead, it’s given to Bob, who has five fewer years of seniority than she does. “For Chrissake, I trained him,” she says. Although Franklin admitted in previous conversations that Violet “knows more about what’s going on here than anybody” except their superior, he cites Bob’s college education and notes that Bob has “a family to support.” “And I don’t?” Violet shoots back.
This is not a fictional scenario. Research has found that working mothers today face a penalty to their careers when they have children, while fathers get a literal fatherhood bonus for being seen as more mature and stable for having kids. Women lose 4% of hourly earnings on average for each child they have, while men earn 6% more, the research group Third Way found.
In 2019, equal pay, on-site day care and flexible work are still radical ideas
After tying Franklin up and trapping him in his home, the three women take over the office and enact radical changes in his name.
First, they start by allowing employees to bring plants and put personal photos on their desks. Then they make changes that “really count,” as Violet puts it, like equal salaries for equal job levels, on-site day care, a drug counseling program, and flexible work arrangements that let workers set their own hours and share jobs. It decreases absenteeism and increases engagement, but Franklin still says an expletive when he finds out what they have done in his absence. Many executives would still likely join him in consternation at the workplace benefits Violet, Judy and Doralee enacted.
For one, flexible work arrangements still carry a stigma. One 2013 study found that men and women equally valued flexibility after having a child, but men were less likely to take it over well-founded fears of being sidelined. Flexibility seekers in the study were given lower job evaluations than people with traditional work arrangements. No wonder then that job-sharing programs are only happening in 9% of companies, according to a 2018 survey of HR professionals.
For another, on-site day care is still extremely rare, even though it has been documented to increase retention and engagement. Outdoors retailer Patagonia, a pioneer of on-site day care, said in 2016 that it had a retention rate of 100% for mothers coming back to work in the last five years. But only 3% of companies offered subsidized, company-affiliated on-site child care, according to the same 2018 survey, which was conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management.
And then there’s equal pay for equal work, an idea no man in power could swallow as a real possibility in “9 To 5.” The bitter irony is that this is still far from being a protected reality today. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which is designed to close the gender wage gap, is still facing an uphill battle. It passed in the House of Representatives this March but has not yet passed in the Senate. It would protect employees from retaliation for discussing salaries with their colleagues ― something that a worker in “9 to 5” named Maria is fired for ― and would require the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to collect data on compensation, hiring, termination and promotion by gender.
‘This is just the beginning’
The mood at Consolidated Companies was visibly brighter as workers gained more autonomy over how they got their work done. Unfortunately, this new work life would still be a fiction for many workplaces.
“We’ve come this far, haven’t we? This is just the beginning,” Violet declares after the company’s chairman walks back enacting equal pay. We still need Violet’s determined hope. More than 39 years after “9 to 5,” we’re still drinking cups of ambition when it comes to achieving a truly progressive workplace for women. But we can follow the lead of Judy, Violet and Doralee, and build solidarity to organize for change.