Remaking 9 to 5? What Today’s Working Women Want to See

AP Photo

Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton at the premiere of "9 to 5" in Beverly Hills, 1980. 

The press has reported rumors that Hollywood may be planning a sequel to 9 to 5—the 1980 hit film comedy that starred Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin as office workers taking abuse from, and then getting revenge against, their sexist boss.

Which raises a question: How much of the story needs to change to make it relevant today? How much of the song?

... what a way to make a livin’
Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’
They just use your mind and they never give you credit
It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it

The song “9 to 5” may be running on a loop in your head these days. You might have heard it when Elizabeth Warren came on stage to announce that she is running for president. Or when Dolly Parton led the audience in a rendition at the Grammys tribute to her. Or when the Democratic Socialists of America ended a recent retreat singing “9 to 5” instead of “The Internationale.”

The movie was the top box office hit of 1980. Drawn from the real-life concerns—and revenge fantasies—of the members of the national organization 9to5, a group of women office workers we both directed over the years, the picture struck a nerve with the millions of women office workers who hadn’t seen themselves in popular culture since secretary Della Street helped Perry Mason solve cases in the 1960s TV series. It wasn’t because they were few in number. While Richard Nixon promoted men in hard hats as America’s typical workers, women at keyboards far outnumbered them. It was about time for a change.

Building on the momentum of the growing working women’s movement, the movie used humor to depict the systemic discrimination against women in the workplace. As in the movie, women turned their attention to what should be done.

A lot has changed since 1980—and yet …

Polyester blouses with bows at the neck are out, as are typewriters. More women work as professionals and managers now than in the old days, although the largest occupation for women remains secretaries and administrative assistants. But are the issues 9 to 5 raised still with us? If there were to be a new 9 to 5, what changes would be needed?

After distributing DVDs of the film to a multiracial, multi-age cross section of women office workers, we talked with more than 50 such women in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., to find out.

Here’s what they said.

Nine to five? “We’re working more like 24/7,” Brenda said, “but I had to stand up and shout 10 minutes into this film—I couldn’t believe how many of the problems are still with us!” Sexual harassment and sex discrimination, pay inequity and undervaluation of work, lack of child care and lying sexist bigots—all these issues hit home with the women we talked with. The film’s “boss-speak could be copied straight from today,” Paula said.

“I’ve been in the workforce a long time. They say sexual harassment has changed, but it hasn’t.”

Some of the stories we heard were shockingly overt. Alissa described an incident a few weeks into a new job at a PR firm. “I was in an office with two very senior men. One said ‘Pitching is like doing a blow job. You use it to warm them up and then go in.’”

Elizabeth was at a company-sponsored event when an important client “decided to kiss my arm all the way up and all the way down at the dinner table. I was stunned.”

Others describe more subtle behavior. “A lot of times you walk away from it thinking, ‘Did that just happen or am I imagining it?’” Janice told us. Several women described men who put on a front of being feminist or progressive to get away with bad behavior.

One difference with the film: More women today know sexual harassment is illegal and may have support to come forward in cases of egregious behavior. But a common theme we heard was that men in power get a slap on the wrist while survivors of sexual misconduct have to deal with the fallout in all facets of their lives.

We heard lots of complaints about “bro culture.” And most of the women had a story about the “emotional labor” women have to do. Many talked about the need to calibrate their daily behavior between “nice” and “assertive.” Failing to navigate the tightrope can set off any man in the workplace, a boss, co-worker, or client. “Do men even know there is a line, that women have this balancing act?” asked Amanda.

A Wisconsin woman described what it’s like seeing someone else take credit for your work—“having to swallow all the fury and frustration in order to just show up to the bullshit at work because the bullshit pays the bills.”

What issues did not make it into the original 9 to 5?

Family matters at work

A new film would have to deal with the pressure women feel between work and family responsibilities. In the movie, women had to hide any evidence of their families, including photos. Today, there’s a lot more lip service paid to “work-life balance.” But as LeeAnn told us, “Management says they care about quality of life—then they say, ‘Work harder, get the work done.’”

“Child-care center? I feel like I have to hide the fact that I have kids,” said Sheila.

Despite endless articles on child care in women’s magazines of the 1990s, company-supported child care is still ephemeral. Cost for child care is so prohibitive that in many urban areas it matches the cost for college education, leaving many low-wage workers having to rely on a patchwork of care from family members and neighbors.

The public-sector employees we spoke with were more likely to work at a location with on-site day care. But the culture often worked against them. “The center closed for the two weeks before Labor Day,” Elaine told us. “My boss said, ‘You’re not taking the whole two weeks, are you?’”

Only 17 percent of employees in the United States receive paid family leave through an employer, and less than 40 percent have employer-sponsored temporary disability insurance. Sofia, for instance, experienced injuries when a car slammed into the bus she was riding on. “If you ask permission to leave, they never say yes. They ask, ‘Is this done?’ I was off for a week. The day I was back, they fired me.”

Many of the women we talked to had to manage care for a parent as well as children and sometimes grandchildren, and many found little consideration from their boss. “I’m helping my son raise his daughter,” Lyna said. “I have stress from work. My son asks why don’t you quit this job—I say, ‘You won’t be able to take care of me.’”

What ever happened to the standard 9-to-5 job?

Today’s workforce has seen a huge boom in people working in nonstandard positions. Entire departments may be contracted out and find themselves with lower pay and fewer or no benefits. Jackie is part of a billing department whose employees one day were told they’d do the same work but have a different employer. “It was a wholly owned subsidiary of this company, but had a different name and different rules,” she told us. “Instead of a $350 bonus at Christmas, we were told to be glad we had a job.”

For lower-wage workers today, jobs often come with either too few hours or mandatory overtime. According to Paula, the entry-level workers in her firm all had to get second jobs. Long hours plagued women at all levels. Maria described the rationale of a senior VP who told her work group of 110 people, “We’ve had a heart-to-heart about how important it is to be team players. Ten hours overtime is not a lot to ask.”

Women’s pay relative to men has improved, but pay for all workers has been stagnant since the film came out in 1980, while benefits have declined. All new wealth is ending up in the pockets of the very wealthy. A study by the Economic Policy Institute finds income inequality is rising so fast that federal data can’t keep up with it. Crushing debt compounds the pressure of stagnant wages. Credit card debt is 15 times higher than it was in 1980, and student debt, which exceeds credit card debt today, wasn’t even an issue back then. “My friends are all drowning in debt,” Sondra said. “We’ll never get ahead.”

Health-care costs are a major contributor to debt and economic instability. In the days of Violet (Tomlin), Judy (Fonda), and Doralee (Parton), more low-wage and middle-wage workers were covered by employer-provided health insurance. In recent decades, such coverage plummeted by 20 percent. In the 2018 elections, health care was the top issue for voters—as it might well be for the characters in a 9 to 5 remake.

Race matters

Everyone we talked to agreed that the cast of a new movie would have to be multiracial and that the movie would need to be real about racism. Paula described a common problem. “I find with men, they see you in two different ways. Externally facing, they love to have the smart black woman at their table to pitch the new business, lead the account—it makes them look good. Behind the scenes, they give you tasks, not responsibilities—‘I need you to draw up the agenda, but show it to me before you send it.’ I’ve been a VP, I can handle an agenda.”

“What drives women of color crazy is smaller micro-aggressions,” explained Phaedra. “The most exhausting part of our work is the extra thinking we have to do after each interaction.”

It’s also hard being a double minority. New management came in when Lori’s company was sold. Only a few people at the top made decisions about reorganization, despite meetings they held throughout the company. “You sit through meetings, see you’re the only African American, the only female—and there are a lot of white males. No one’s listening to you.”

Every move you make, they’ll be watching you

While many women feel invisible, surveillance is more subtle and pervasive than it was in 1980. Violet warned Judy to look under the bathroom stall walls to see if a supervisor was listening in, but today’s working women know their computers, phones, and video cameras can monitor them constantly. “My first day, I met the woman in charge of IT,” Carolyn explained. “She gives me a laptop, gives me a user name, and I have to give her my password. I guarantee you she’s in there reading my emails.”

Kendra had worked in a call center. “It was hard to get away to go to the bathroom,” she said. “They tracked and timed it. It’s all part of a point system. In 11 months they said I accumulated too many points and I had to resign.”

So do we need Judy, Violet, and Doralee back to tackle the problems of 2019?

Jenn, like most of the women we spoke with, was surprised to find that she loved the movie. “The simple issue of respect in the workplace still rings true,” she told us. “But women workers today are facing more of a soup of issues that combine to tighten the screws—being a caretaker, having a side hustle, trying to go to school alongside a full-time job, major debt, unemployed spouse.”

The good news is that some women aren’t putting up with it anymore. After years of declining access to paid time off, an organized movement demanding paid sick and family leave is making impressive gains. Led by Family Values @ Work, coordinated grassroots campaigns to enact state and local legislation have provided access to paid leave and paid sick days to nearly 47 million workers in a number of states. Thanks to the #MeToo movement, complaints and lawsuits regarding sexual harassment are rising for the first time in years. And women now make up nearly half of all union members. The most recent polls show that 64 percent of women support unions.

What we heard from the women who saw 9 to 5 was a deep desire to see a new version that reflected today’s realities—the problems besetting women and their fighting spirit to overcome and solve them—with humor and star power, and hopefully a lot of organizing.

You’re just a step on the boss-man’s ladder
But you got dreams he’ll never take away
You’re in the same boat with a lotta your friends
Waitin’ for the day your ship’ll come in
An’ the tide’s gonna turn and it’s all gonna roll your way.

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