Forty years have passed since the release of the iconic 1980 film – and eponymous song – 9 to 5, and, despite the passage of decades, too many women find themselves still stuck in what Dolly Parton famously labeled a “rich man’s game.”
In so many ways, the world has changed since 1980. The year the movie was released, the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and John Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota Hotel in New York City – two events that feel like ancient history for young Americans. Yet for many women, issues of career mobility, sexual harassment in the workplace, pay equity, limitations on opportunity, and other workplace experiences that Dolly Parton sang about in 1980 have not been relegated to the history books.
Today, women make up nearly half the workforce but continue to face advancement obstacles when seeking leadership positions. The higher the ladder, the fewer women: women hold four in ten of all managerial positions but less than 7.4 percent of chief executive positions. Amongst corporate giants, the gap becomes even more pronounced: at S&P 500 companies, women make up just 4.8 percent of all chief executives. These numbers become even more stark for women of color: as of 2020, Black women held just 4 percent of all managerial positions and 1.4 percent of chief executive positions, and Latinas held 4.4 percent of managerial positions and 1.7 percent of chief executive positions. To provide a point of comparison: white men made up only a third of the total workforce but held over 60 percent of the chief executive positions.
This gap doesn’t just persist in corporate America. Only 26 percent of those who hold elected office, at the state and federal levels, are women. Women currently hold about 27 percent of seats in Congress. Globally, the US ranks only 75th in women’s representation in government.
Women continue to earn less money for equivalent work than do their male counterparts. In the four decades since the release of the original film, the gender pay gap has only closed by about 20 cents; in 2021, women made about 83 cents for every dollar made by men (and the gap is even bigger for women of color). Despite a recent high-profile agreement guaranteeing that the highly decorated US women’s soccer team will now receive equal pay to their (less decorated) male counterparts, women are still paid less than men in nearly every occupation.
Further, women remain more likely to experience sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Like the fictional characters portrayed in 9 to 5, more than 50 percent of women report experiencing harassment at work — and for lower-income women, the rates of sexual harassment are significantly higher. The economic costs of workplace sexual harassment add up over time for women due to lost wages, lost benefits, and medical and psychological treatment fees — one case study showed they totaled as much as $1.3 million over a lifetime.
Similarly, women remain more likely to off-ramp their careers due to caretaking demands or workplace inflexibility than their male counterparts. Over two years into the pandemic, workplace flexibility, paid leave, and higher pay top the list of wants for women as they chart a path back to the workforce. An IWPR study released in March 2022 found that more than 75 percent of women rate paid leave, health insurance, or job security as “very important” or “important” when considering future jobs, but at least one in three women workers say they currently lack one or more of these critical benefits.
The world may have changed in 40 years, but workplaces haven’t, and part of the reason why is a consistent and persistent failure by policymakers to prioritize legislative initiatives that would improve women’s ability to thrive and advance at work. Legislation dealing with equal pay, child care, workplace policies like paid leave and flexible hours, and worker protections have been repeatedly sidelined, postponed, or stripped from larger bills. Similarly, efforts to address sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace have fallen short. Most recently, key provisions around the care economy – originally included in the Build Back Better initiative – were removed from the final Inflation Recovery Act package that cleared Congress.
There isn’t a single policy solution that will fix these problems, but the release of Still Working 9 to 5 forty years after the original film is a poignant reminder of the need to finally take action and address the issues that push women out of the workplace. Systemic barriers to career advancement aren’t overcome through “a cup of ambition” – they need to be dismantled and altered by policymakers at every level of government. The economic data consistently reinforces a truth experienced by so many women across the country: it’s past time for Congress to make this a priority.