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Ladies Lead at the Office - Nine to Five (1980)

March 4, 2019

"You're just a step on the boss-man's ladder but you got dreams he'll never take away..."  My last entry on office life, culture, and marketing in the AEC workplace looked at Mike Judge's cult classic "Office Space". Before Office Space, however, there were the ladies of Nine to Five. Released in 1980, this film is certainly dated by today's standards, but its echoes still linger in the daily office routine, from office gossip to the need to get drinks after work. Notably made in the film is the argument for equal pay, respect, and treatment of women in the workplace, some of which is still currently relevant. Closer to home in the film is some of the mentality that women are less capable or more encumbered by their duties as mothers and women, and some of that thinking still exists in society.


Marketing in the AEC business, as many of us marketers will tell you, is a predominantly female demographic. Many of my SMPS colleagues will agree that we all share a camaraderie as marketers in dealing with the stresses of the deadline and the challenges involved in marketing a company; despite the "battle of the sexes". In my own experience the real challenge in this "battle" has been more generational and expertise in nature. Not so long ago though, marketing was part of administration, and administration has historically been staffed by women. While it's great that we have moved on as a marketing industry and become more diversified, it's also important to remember that it wasn't always the case.


The Review

Judy starts a job with Consolidated Companies after a long career as a housewife. She begins work training under Violet, a single working mom who runs a tight ship and whose daily tasks make her de-facto boss under the chauvinistic VP Frank Hart. Frank Hart's secretary is Doralee, a gorgeous and driven woman trying to make her way in the professional world. In their dealings with their boss, an obvious graduate of the "good 'ol boys" club, they end up bonding over the challenges that he throws at them in the sleaziest manner. He steals Violet's ideas for improving company efficiency to pass off as his own, makes overt sexual passes at Doralee that would make any HR manager cringe, and treats Judy like the last kid picked for the kickball team.


His position in the company is, in his mind, secured because he is a man, despite the fact that Violet trained him. When he passes her over for a promotion she has been working for, she boils over and the ladies spend a girl's night fantasizing about all the ways that they would humiliate their boss. What ensues are three funny and memorable scenes of retribution against the big bad boss that any office worker can appreciate.


Through comedically timed circumstances, the ladies find themselves in a situation where they think they have accidentally killed their boss. Violet's exhaustion and fuming frustration over being passed over for a promotion causes her to put rat poison in his coffee, which he never drinks because his faulty chair causes him to fall over and hit his head. Wracked with guilt, they search for him at the hospital to explain the situation, but find out that the man in the same room they end up leaving with the wrong body. Violet, Judy, and Doralee go to work the next day after taking care of one situation only to find themselves facing another, this time with their pig-headed boss.


When he shows up at work the next day, and the resident office snitch, a typical "Did you get the memo" Mary, dishes all the gossip that she heard in the ladies room to the boss, and he uses it as leverage to sexually proposition his secretary even further. Doralee decides she has had enough this time, and in collusion with the other two, they kidnap their boss and keep him hostage at his house while they run the company branch in his name. How long they can keep the ruse going comes to a boil in the third act, but their worker's revolution gets the branch noticed by eyes in the highest places.


The Take

In its heart, Nine to Five is a fantasy fiction. Everyone at one point or another has had similar "if I had my way with the boss" or "if I ran the company" fantasies. It's a way of coping with the corporate machine that you can't control. What I love about Nine to Five is how expository it was for its time, much like "Kramer vs. Kramer", in revealing the changes demographic of the American family capsule and social values. That tidal wave of change in the early 80s and how it was exposed is still rippling today. The times "may have been a changing" when Bob Dylan sang about it, but for many women in the workplace, they have never stopped changing. 


On their own levels, each of the ladies in the film represents a type of working woman that faced the challenge of balancing work and womanhood in the 80s. Violet is a born leader and a working single mother but gets passed over on promotion because of her gender. Judy is the unsure and unconfident recently-divorced novice trying to learn to work in a man's world. Doralee is the kind and determined secretary that wants to be respected but is only seen for her looks. It's obvious in the first act of the film that each of these women wants to be seen and respected for more that what they are on the outside. The fact that they have to take drastic measures to get there is the real problem here. 


What I also love about this film is that it is more complex than just man-bashing, because every villain also has a henchman. In this case, the film's henchman is Roz, the "Nancy-Know-it-All, Did-You-Get-the-Memo-Mary" of the office (you have one in your office too, even if you don't know it yet). This character reiterates that bullying in the workplace is not relegated to only men, as there are many women in the workplace who will step on your back to get up the corporate ladder. Her character also highlights in contrast why the sisterhood bond between Doralee, Violet, and Judy is so important. After a few jobs and offices, I have learned first hand that you gotta have your crew.


Work with employees and they will work with you. The ladies enact benefits in their bosses absence for job sharing, on-site day care centers, flexible hours, and other benefits to appeal to working parents. They redecorate to make the environment more inviting, allow workers to decorate their desks, and provide alcoholic treatment programs to assist their workers with healing problems outside of work. Google could have taken their employee handbook straight from this film, and no one would be able to tell the difference. These considerations and attention to detail are what many firms in AEC businesses today are using to retain employees and promote efficient work environments. 


In some of my previous blogs I have discussed employee retention, how to get the most out of your marketing staff, and how to cultivate talent. I think that given the demographics of AEC marketing, those challenges are interlaced with a given respect for women and their contributions to the workplace. Don't get me wrong, AEC marketing is equal opportunity and for everyone (at least anyone who has the spine for stressful deadlines and client meetings), but through my observations attending conferences and meetings, the marketers are mostly female, while the technical staff of a given firm is usually mostly male. This trend continues to shift, making the mutual professional respect throughout an office so much more crucial. Women tend to have different priorities, capabilities, strengths, and aptitudes, which is why an open mind facilitates better communication with coworkers in general. 


The dichotomy of gender awareness has been prevalent in the AEC business since I have been involved, even as passing undertones, and I am sure that when this movie was released marketing in AEC was a whole different game, perhaps even non-existent. On more than one occasion, I have had difficulty with coworkers because they think of me on a level that's less than equally professional. It has become a Pavlovian response for me to gag at someone asking me to "make it pretty". In some cases, I have had to remind people that I have three college degrees in design and communication - and yes, one of those is a Bachelor of Science. While I could flaunt my credentials to every professional I meet, I have had to work twice as hard to prove my worth and experience. This has occurred within the last four years. 


I learned how to do this job from the best example out there, my mother. When going to job interviews, she was sometimes asked how she handled herself under stressful situations. Her response was typically "I worked full time and co-raised five kids". Needless to say my mother never had a problem getting a job. This film came out just before she graduated high school, so I like to think it had a lasting impression on her, because she was the one who introduced it to me.


I was rough around the edges when it came time to presenting myself in a professional manner after high school when I needed a job, and as much as I rolled my eyes at her advice (not nearly as good as Lily Tomlin, but even I can't beat the experts) something in the back of my mind was taking notes. I credit my success to her teachings as a working mother as much as I do to my AEC marketing mentor, also a working mother about the same age. In mimicking my mother's response, when I was asked in my very first AEC marketing industry interview if I was comfortable working with mostly men, my almost immediate response was "I am the oldest of five children, and the only girl. I have pretty much been training for middle management since I was thirteen."


I feel like living proof that when you are a working mother, another young soon-to-be-professional is watching you intently; in the same manner that animals in the wild teach their young how to hunt and forage for sustenance. It's a professional jungle out there, and you need a good teacher to learn how to not only survive it, but thrive in it. The best advice I can give to young women in this industry is to find that teacher, and watch and listen, and learn as much as you can. I furthered this experience by joining a mentoring group through SMPS and it has helped me not just to survive, but thrive.


So while I recognize that we have come a long way as far as equality in the workplace, I also recognize the need for continuous improvement; especially in the treatment of marketing staff and what they offer. Even just as recently as the last six months, my coworkers and I had the opportunity to scoff at a manager who referred to us as "the proposal gals" (note to readers: never refer to your marketing team as "proposal gals"). Marketing professional services is difficult enough on a good day without having to worry about your gender being a handicap. Anything less than respectful treatment of your marketers is a slap in the face of history, a mockery of the suffragette movement, and a personal insult to American Treasure Dolly Parton herself.  Following her lead I would hog tie anyone who says otherwise. 


 Now in the words of the immortal Deadpool - hit it Dolly!









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