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Though parts of Working Girl appear comically dated, the character’s difficult climb to the top still feels familiar. (THE KOBAL COLLECTION/20TH CENTURY FOX)
Though parts of Working Girl appear comically dated, the character’s difficult climb to the top still feels familiar. (THE KOBAL COLLECTION/20TH CENTURY FOX)

DIVERSITY

Not much has changed for today's working girls Add to ...

“You don’t get anything you want in this world by waiting for it to come to you; you make it happen.”

The simple wisdom of that line still makes me smile. But I didn’t pull it from a post on Forbes, LinkedIn or the Harvard Business Review blog. It’s from the 1980s romantic comedy Working Girl, which to my surprise hit theatres a quarter of a century ago.

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For those too young to recall, the film follows the story of Tess McGill, a secretary played by Melanie Griffith, who tries desperately to move up in the business world, battling sexist bosses and a corporate culture that appears determined to keep her in her place. Tess thinks she landed the jackpot when her new boss, played by Sigourney Weaver, appears to mentor her – only to then steal her business idea. Tess spends the rest of the film impersonating a senior executive in a ploy to steal back her idea.

Watching the film again this week, I couldn’t help but find parts of it comically outdated – the sky-high hair and huge shoulder pads, personal computers equipped with tiny blue-green screens and dot-matrix printers, and smoking in the office. A film like that could never be made now, since we’ve bought into the idea that women can be powerful, feminine and in control. We’ve made it. Or have we?

A Monster.ca poll, to be released Monday in conjunction with the film’s 25th anniversary, shows that 44 per cent of women and 28 per cent of men believe that not much has changed in 25 years and that women still need to fight harder for opportunities.

The poll also shows that eight out of 10 female respondents “believe that women need to prove they have superior skills and experience to compete with men when applying for jobs.” While 74 per cent agree that it is more common for women to be in a leadership role than 25 years ago, they still feel they need to work harder than men to get ahead.

“I had really hoped that we would find that women felt more positive about their place in the working world. But, unfortunately, my hope did not come true,” said Sheryl Boswell, director of marketing at Monster.ca.

Unfortunately, there are data to back up the pessimism found in the poll. Two recent studies by Catalyst, a women’s advocacy group, revealed a less-than-rosy picture for the advancement of women in the work force.

The first showed no significant change for the number of women holding corporate board seats in Fortune 500 companies over the past eight years.

The second Catalyst study showed high-potential women in Canada made $8,167 less than men in their first post-MBA jobs, and were also more likely to start their career in an entry-level position.

So while it’s become more accepted to see women take the lead – just this week General Motors announced that Mary Barra will take the helm as the first woman to run a major U.S. auto company – in many ways, not much has changed since Working Girl.

Rita Mitjans, the chief diversity and corporate social responsibility officer at New Jersey-based outsourcing company ADP, observed that while the corporate landscape has evolved, we still have a way to go.

“There weren’t many chief diversity officers 25 years ago,” Ms. Mitjans said. “There is more of a senior level commitment from companies acknowledging the connection between diversity and business performance,” she added.

While the corporate world had “awakened” to the value of a diverse work force, cultural nuances persist that have an impact on women’s earning potential. She points to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who said she was willing to take the first offer Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made to recruit her from Google.

“Culturally, it’s very acceptable for men to be very aggressive in pursuing their careers and extolling their value to whomever it is that they are meeting with. That cultural normative behaviour is viewed differently for women,” Ms. Mitjans said.

Which brings me back to the movie. The main character’s success comes in part from breaking the cultural norms of the time. Her love interest, played by Harrison Ford, observes that she acts feminine while being professionally ambitious – a novel mix for the era. Yet she secures her rightful place only through a series of Machiavellian manoeuvres.

Not many could replicate her antics in the real world but the motivation behind them is worth repeating: “I’m not gonna spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed rules that I had nothing to do with setting up.”

Well said, Tess. Well said.

Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: leah@rallyyourgoals.com

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