Editor’s note: The following story is part of Startland News’ coverage of the SXSW conference in Austin. Click here to read more stories from the 2022 trip.
The minds of women and marginalized employees are still being used without credit more than 40 years after Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda starred in a motion picture movement — accented by a hit pop country tune — that sought to bring equity into the workplace.
The real-world plot twist: Women becoming their own boss, climbing their own ladder.
The classic 1980 cult comedy “9 to 5” focuses on three women who are abused by a sexist, bigoted boss before turning the tables on him and plotting their revenge — before ultimately transforming their workplace.
“I have been in situations where I’ve been spoken over, my ideas were first dismissed and then reintroduced as someone else’s ideas, or my concerns regarding certain projects or practices were categorized as, ‘overthinking’ — all by my male counterparts,” said Megan Adams, recalling her own experiences as she reflected on the legacy of the 1980 blockbuster black comedy “9 to 5.”
“I was once advised by my boss to not, ‘be so friendly’ [because] it sends the wrong message.”
Knowing her experience isn’t unique, Adams in 2016 founded Firebrand Collective — a community for women in Kansas City that makes coworking, events, and connections easily accessible across the metro.
“From the notorious ‘smile more’ to the friend who was advised to be ‘more maternal’ towards her team and another friend who was directed to give her male teammates ‘an out’ when they make mistakes,” Adams said. “[The shared experiences of women] taught me that while entrepreneurship is not an easy path — it is worth it, solely for the opportunity to choose with whom I work,” she said.
The independent filmmakers behind “Still Working 9 to 5” — a new documentary that examines the impact of the original hit film and its intentional use of comedy to expose sexism and toxic gender roles in the workplace — agreed the story of a “rich man’s game” is as relevant in 2022 as it was in the early 1980s.
Delayed by the outbreak of COVID-19 (which arrived in 2020 as “9 to 5” turned 40), the retrospective film made its debut March 13 at SXSW in Austin with much of the lens focused on Parton — who starred in the movie and wrote and recorded the marquee song from its iconic soundtrack. The country music legend lured Fonda, Tomlin, and co-star (and office villain) Dabney Coleman to the documentary project, with interviews filmed pre-pandemic.
Watch the trailer for “Still Working 9 to 5” below, then keep reading to learn more about Adams’ and other Kansas City women’s experiences at work.
The two-hour film also explores the impact of the “Me Too” movement on the workplace, as well as the nation’s failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) — a constitutional guarantee of equal rights to all American citizens regardless of their gender or identity — which was a key political driver behind Fonda’s original interest in “9 to 5.”
Click here to learn more about “Still Working to 9 to 5” and the cultural impact of the original 1980 film or to hear interviews with its cast.
“I got some flack working with Jane … being such a radical gal,” Parton joked in the film, acknowledging the power of the piece to ruffle feathers — especially in her more traditional corner of the world.
Fonda’s decades of activism, however, haven’t resulted in the kind of change the trio hoped for 42 years ago when “9 to 5” premiered to skepticism and became a runaway success. Women in business leadership positions across Kansas City agree — and are working to rewrite that plot.
‘There’s a better life, and you think about it, don’t you?’
“I come from a background of show business — where still to this day [the playing field is] incredibly uneven and [inequalities are] really bad,” said Jackie Nguyen, theater actress-turned-owner of Cafe Cà Phê and KCMO board of parks and recreation commissioner.
“There are not as many women that are paid enough or as much as men. And creatively, a lot of jobs are still [controlled] predominantly by males.”
Such a reality pushed Nguyen to step out on her own, ultimately moving to Kansas City amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic — eager to take her future into her own hands.
“I chose entrepreneurship because I don’t want to have to feel less than when I have ideas and want to execute them,” she continued, detailing the events that influenced her to brew Kansas City’s first Vietnamese coffee shop.
And while the task hasn’t been easy, it has been worth it, Nguyen said.
Click here to read more about Nguyen’s entrepreneurship journey or here to contribute to her crowdfunding campaign which will help realize the buildout of her brick and mortar coffee shop in the Columbus Park neighborhood.
Fellow Kansas City entrepreneur, Alley Gage, owner of Alley Gage Beauty, agreed with Nguyen’s sentiments — noting her experience with inequality in the workplace has also included unfair treatment by other women, a reality rarely discussed in the conversation surrounding equal rights, she noted.
“It can get too personal,” Gage said, noting the beauty industry is often “catty and competitive.”
Gage recalled discriminatory pushback from a previous employer who routinely questioned her ability to do her job — something she’s firmly committed to — because of her fun and bubbly personality, she added.
“It was deeply cutting. … Yes, I like to have fun and I like to party and [have] a good time — but at the same time, if you’re at work, you’re at work. It’s your career. Show up, do a good job — that’s what you’re supposed to do,” she said of her work ethic, which has helped her land partnerships with major beauty brands she’s made exclusive to Kansas City.
The encounter ultimately pushed Gage — whose studio space is a neon-and-baby-pink shrine to Parton (one of her biggest inspirations) — to return home to Kansas City from California and open her own business.
“I thought, ‘I know who I am and I know what I’m good at. And I know that people like me because I show up and I work hard and I want to make sure everything is perfect for who I’m serving,’” Gage said.
“It made me realize I could do a good job on my own.”
Pressure to conform to a working world dominated by men — and how men perceive that world and the women in it — began before Gage even entered the workforce, at a time when she was seeking mentorship and support in preparation for her career, she added.
“The first notable time I felt discriminated against was when I was 17. I applied for an art program through my high school that allowed me to work in partnership with local businesses doing various kinds of art,” Gage recalled. “I was admitted into the program and quite thrilled about the opportunity. This program also had a business casual dress code that included wearing skirts and dresses that were knee length, shoulders being covered, heels were permitted and, overall, it was pretty easy to follow.”
“I was several days into the program when I was walking into the building in my knee-length dress and high heels,” she continued. “When I made it into the facility, a woman immediately pulled me aside and asked me to come into the administrator’s office. I was very confused, but I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
“When we made it into her office, the woman who was an administrator said, ‘I am going to need you to go home and change.’ Immediate embarrassment and confusion washed over me and I thought, ‘Did I rip my dress? My mom told me I looked cute before I left the house. What could be wrong?’ She could see the confusion on my face and I proceeded to ask why I needed to go home to change my clothes, and she paused and then said, ‘You can’t go out looking like that.’”
When Gage asked the administrator what she meant, her reply left her even more puzzled.
“She then proceeded to say, ‘You’re really beautiful … and I think when you are out on jobs people might get the wrong idea. You’re a young woman and if we send you out onto jobs with adult men, you’re going to get attention from them and I think someone your age with your looks could really confuse that attention because you are so pretty and you could be a model.’”
Gage’s bewilderment at the request quickly turned into rage, she said, noting she defended herself against the comments and pointed out that she’d never consider crossing such a boundary — especially at only 17.
“What she really meant was even though I was following the rules and the dress code, the way I ‘looked’ coupled with being a young woman would inadvertently cause adult men to act inappropriately towards me and I needed to subdue my ‘beauty’ so that men would behave,” she said.
“I was beyond infuriated and so taken aback,” Gage continued. “But before I could really even stop myself, I looked at her and quit. I told her, ‘I don’t want anything to do with you [or] with this if you’re interested in having to shame me and my beauty for the sake of grown, adult men’s behavior.’”
Years later, Gage said the moment continues to haunt her — but ultimately pushed her to pursue her creative passions.
“.. It ended up totally being a blessing in disguise. When I dropped the [business] program, it freed up so much of my schedule that I was able to jam pack all of my remaining free time with art classes with my favorite teacher, Mr. Butcher,” she said.
“When I look back at the people who have changed my life for the better, he is always one of the first names to come to mind. The irony that a grown man made me feel more empowered than the female administrator! He really encouraged my career aspirations and was the first person to really believe in my dream of being a makeup artist in the first place,” Gage continued.
“This experience shaped my path into entrepreneurship in a really profound way. It taught me to draw a hard line and to put my foot down firmly when my character and integrity is called into question. I have a strong head and moral compass and to be led by this in my own life, but I am also led by this with the same level of conviction when it comes to my clients. I believe in doing what is honorable and what’s right at the core of who I am.”
A fan of the original “9 to 5” film, “sticking it to the man” by embracing the power of entrepreneurship was an added cup of ambition for Gage, she added.
“When you feel like you are really being treated unequally or unfairly — and when you are an empowered woman who is headstrong and confident and you’re willing to put your foot down when something isn’t right, it feels like risky business,” Gage said of the threats and opportunities associated with taking a stand in the workplace.
“It’s bold to do it now, but back then it was extra spicy,” she joked.
Click here to learn more about Gage and Alley Gage Beauty.
‘You’re in the same boat, with a lot of your friends’
Members of the Firebrand Collective have voted to allow male participants in its activities, as well as to use its coworking space, Adams said, indicating that the key to overcoming inequality isn’t to create segregated spaces — but to embody the very thing it’s seeking to establish.
“I know I can speak for all Firebrand members when I say that it is important to show up ready to offer Kansas City what we are working so hard for ourselves: equity,” she said, offering further advice on what Kansas City’s employers could do to immediately begin rewriting the narrative of what it means to be a woman (or Black, a person of color, or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community) in the workplace.
“While our region is seemingly putting forth a good effort, we still have a lot of work to do on that front and not just in representation at the table,” Adams said.
“Employers need to do a better job of pairing their new or young employees from marginalized communities with appropriate mentors. We should focus even more on educating our existing workforce — it doesn’t do any good to place women or marginalized people at the table if the majority of the seats are occupied by people who haven’t been educated in the harm they continue to perpetuate, however unconsciously, by their past and current habits,” she continued.
“Furthermore, we need to make sure we’re setting our employees up for success by giving them clear pathways to pursue when they encounter situations of inequality — and beyond that, we need to act when those reports come through, because they will, and our response matters.”
“It is our responsibility to create a culture that discourages fear,” Adams continued. “Transparency, education, and mentorship all come into play. It must be said that this doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of the popularly reviled ‘old white man’ — any one in a position of power owes it to the future of their company and the mental health of their employees to educate themselves in [diversity, equity, and inclusion] practices. It’s not comfortable work, but it is imperative.”
Click here to learn more about Firebrand Collective or here to learn more about Adams’ work to keep the collective afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Puttin’ money in his wallet’
Nguyen and Gage agreed, noting a significant amount of work must be done to advance society beyond centuries of abuse of power by employers and the unfair treatment a majority of them have perpetuated or allowed to cycle.
“Many [local] breweries, major companies, hospitals, coffeeshops, bars — you name it, all [are ran by] men,” Nguyen said, noting many of her male peers will post about a need for equity on social media, but few have pursued creating it — and time is up.
“I haven’t actually seen real work being done quite yet,” she declared, highlighting that for the losses equality measures (such as the ERA) have taken, wins in representation across the city — such as her seat on the parks and recreation commission — have begun to take hold.
Such success is mitigated, however, by other inequities, such as fair pay or the need for pay at all, Nguyen said, noting her KCMO commission responsibilities are unpaid.
“It’s a start. It’s a seat at the table. But for being 2022, it’s still bullshit,” she said.
With the widespread release of “Still Working 9 to 5” pending a distribution partner, its filmmakers hope to advance the conversation of inequity in the workplace — beyond the workplace and beyond the unfair treatment of women, they told the screening audience during a Q&A. A renewed interest in passing the ERA by the Biden Administration, for example, could make the film even more relevant to the needs of those enduring the hold of oppressive employment, they said.
“I once again want to express my support for the ERA loudly and clearly,” Biden said in a January statement following a resolution in the House that declared the ERA has met constitutional requirements — despite being ratified by some states after a 1982 deadline passed.
“I have been a strong supporter of the ERA ever since I first ran for the Senate as a 29-year-old. We must recognize the clear will of the American people and definitively enshrine the principle of gender equality in the Constitution,” the president continued.
“It is long past time that we put all doubt to rest. I am calling on Congress to act immediately to pass a resolution recognizing ratification of the ERA. As the recently published Office of Legal Counsel memorandum makes clear, there is nothing standing in Congress’s way from doing so. No one should be discriminated against based on their sex — and we, as a nation, must stand up for full women’s equality.”
It’s a sentiment that doesn’t require viewing the new documentary or original film to get behind, Adams noted, tying the soundtrack and its message to her own journey.
“Oddly enough, I have never seen ‘9 to 5.’ I do love the song though and the lyrics have inspired me to continue along the entrepreneurial path even when my situation looks dark,” she said. “I’d rather go down in a flaming ball of entrepreneurial glory knowing I tried than [to have] not.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.
For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect at www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn