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Has the Workplace Changed for Women Since the '80s?

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"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 derives from the quintessential '80s romantic comedy, Working Girl, which to my surprise hit theatres a quarter of a century ago.

For those too young to recall, the 1988 film follows the story of Tess McGill, a Staten Island secretary played by Melanie Griffith, who tries desperately to move her way 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 execute her vision.

Watching the film again this week, I couldn't help but find parts of it comically outdated -- the sky-high hair and shoulder pads, personal computers equipped with tiny blue-green screens and dot matrix printers and smoking in the office.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 culturally bought into the idea that women can be powerful, feminine and totally in control. We've made it. Or have we?

A Monster.ca poll, to be released on Monday in conjunction with the film's anniversary, shows that 44 per cent of women and 28 per cent of men believe that nothing has changed in 25 years and that women still need to fight harder for opportunities.

The poll also shows that eight out of ten 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 of women 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 is data to back up the pessimism of the poll. Two recent studies by Catalyst, an advocacy group, revealed a less-than-rosy picture for the advancement of women in the workforce. The first showed no significant change for the number of women holding corporate board seats in Fortune 500 companies over the last 8 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 compared to men.

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 ADP, observed that while the corporate landscape has evolved tremendously, we still have a ways to go.

"There weren't many Chief Diversity officers 25 years ago," said Ms. Mitjans. "There is more of a senior level commitment from companies acknowledging the connecting between diversity and business performance," she added.

While the corporate world had "awakened" to the value of a diverse workforce, cultural nuances persist that impact women's earning potential. She cites Sheryl Sandberg as an example of a high-powered executive who was ready to take the first offer CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave to recruit her from Google.

"Culturally, it's very acceptable for men to be very aggressive in pursing their careers and extolling their value to whomever it is that they are meeting with. That cultural normative behaviour is viewed different for women," explained Ms. Mitjans.

Which brings me back to the movie. Tess's success comes in part from her breaking cultural norms of the time. Her male love interest played by Harrison Ford observes that she acts feminine while being professionally ambitious -- a novel mix for the era. Yet she only achieves success through a series of Machiavellian maneuvers.

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," said Griffith's character in the film.

Well said, Tess. Well said.