Mary Tyler Moore and Workplace Equality

When Mary Tyler Moore passed away this week at the age of 80, the world lost a very talented performer. But the world also lost a woman that made a difference for other women. In the 1970s, through her TV show The Mary Tyler Moore Show – which she co-created and co-produced, as well as starred in –  Moore helped to change attitudes about workplace equality.

Dan McGarry, who teaches human resource management at Seneca College in Ontario, sent me this post, which he also put on his course website. He wanted to tell his students how important Moore’s television show was in depicting the barriers that women faced at work.

Mary Tyler Moore’s name may mean very little or nothing to most of you, except that you heard that she passed away yesterday. However her television show, which used just her name, was a groundbreaker when it was first aired starting in 1970. Her character of Mary Richards was the first ‘career woman’ portrayed as the primary character in a TV show. 30-something, unmarried and unattached, she demonstrated something new in the mass media: a woman who could ‘make it on her own’.

In the very first episode of the series, she applies for a job. The manager, Mr. Grant, played by Ed Asner, asks her a number of inappropriate questions – some of which were still quite common in some jurisdictions. Unfortunately some organizations and managers still ask similar questions.

In another episode, she discovers that the person who preceded her in her job was making considerably more money than she is. She asks Mr. Grant if this person did a better job than her. His response is that she is doing a much better job than her predecessor. She then asks why she is not being paid as much money.  And his response is that her predecessor was a man. Again, this was still a common although illegal practice in many jurisdictions.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show helped to change society’s attitudes towards women in the workplace and to demonstrate some of the issues that they faced. So please give her a moment of respect for what her show accomplished for equality in the workplace.

The statue of Mary Tyler Moore in downtown Minneapolis, MN, on the pedestrian mall where the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were filmed. (credit: auvet/Flickr)

The statue of Mary Tyler Moore in downtown Minneapolis, MN, on the pedestrian mall where the opening credits of The Mary Tyler Moore Show were filmed. (credit: auvet/Flickr)

Dan also referred me to this blog post by Daniel Schwartz, a labor and employment lawyer in Connecticut, that illustrates the impact that Moore’s show had on women and on workplaces. The post is reproduced here with Mr. Schwartz’ permission.

Mary Richards’ job interview with Lou Grant is, perhaps, one of the most famous job interviews ever. So says Time magazine.

Before I go on, though, there are probably more than a few of you who don’t know what I’m talking about.

But with the passing of Mary Tyler Moore earlier today here in Connecticut, I was reminded of an early exchange from her television show that was included in an employee training seminar I did for employers many years ago.  It was used as an example (with humor) of what NOT to do in a job interview as a supervisor and there were many in the audience who remembered that television show.

I haven’t been able to find the actual video online – but YouTube does have a remake of the job interview featuring cartoons.  And you can get a sense of the dialogue elsewhere.

First, you have the supervisor (Lou) asking Mary what her age was. (Sigh.) To compound matters, he then asks what her religion is. (Double sigh.)

But this is where the show was groundbreaking — Mary doesn’t just respond.  She’s a “modern woman” (as The New York Times called her) and tells him: “I don’t know quite how to tell you this, but you’re not allowed to ask that question when someone is applying for a job. It’s against the law.”  He pushes back — “You gonna call the cops?” To which, Mary demurs.

And the interview continues with personal questions including whether she was married (she was not).  Then Mary stands up and calls him out for asking so many questions that have nothing to do with the job.

Lou responds in a classic line: “You’ve Got Spunk.”  Of course, he then says he hates “spunk” but this was the early 1970s and she was still hired.

It was groundbreaking television.  As NPR reported from an interview Ed Asner (who played Lou), that moment was critical: “It was the most powerful moment in theater I’ve had, because she played it so beautifully,” Asner told NPR in 2001. “The audience was going ‘oh-goo-goo’ at that moment.”

A few years ago, Time Magazine — in calling this show’s pilot one of the 10 best of all time — noted that it really formed the foundation of the workplace-as-family sitcom that so many other shows tried to copy.

As a child of the 70s and 80s, Mary Tyler Moore stood out to me because, well, she kinda seemed like my mom who was already in the workplace. Growing up, I didn’t see it as that unusual.

But now with the hindsight of history, all employment lawyers can point to Mary Tyler Moore as giving workplace issues their rightful place. And for a generation of women, Mary Tyler Moore represented more than just a television show.  She represented them.

Proper hiring procedures are still a topic we’re talking about today and I’ll be presenting on the topic next month.  Maybe it’s time I bring back the Mary Tyler Moore reference.  Watch for details soon.

Rest in Peace, Mary Tyler Moore.

One comment

  1. Maybe I should invest some time into watching some episodes of her show. I didn’t grow up here and she wasn’t known in Europe. From everything I read – and now from you – I am now intrigued.

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