You’re Gonna Make It After All: How the Mary Tyler Moore Show Is More Relevant Than Ever

When I was a kid I used to catch reruns of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. All I can really remember is that I liked the opening, especially the shot where Mary effortlessly tosses her hat in the air. I had long brown hair and wanted to envision myself being a success, just like her. My ambitions mirrored Mary’s in some ways—heading to a big city and having some important role at a company—even though I didn't know what it might be. The recent death of Mary Tyler Moore motivated me to revisit Mary Richards and her incredible smile to see what I was missing.

After watching a few episodes I was immediately struck by something. The issues of pay gap, struggling for a meaningful title, and perceived responsibilities were hot topics 40 years ago—and they still are today. At first I felt defeated. Mary was dealing with issues I still hear about from my fellow businesswomen and colleagues all the time. Why wasn’t there any progress?

But then I took heart. The more I watched the more I saw that it was the way in which Mary handled each situation that still applies, and what we can learn from. I felt like there was a lot to learn from her and I wanted to share some thoughts.

In season three Mary finds out that a man who previously had her role, associate producer in the newsroom, was “making $50 a week more” than she is. She marches in to her boss, Lou Grant’s office who calmly tells her that the pay difference is “because he was a man.” Mr. Grant admits that she’s doing a better job…but the previous associate producer “had a family to support and you don’t.” Mary’s logical and reasonable response is great: “because financial need has nothing to do with it…you would have to pay the man with three children more than the man with two children, and the married man more than the bachelor and you don’t do that. What possible reason can you give me for not paying me a least as much as the man who had this job before me?” 

She fights for what she wants, more pay, and when she gets it she feels like it's a real victory. Obviously in today's world equal pay is still a relevant issue, but we can learn from Mary that fighting for it can mean winning. According to a recent report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, at the current pace, Michigan women won't achieve pay equity until the year 2084*. That’s right, 2084. We need more women like Mary Richards to help us lead the fight!

In another piece of recent news, Crain’s Detroit Business reports that The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida** notes that Detroit's sports team’s front office roles are “generally in line for gender diversity compared with their peers…but they lag the rest of corporate America.”

Mary tackled that topic in 1976 in an episode titled “What’s Wrong with Swimming,” where she wants to hire a female former Olympic swimmer as a sportscaster. She meets with resistance from everyone in the newsroom who call the potential new reporter a “dummy in a tank suit” and “pretty little ninny.” Her boss chides Mary because “the big thing these days is for women to get into the field that were just for guys.”

In this case what Mary does for the swimmer is what more women need to do for each other, advocate and serve as champions for women when positions become available and we can affect the outcome. When a woman is in a role to help influence a decision, we need to take action. And even if a role is a traditionally male role, we can help elevate women into those as well.

In another episode a friend of Mary’s family, Aunt Flo, “the best known newspaperwoman in America,” arrives in town for a visit. She’s a famous columnist who has interviewed a list of luminaries a mile long including Winston Churchill and Harry Truman. She’s a strong personality, who wears her achievements on her sleeve with aplomb and rubs some people the wrong way. But later, Lou Grant tells Mary that her aunt’s success is the reason to celebrate her. She is a trailblazer who worked in a newsroom full of men, and rose to the top. “When your aunt started out, she was a pioneer, all working women were. Pioneers have to be tough—they don’t win popularity contests. People like Flo Meredith broke the ground for people like Mary Richards.”

Of course some of the show’s standards—Mary calls her boss “Mr. Grant,” never using his first name among others—have changed. But, I’d like to think that out there somewhere is a young girl watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show who won’t have to worry about being paid the same as the man next to her or taking a job that a man traditionally holds. Because of the pioneering work that you are doing right now, you are breaking the ground for the next generation. So that young girl has already made it after all.