The 20 Best TV Shows About Ladies At Work

Happy Labor Day! Today is the unofficial end of summer and the official day of recognition for the American labor movement! One thing you can do to celebrate is read this very excellent labor history book called From The Folks Who Brought You The Weekend. Another thing you can do is read this really excellent list of the 20 best TV shows about ladies doing it for themselves in the workplace.


Being Mary Jane

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Being Mary Jane is one of the most underrated shows on TV. It started as a 90-minute pilot on BET and is still going strong — with 11 NAACP Image Award nominations — after three seasons. Gabrielle Union plays Mary Jane Paul, a successful TV anchor in Atlanta who is navigating the demands of of super stressful job in a very male-dominated industry and juggling all the expectations society and her family place on her as a single Black woman.

The Good Wife

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It’s still unbelievable to me that CBS produced a critically acclaimed drama centered on three deeply flawed and remarkably powerful ladies, one of whom was a bisexual woman of color. If you can wipe Kalinda and Alicia’s last green-screened scene out of your mind, you’ll find great satisfaction here.

Living Single

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Queen Latifah’s Khadijah James accomplished more in one season working as the editor of Flavor magazine than every single character on Friends accomplished at their jobs, combined, in ten seasons. Unlike aspiring actor Joey Tribbiani, Synclaire dreamed of stardom in her downtime, when she wasn’t working as the receptionist for Flavor. Regina was a buyer and a soap opera costume designer. Max was an attorney. And combining those incomes is how you actually afford an apartment in New York City.

Superstore

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Superstore was one of the best sitcoms on TV last season, and not just because America Ferrera elevates every ensemble. It’s no-joke diverse. It’s smart and subversive. It takes on soulless corporations and celebrates chosen family. And it’s really funny. NBC plans to use it as its comedy anchor in 2016.

Supergirl

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Kara Danvers and Cat Grant, a love story for the ages mentor/mentee workplace relationship we hardly ever get to see on TV! Kara is eager and earnest. Cat is curt and suspicious. What they have in common is their hardcore attraction to each other refusal to apologize for being ambitious. They succeed no matter what, and the men in their lives are there to help them thrive or get out of the way.

Ugly Betty

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Ugly Betty took a dive near the end when it turned its focus toward Betty’s personal life and away from Mode, but the early seasons of the show mixed pathos and peculiarity with uncanny ease. Betty Suarez was smart and sweet and driven and she never backed down, no matter how many Mean Girls (or incompetent men) came after her.

Mad Men

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It’s a Man’s World when we meet the employees of Sterling Cooper, but Peggy and Joan’s career trajectories are easily the most satisfying story arcs over the course of Mad Men’s seven seasons. They are boxed in by sexism at every turn, but they both emerge victorious in different ways. And they never even had to burn a Manhattan high rise to the ground.

Grey’s Anatomy

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Meredith and Callie and Bailey and Cristina and Arizona and April and Addison and Lexie, oh my!

30 Rock

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#Lizbianism

The West Wing

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On a show dominated by men, CJ Cregg remains one of the fiercest feminists in TV history (and arguably the most universally beloved character on The West Wing). She refused to answer a question about whether or not she was “a homosexual,” refused to tell the press what designer she was wearing when she ended up in the briefing room in her State Dinner dress. Plus one of my favorite conversations:

Sam: They have bathrobes in the gym?
CJ: In the women’s locker room.
Sam: That’s outrageous; there’s a thousand men working here and 50 women!
CJ: Yeah, and it’s the bathrobes that are outrageous.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show

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A single 30-year-old woman who also is the boss of a primetime TV news show? In 1970? There’s a reason critics always point to Mary Tyler Moore as one of the women who changed it all.

How to Get Away With Murder

Viola Davis’ bisexual badass attorney/professor Annalise Keating is one of the most layered characters on TV. She’s in charge in class, in charge in court, in charge in her personal relationships. The only thing she can’t seem to control is herself, and that’s a fascinating juxtaposition of power.

Laverne and Shirley

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Laverne and Shirley were roommates and bottle-cappers in a Milwaukee’s Shotz Brewery. They were also so popular that Mego released Laverne and Shirley dolls, and Hot Wheels manufactured a best-selling Shotz Brewery delivery van. I’ll bet you a hundred dollars no broadcast TV network on earth would pick up a pitch for this show today, especially not when one of the lead characters is a “tough-talking tomboy” and neither of them ever apologize for being single.

Murphy Brown

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Dan Quayle ran half his presidential campaign in 1992 by yelling at Murphy Brown for being a single working mother. He lost. The show survived six more seasons.

Parks and Recreation

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Leslie’s wall of inspirational women (which she kept with her all the way to the White House) included Jeannette Pickering Rankin, Hillary Clinton, Gertrude Stein, Nancy Pelosi, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Bella Abzug, Michelle Obama, Dianne Feinstein, Sandra O’Connor, Janet Reno, Sally Ride, Olympia Snow, and … Leslie Knope. SHE IS SO SUPER CHILL ALL THE TIME.

The Mindy Project

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The Mindy Project gets a lot of comparisons to Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is fair, but Mindy is muuuuuch better at her job than Bridget Jones could ever hope to be, and a little bit luckier in love, and surrounded by a much more likable cast of co-workers. Plus Mindy Kaling writes and stars in and sometimes even directs this show!

Suits

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Suits is about two men mainly, but Gina Torres’ Jessica Pearson is the character who rightly gets all the acclaim. Pearson is a Vassar girl, and a Harvard girl, and the first Black woman on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. She’s the managing partner of Pearson Hardman. Jessica Pearson literally never loses (and if she seems to lose, it’s only because you haven’t watched her bend a setback into a win yet).

Jane the Virgin

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Jane the Virgin is my favorite show on television. Jane’s gonna have it all! She’s going to be a successful romance writer, an exemplary mom, and loving daughter and granddaughter, a beloved wife, a best friend. She’s a lot of those things already, but career-wise, she’s making money at the Marbella, the most cursed workplace since Rosewood’s Radley Asylum. I’m still not sure exactly what her job is (general guest services, it seems like), but I know she manages to juggle it along with school, parenting, two full-time romances, familial obligations, murder mysteries, kidnappings, midwifing, breast pumping, and dance-offs with Britney Spears. Fourth wave feminism!

Scandal

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Olivia Pope is very good at what she does. She is better at it than anyone else. And that’s not arrogance, that’s a fact. IT’S HANDLED.

Bomb Girls

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If you pretend the movie doesn’t exist, this Canadian drama is second only to A League Of Their Own when it comes to stories about women making a way to change their own personal worlds on the homefront while the men are off at war.


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Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1244 articles for us.

36 Comments

  1. Living Single! I loved that show – it came out not long after my college roommate and I moved to Chicago and I remember avidly following it because it represented both my life and what I wanted my life to be – I was younger than the characters on the show and had shittier jobs and apartments than they did.

    One of the reasons I moved to Chicago when I was 21 was because I thought it would be fun to young and single in a big city (also, more queer people) – a belief I blame partially on watching too many re-runs of Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda at an impressionable age.

    • Ok addendum: idk how to feel abt the opportunistic lesbian character played by Loretta Divine. Seems like she’s the butt of the joke? She has a “lick-her license” I mean really? But I haven’t finished S3 yet so we’ll see. :-/

  2. I love all of this!!!

    I would also add Gilmore Girls to the list. Sure, it’s not primarily about women at work, but watching Lorelai grow in her career over the course of 7 seasons was wonderful to watch. She was a woman with career aspirations, she opened her own business, she was a good boss, and over the years we watched her handle a series of different job problems. I can’t wait to see what she’s doing in the revival!

  3. This is great! I would also add UnREAL — the central characters are two complicated, often unlikeable women in a complicated, often unlikeable business (reality TV production), and it’s fantastic. Shiri Appleby and Constance Zimmer are completely riveting, if you can get behind the (very) dark comedy premise.

  4. Let’s also not forget that on “Supergirl” that Alex Danvers and Lucy Lane are also treated as professionals that step into Hank’s role as head of the DEO, when he’s gone, with no-one questioning their authority or competence.

  5. Ahh Fairly Legal. Totally underrated show. Great tone, spent a little too much time on the romance, but Sarah Shahi always kills it in everything. It was very in the vein of Parks & Rec in that it always worked out in the end. Some people think that’s too unrealistic, but sometimes you just need to say fuck off to negative stuff for a while.

  6. Ok, maybe I’m being a little picky, but why Americans call this day “Labor Day” and not workers/laborers day?

    In my country, and almost every country that celebrates this day, on May, we use workers day because labor day kinda sounds like you’re celebratring work and we relate that to a celebration for our employers, not for us workers.

    • I think (and someone correct me if I’m wrong) that the origin of the name “Labor Day” (or “Labour Day”, as we spell it here in Canada!) is from “organized labour”. It’s NOT actually a holiday about celebrating workers, generally. Rather, the holiday is supposed to specifically celebrate the efforts and successes organized labour – aka unions – has achieved over the years. The reason most of us benefit from things like weekends, 40hr work weeks, child labour laws, and health and safety regulations, is because unions fought for those rights. That’s what we celebrate on Labour Day, because we’re being thankful for organized labour.

      • Just to add, a lot of people also died to help secure those rights. Not just in poor or brutal working conditions, but getting murdered by private security and U.S. Federal troops when they went in to break up strikes.

        That being said, Freak, a lot of Americans in particular have no clue what the day is for or that they owe anything to Labor. Most Americans are anti-Union and seem to believe in the mythological benevolence of corporations and politicians who serve them.

  7. I really liked Better Off Ted. Okay, the lead was male, but Portia de Rossi and Andrea Anders really stole the show. & even though I don’t remember much about it I feel like Ally McBeal had its moments.

  8. Just a small correction Max wasn’t living with them, she had her own place, but just was always there. While it was Khadijah, Sinclair, and Regina in the apartment together. It set this unrealistic notion that we will see our friends on a daily basis. That’s my only fault with this show(and Seinfeld), cause I don’t think I have the energy to go unannounced to a friends house. I’d probably get, “why didn’t you text me,” or “uh, I’m going to a ladies house later, she has a cat and a dog, I’m so excited.”

  9. I can’t help thinking of Xena: Warrior Princess with Xena and Gabrielle working (hard) to save the known world…6 seasons and into eternity. As fans know, there were also some other very strong women on this show through the years.

    Thank you for the interesting article. Some of my favorites are here, and the info gives me some other shows to consider.

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