Examining the Inequality for Women In Hollywood On Equal Pay Day

We talk a lot about equal pay, but what do the numbers tell us about progress in representation and earnings gaps for women in Hollywood? Spoiler: It's not great.

Grant Crabtree Photographic Collection

Today is Equal Pay Day: the day in the current year at which, on average, women will have “caught up” to the wages of their male counterparts from last year, calculated at the 23% wage gap. Though the subject of equal pay comes up with relative frequency, it’s difficult to assert that things are changing in a significant way — and Hollywood’s no exception to the crummy practices of other industries.

Female actors are still often paid less than their male co-stars and women continue to make up a disappointingly small percentage of directors, producers and writers in television and film. As Jennifer Lawrence pointed out in her essay in Lenny last October, it’s not that the wage gap in Hollywood is the most pressing as a strictly financial issue — after all, we’re often talking about millions of dollars in negotiations — it’s the principle. And the manner in which this extends to and permeates every other industry.

The fact that Lawrence, an Academy Award winner and box office juggernaut, has felt uncomfortable negotiating for more money because she’s afraid of being perceived as “bratty” (when most men in the industry clearly don’t suffer from the same anxiety) is telling. That even Lawrence, a woman very near the top of her industry, is paid less than men who, frankly, don’t have the same box office draw is objectively wrong — even if the wage gap in this instance represents millions of dollars which Lawrence, in her own words, doesn’t “need.” Where does that leave everyone else?

The problem isn’t just in front of the camera, and it’s not just on paychecks. Women are severely underrepresented when it comes to influential jobs behind the camera, and the problem’s even worse for minorities and LGBT creators.

The Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) last month released “The 2016 Hollywood Writers Report”, which found that while there were gains in some areas, women are still outnumbered by a factor of nearly 2 to 1 in the realm of television writing and a factor of 3 to 1 in film writing.

In the earnings gap, things are improving slightly in television, with women earning 93 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn. That said, the number is down from 2010 and 2011, when female writers in television were earning 96 cents for every dollar earned by male writers. And though the earnings gap is closing in television, things are worse in the realm of film writing according to the same WGAW report.

“The gender earnings gap in film has traditionally been greater than the gap in television, and since the last report, it has widened even more (see Figure 7). In 2012, 19 women film writers earned 78 cents for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts ($62,138 versus $80,000). By 2014, the relative earnings figure had dropped to just 68 cents. In that year, the median earnings figure for women film writers was $50,938, compared to $75,000 for white males. It’s worth noting that the lowest relative earnings figure over the six-year period appeared a year earlier, in 2013, when women earned just 61 cents for every dollar earned by men ($43,708 versus $71,077).”

Outside of the writers’ room, things aren’t any better. Variety took a good hard look at directors in television and the findings were pretty damning. The vast majority of the time, white men are the ones in director’s chairs, and in an area of the industry that’s notoriously tough to break into, women and minorities often aren’t being given the shots they need to even out those numbers.

In a study from San Diego State University called The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2015, Dr. Martha M. Lauzen found this:

“In 2015, women comprised 19% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents an increase of 2 percentage points from last year and is even with the percentage achieved in 2001.”

Not only are the numbers dismal, with women representing less than a fifth of top positions for the top 250 films of 2015, but that number is on par with 2001, meaning that in the time between 2001 and 2015, things got worse. For all of our discussion and attention to the issue, things continue to stagnate or worsen, and that’s disheartening.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Sundace’s Women at Sundance program and Female Filmmakers Initiate are pushing for parity in the film industry, working to give female creators the resources and support that may pave the way for widespread change.

With the understanding that the media we consume shapes the way we see ourselves, others and the world around us, Sundance’s efforts to support female creators has everything to do with creating an even playing field. In the words of Caroline Libresco, the Senior Programmer for the Sundance Festival, “The only way to create systemic change in our industry is to work collectively.”

The issue of equal pay and what we talk about when we talk about earnings gaps doesn’t just come down to money, it comes down to representation in the industry, to the value that we place on female creators, and to the extent to which they’re given the tools and the shots needed to succeed. Female voices in storytelling are key component of crafting well-developed, three-dimensional narratives, and those voices are essential to the creation of the media that forms and shapes and changes our worldview,

In the words of Selma director Ava DuVernay, “The work that we do affects the way that we see ourselves and the way that we are seen. It’s a vital work. Women making film is a radical act.”

On this Equal Pay Day in 2016, we’ve seen progress, but the fight is far from over — the numbers show that we’ve still got a long way to go and that there’s plenty of room for more and different voices in Hollywood.

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