Patricia Arquette and the Hollywood pay gap: who's to blame?

Hillary Clinton has joined the actor’s call for equal pay, but in Hollywood there is confusion about the causes of the persistent gender disparity

When Patricia Arquette used her Oscar speech to condemn pay disparities between men and women everyone seemed to cheer.

Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez led the Dolby theatre audience’s applause, the media backstage greeted Arquette like a conquering hero and Hillary Clinton, among others, echoed her denunciation.

The actor censured wage inequality across all sectors but focused attention on Hollywood, supposedly a bastion of liberalism, because here even A-list female stars suffer discrimination.

Arquette’s call to arms, however, is hindered by the fact no one really knows how bad the problem is.

A leading academic study concludes there is “equivocal evidence regarding its magnitude”. Media lists of the highest paid stars and executives grab headlines but are largely speculative. Interviews with actors and industry technicians signal a consensus that discrimination exists, but not about its scale or the urgency of reform.

“It’s funny that it’s a modish topic now when it’s been like this for decades,” said Marlene Forte, a veteran actor and producer best known for her role as Carmen Ramos on the TV series Dallas. Male actors routinely earned more than female counterparts with similar roles, she said. “It happens all the time. It happened on Dallas.”

Forte agreed with Arquette “100%” but said it was difficult to quantify the pay gap, or to know whether fault lay with female actors or agents for not pushing hard enough, or with executives for resisting equal pay. “It’s not obvious. They try to keep it hidden as much as they can. Your salary is supposed to be private so it’s easily swept under the rug.”

According to US Labor Department data women in the arts, entertainment, sports and media industry last year earned 85% of male counterparts’ pay. Women working full time in all sectors earned on average 82.5% less than men, so Hollywood appears marginally more egalitarian than other industries.

Those statistics do not directly prove sexism. Other variables such as occupation, age, education, parenting decisions, preferences for benefits and lifestyle choice affect salary.

But no matter how studies slice the data, the gap never quite disappears, Gary Burtless, an economist at the Brookings Institution, told the Wall Street Journal last year.

“I have never seen anyone who has done a fair-minded study who fails to find there’s a residual amount of discrimination against women. The difference cannot be attributed to completely innocent explanations.”

Hollywood is hardly associated with innocence but even here there was consternation when Sony emails leaked last December revealed that Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, who fronts the Hunger Games franchise, earned significantly less than male co-stars in American Hustle.

Amy Pascal, recently ousted as Sony’s co-chairwoman, told a conference it was up to women, not studios, to demand their worth. “Here’s the problem: I run a business. People want to work for less money, I’ll pay them less money.”

The Sony revelations raised serious questions about agents. Lisa Kudrow, who played Phoebe in Friends, told the Guardian: “An actor is not the one on the phone saying, ‘what’s he getting? I should get the same thing’.” Women – and their agents – needed to push harder, she said. “What (Pascal) was saying to women was, ‘make me pay you more’.”

A report last year by the Journal of Management Inquiry said female stars tended to see earnings fall after the age of 34 whereas those of men peaked around the age of 51 and then stayed stable.

Headlines about mega-salaries for blockbusters suggest a degree of industry transparency. Forbes magazine publishes an annual list of the highest paid actors which consistently shows men out-earning women by tens of millions.

However those are estimates of uncertain accuracy, said Martha Lauzen, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego state university. “The Sony hack has helped pull the curtain back a bit but all we really get are glimpses and bits and pieces.”

What was clear, said Lauzen, was the pattern of marginalisation behind and in front of the camera. “It’s part of a bigger picture that women are (valued) less than men in terms of their talents.”

Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, invoked Arquette while addressing a Silicon Valley conference on Tuesday, two days after the Oscar-winner’s speech. “She’s right – it is time to have wage equality once and for all.”

However some women who work in Hollywood’s technical side said they were not rushing to the barricades.

“I definitely agree with [Arquette] but it does seem to be more prevalent in her line of work,” said Laura Livingstone, a visual effects producer who worked on the Iron Man franchise. “If it affected me and my work/progress then I would be speaking up too. But it doesn’t really pertain to me in my work thankfully. Maybe since visual effects is a younger industry, it’s competitive and not bound by ... prejudices.”

Michèle Burke, who has won two Oscars for make-up, said wage disparity tended to affect women across the board but not in her unionised branch of the film industry. “Many crew members works for the published scale wages. It does not matter if they are male or female.” Top make-up artists earned above union rates but many of them were women. “I don’t think that their is wage inequality based on gender within my field.”


Rory Carroll

The GuardianTramp

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