A reader asked me this question:
Recently I was reading articles about Jennifer Lawrence and Amanda Seyfried getting significantly less money than their male co-stars.The argument was that this was a result of sexism but surely isn’t this more the fault of their management/agents?
This is a tricky question, because we don't know the specifics, and the devil is hiding in those details.
The problem with Seyfried's case is that the reports are pretty vague on the details. We don't know the film, we don't know the co-star, the respective size of their roles, and, as my reader mentioned: the comparative competence, greediness and clout of their respective representatives.
If you don't know the details, you can't really, with any accuracy, determine if sexism was behind the difference in salary.
It's a lot like the oft-repeated trope that women make 77¢ for every $1 a man makes. If you look at the surface of the arguments that use that statistic you have no choice but to think that male bosses do nothing but complicate their accounting as well as leave themselves open to lawsuits and maybe even criminal prosecution because their sexism outweighs their need for survival.
However, if you look at the details, you get a different picture. It's not, as many politicians and activists claim, cases of, let's say, a male sales clerk getting paid more than a female colleague despite having the same job and seniority because of the secret "penis bonus." The statistic comes from an overarching study of all occupations held by men and women irrespective of the nature of that occupation and how that affects salary.
If you totally believe the politicians, then sexism must be the only reason a 37 year old male oil rig roughneck, with 16 years experience, makes more money than an 18 year old female sales clerk working part time at an Orange Julius while she's going to university.
However, sexism isn't the only reason, in fact, it's likely that it might not be a reason at all. Those reasons include, the roughneck's seniority, the greater value put on delivering massive amounts of oil over small amounts of orange juice, and the greater probability that a roughneck is far more likely to have limb ripped off on the oil rig, than a counter worker is at the Orange Julius.
|Artist's depiction of the Committee For Deciding Salaries|
A close study of the details shows that on average women are more likely to accept lower paying jobs that can guarantee a certain quality of life over more lucrative jobs with high rates of death and dismemberment.
That's not to say that no women ever take those kinds of jobs. Many do, however, they are nowhere near enough numerically to make up the discrepancy in salaries when all are piled together to create the 77¢ statistic.
Which brings us back to actress salaries.
As I keep repeating myself, the devil in this issue lies in the details. Jennifer Lawrence was paid a lot less than her male co-stars on American Hustle, despite her box-office/Oscar status putting her on a more equal footing with them. We don't know the full details.
Lawrence has a good working relationship with director David O. Russell and might have volunteered to take an up-front pay cut to help get the movie made. That's not uncommon in Hollywood, especially if the project can only help boost the prestige and star-power of the actor in question.
However, I'm not going to just let the people who run Hollywood off the sexism hook.
Because Hollywood is run by people, and all people carry petty little prejudices and idiocies. It's what bonds us all as a species.
In Hollywood though, such prejudices and idiocies can be exacerbated because many in Hollywood think their sins don't count. Many in Hollywood honestly believe that it's perfectly okay to have a carbon footprint bigger than a Third World country as long as they support the correct politicians and get seen at the correct fundraisers. It's not hard to believe that it's the same with how they treat women.
Also Hollywood's behind the scenes history is loaded with sexist behavior, and I'm not talking about the notorious casting couch. During the Silent Era there were many female directors, and film editing was an almost exclusively female. However the coming of sound was used as an excuse by the unions to squeeze most women out of the director's chair and the editing room.
Which means I should probably get around to the point I'm trying to make.
I don't doubt that some, possibly many, people in positions of power hold some sexist attitudes that they think they can buy off with politically correct indulgences. However, if we're going to stop sexism in business, we need to conclusively prove sexism in business, because just accusing makes people feel good, but it really gets us nowhere. We need to know the tedious little technical details, because that's where the line between sexist piggishness and misunderstandings hides.