Black actresses open up about Hollywood pay gap

BY NINA METZ
CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS

BAXTER/ABACA PRESS/TNS
Octavia Spencer, left, and Viola Davis, who starred
together in “The Help,’’ attend the Academy Awards
in Hollywood on Feb. 26, 2012.
It’s taboo to talk about how much money you make – or how little. That’s one reason inequities persist. The pay gap hits women of color the hardest, with Black actresses in Hollywood talking about it openly in recent weeks.

Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Mo’Nique (Oscar winners each) have all spoken on record about their experience. In a more roundabout fashion, so has Tracee Ellis Ross, who picked up a Golden Globe this year for her performance on “Black-ish.”

Power of ‘Panther’
In her Oscar acceptance speech earlier this month, Frances McDormand championed the idea of an inclusion rider, wherein stars can use their leverage to ensure producers hire a larger number of actors otherwise marginalized in Hollywood. That’s great.

(Even if Netflix has been the first to openly reject the idea: CEO Reed Hastings said week he would rather just talk about inclusion than contractually agree to it.)

But just as important is what people are getting paid.

Especially when research shows that among box office hits, movies about women outearn movies about men. And with “Black Panther” hitting the $1 billion mark, it’s obvious movies starring Black actors have the potential to make big money.

‘Deserve it too’
Here’s Viola Davis in a recent interview with Porter magazine explaining why pay disparities are an issue: “If Caucasian women are getting 50 percent of what men are getting paid, we’re not even getting a quarter of what White women are getting paid.”

Actresses like Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman deserve everything they get, she said. “But guess what – I deserve it too. So does Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Halle Berry. We’ve put the work in too.”

Davis is at the top echelon of actors who are both famous and respected – and even she’s experiencing this.

Spencer’s confession
So is Spencer, who revealed at a Sundance panel in January that when she and Jessica Chastain teamed up to star in a comedy together, she had to spell out the realities: “I told her my story and we talked numbers and she was quiet, and she had no idea that that’s what it was like for women of color.”

When Chastain negotiated her contract, she stipulated that Spencer get the same deal. And it worked; Spencer got five times her previous rate.

“She had been underpaid for so long,” Chastain said on Twitter. “When I discovered that, I realized that I could tie her deal to mine to bring up her quote. Men should start doing this with their female co-stars.”

Explaining it
Why are Black actresses – in-demand actresses who win awards – not getting the same deals as their peers?

“One thing we’ve learned from social-psychological research in the last 10 or 15 years is that when we make decisions about people – when we evaluate others – we have biases that carry a lot of history that we don’t consciously process or recognize,” according to Ohio State University’s Timothy A. Judge, who studies how and why people are successful in their careers.

“So what you often see is this neurotic tendency to profess one set of values – fairness – but when you look at their decisions, there’s this discrepancy.”

Hollywood study
Four years ago, Judge published a study called “Age, Gender and Compensation: A Study of Hollywood Movie Stars” and the disparities abound.

He looked at 265 Hollywood film actors who had at least one leading role in a movie between 1968 and 2008, and accounted for mitigating factors such as experience, where they appeared in the credits and their earnings history.

Here’s what he found: For women, earnings increased until the age of 34 and then they dropped off, whereas men saw their earnings increase until age 51 and then remain stable thereafter.

Not enough Blacks
“One thing we did not do in that study was look at pay for African-American actors or other people of color, and that was because there were not nearly enough actors” in starring roles.

“In other words, the sample size wasn’t big enough to be statistically significant. Let that sink in. There weren’t enough actors of color in starring roles to qualify for the study. And in fact, I couldn’t find anyone who has done a comprehensive research about black actresses and what they’re paid.

“I would be pretty surprised,” Judge said, “if we did an analysis looking at race or ethnicity and didn’t find a similar result to our age and gender study. We have a lot of evidence that Hollywood isn’t any different than other industries.

“It’s a hard truth to confront. The problem is when we” – in this case, studios and producers – “don’t believe that these biases are affecting decisions.”

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