Those Dirty Rings

Fenster writes:

Like that ring around the collar left by men in the old Wisk ads, the Hollywood gender pay gap is another case of residue left by men that falls on women to clean up.  And so far, you try soaking it out you try bleaching it out you’ve still got that dirty pay gap.

It’s that simple. Or so Fenster has been told.  And he would like it that way if it were true.  He may have some sort of adult attention deficit thing and prefers not to wade through statistics.  Surely it can be easily boiled down to a simple narrative, the kind of thing he favors.  So let’s look around and see how simple it is.

Over at Forbes we can read about Everything You Need to Know About the Hollywood Pay Gap.  Yes, that’s right, everything!   The article cites some examples, like how the top female star in Hollywood (Jennifer Lawrence) recently made $52 million over 12 months compared with the top male star (Robert Downey, of all people) who made $80 million.  But that, the author concedes, is just a for instance.   So the author goes on to point out even more “anecdotes of discrimination” (and yes that is the term that is used.)

In truth, even though I was looking to keep it simple, I did not find the article all that persuasive.  As the proverb says, for example is not proof.

So I turned to the Washington Post, where Sally Kohn not only boils down the Hollywood pay gap issue to its essentials, but throws the general question of pay inequality into the pot as well, making for a narratively elegant twofer.

For some time, conservatives have disputed the truth of the gender wage gap. Despite numerous credible studies showing that women earn roughly 77 percent of what men earn, conservatives attack the idea of a pay gap as “a myth” and “a total sham.” They claim that women make 23 percent less than men because women take time out of their careers to care for children, choose less demanding jobs, or fail to negotiate for higher salaries as vigorously as their male counterparts. But here, we have a situation that negates all those excuses. In Lawrence, we have a highly talented woman who is single with no children, and — as evidenced by her success — extremely hardworking. She likely has a team of agents, managers and lawyers who advocate for her best interests in production deals, representatives not only skilled at negotiations but presumably well-informed on prevailing compensation standards in the industry. And yet, she’s still paid as though she’s less valuable than her male co-workers, who performed the same job she did. How much less was she to be paid? What’s the difference between 7 points and 9 points? Yup, about 23 percent.

Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams aren’t average women; they have far more power and resources to ensure they are paid what they are worth. So if, despite that, they still get paid just 77 cents for every $1 their male counterparts make, ordinary women negotiating on their own for an hourly wage as a cashier or an annual salary as a mid-level manager don’t stand a chance. If the pay gap is so flagrantly affecting one of Hollywood’s biggest female stars, can there be any doubt it’s also affecting typical working women — probably far worse?

Fenster loves a good argument as much as the next person, and if it saves him the aggravation of analyzing the nitty-gritty details all the better.  But Kohn feels unpersuasive as well.  For one, does she not recognize the fish and bicycle difference between market wages for conventional jobs and hand-crafted comp packages for stars and professional athletes.

It doesn’t help that the studies she links to in support of the 77 cent argument includes this one from the Wall Street Journal, which cites the gap as a mathematical thing but does not take any account of factors other than discrimination that may explain it.  Which is of course the whole point to the objection to the 77 cent figure.  Go figure.

Further research–if that is what you can call Googling–reveals a lot more articles, most of which support the notion of a pay gap, and a troubling one.  But are these articles well reasoned or mostly articles of faith?

The faith-based component is hard to escape.  Most of the material is anecdotal.  That suggests, right or wrong, that there is (or ought to be) a settled consensus on the matter. And when the press says something is over it wants it to be really and truly over.  So when Tarika Duncan at CBS News covered Robin Wright’s salary negotiations over her Claire Underwood role on House of Cards, it was done in the unquestioning embrace of Wright’s assertions–contract negotiating points used as established facts.

Here is the Evening News segment.  Duncan closes the segment with a you go girl quote from a representative of Kevin Spacey:

Kevin thinks it is amazing and well-deserved!  He’s honored to be part of a show that supports equal rights for women.

The camera then cuts back to the studio, where Duncan is now shown to be live, continuing her segment in an interchange with anchor Anthony Mason:

Duncan: Anthony a spokesperson for Netflix says they have no comment regarding Wright’s statement but of course (smiling) she got what she wanted.

Mason:  She did.  Tarika, thanks.

Nicely done.  The acceptance of Wright’s negotiating talking points as factual and relevant.  The quote from Spacey celebrating this as a case of equal pay and endorsing the notion.  The cut to Duncan live to bring the power of the anchor into it, to create a shared CBS News moment.  The smile on Duncan’s face as she says “she got what she wanted.”  The “no comment” quote from Netflix, a journalistic thing that always suggests something to hide.

They say Wright was acting like Claire when she hardballed Netflix for the increase.  Maybe, but Claire would have been prouder that Wright, having got what she wanted under threat of embarrassment, then went ahead and embarrassed them anyway.  Nice work there, too.

Now while it sounds like I am going to go off on an anti-feminist toot about all this that is not my intention.

First, where there is smoke there is often fire and you just can’t dismiss the arguments that are out there.  For example is not proof but many anecdotes strung together need to be paid attention to.

The problem in the end, I think, is as much as Fenster wants a simple comforting narrative there are times when there is no substitute for attempting to understand what is going on.

Kahneman’s System 1 thinking (fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious) is good at some things but not others.  Sometimes you need System 2 (slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious).  System 1 is often adaptive for individuals, and can be very useful in providing motive force for action in groups, but it is sometimes worth the effort to see what is in front of one’s nose even if the result seems less coherent than you might like.

So what  is going on here?

Perhaps we can find actual research, peer-reviewed even, that tackles the question of gender and pay gaps in the rarefied hothouse of celebrity contractual negotiations.

Let me know if you know of any.  I could only come up with one study on the general subject, and the findings do not seem relevant to the question at hand.

What is needed, I think, is a sound methodological approach to the question, one that is capable of not only getting to a deeper level of verifiable facts but also controlling for the many variables that might make a finding of actual discrimination difficult.

How would one go about doing that? There are many problems.

First, star compensation is not readily available.  NPR recently ran a story suggesting that stars ought to make their comp public to fight discrimination but that does not seem likely.  Stars generally want to hide what they make since knowledge of past comp is used against them in negotiations.  So just getting beyond the anecdotal here can be difficult.

Then there is the problem of comparability.  If a male and a female both hold positions in the accounting department of a company and if most other factors relating to employment are similar then they ought to be paid the same amount.  Of course that is just the point relative to the broader debate: when you get to this grain most of the gap between 77 cents and a dollar disappears.   But how do you get to comparability with respect to compensation based on hand-crafted, case-by-case negotiations? The “employer” is not offering a “position” based on market wages.

So one place to start real research, then, is in an understanding of the dynamics of the negotiation process.  This marks the employment and comp issue as fundamentally different from a conventional job offer, where the job and its responsibilities ostensibly govern the level of comp.  Here, comp will be a function of other factors, including respective bargaining leverage, bargaining skill and approach, perception of value on the part of the employer, whether the star is viewed as unique or more interchangeable and other such factors.

That is not to say discrimination qua discrimination might not enter the picture, so to speak.  But any method needs to be able to not only define discrimination properly but also isolate its effects.  This is what has been done in the general labor market as studies have whittled down the 77 cent gap to smaller figures looking at conventional jobs.  I do not believe anyone has attempted something similar with celebrity jobs, in part because it seems a lot harder to do.

Take the question of the effect of possible culture bias on comp.  Equal pay for equal work in the conventional job market means many things, one of which is that the law ought to second guess the market when the market results in an outcome “we” (the public) don’t like.  Assume that two positions in different fields have roughly the same responsibilities and pose similar challenges, but that one is in a field dominated by men and one by women.  And that the market wages for the position held more by males is on average higher.

What of it?  Do we say the market has spoken, and that there is no need to second guess its myriad adjustments and private decisions?  Or do we say that the result is unjust from our collective point of view even though it is a correct reflection of “our” private actions?  Shall we agree to a legal formulation that in effect says we do not want to accept the sum of our private, voluntary decisions?

That can be debated either way, and I think it is a fair debate.  Democracy often can mean that a justifiable collective decision may well differ from the outcome that will result from private decisions.  But then any decision to adopt such collective action ought to be analyzed carefully and judged on its own merits, since the trade-offs will be particular to the case, and value judgments will differ.

So now make the jump to the stars.  If a female star with the same number of lines as a male star gets less money, might that possibly because of the value the audience puts on the male presence in movies?  Reese Witherspoon argues that “(w)omen make up 50% of the population, and we should be playing 50% of the roles on the screen.”  Well, yes, if you want to base your argument on some abstract notion of equity.  But what if the public is getting what it wants?  Are we to second-guess that?

With any proper research, you start by formulating the questions you need to ask and to measure.  We have had “anecdotes of discrimination” and they may be of real value.  But inquiry should not stop there.  You need to talk to more people, more deeply, about the phenomenon in question. This does not tell you all you need to know (if so, anecdotes about discrimination might be enough).  But listening can tell you what the main contours are the problem are, the better to enable more rigorous analysis.

Take this very interesting article from, of all places, Cosmopolitan on how big-time negotiations actually take place.  It is entitled “A Hollywood Agent Explains How Negotiations Work and Why Actresses Get Paid Less”.  The article’s subtitle is a quote from the agent: “Women all Across the Board are Just Not Valued.”

That subtitle suggests that the article will verify rampant bias, and for sure the agent’s discussion has a lot of that character.  But there is a lot more going on in the article, and since it presents a first-person view from the true front lines, it ought to be listened to.  It is less abstract and more concrete than, say, Witherspoon’s call to arms.

What do we find when we look at the front lines?

–The process of individual contract negotiations is mostly just that, with each party striving to maximize advantage in each individual case.  The studio executives often do their homework, prying out private information on a star’s past earnings and basing their offer around past comp levels.

–Negotiations often include direct comp as well as perks.  Perks can be financial (points) or can be more lifestyle related.  And on that point:

Have you noticed any differences in terms of the kinds of things that are discussed when a client is a female versus a male actor?
It’s tough to distinguish because there are certain women who are very firm in what they want and they’re willing to walk away. There isn’t something that sticks out to me as something glaring, like, “Women are totally flexible and men want to hold out for more perks.” I will say that one of the things I’ve noticed is that women are more likely to fight for an extra airline ticket, not only for their kid, but for their nanny. They need a bigger trailer for their kid, especially when it’s a young kid. I’ve found that women are, in terms of location, especially for television, less likely to want to film a television show in a place outside of their [home city].

Is that because of family issues, usually?
Yeah. Their kids are in school. They don’t want to uproot their whole families for a pilot that might not go to series. Women tend to want more perks with regard to their family, [like] Fridays off for a movie so they can go home to visit their kid. It’s negotiating a work-life balance.

–The agent is initially unwilling to suggest that women settle for less, pointing out that stars are only part of the mix and that the fight is led by the agents themselves, who are likely to be as tough as they want to be.  On the other hand, she states that women are more likely than men to take the advice of their agent, and to say enough is enough if the agent says so. The main difference with men is not that the women are all that shy to express their interest but that men are freer to challenge their agents, and to be unreasonable pricks, asking for more than what is warranted by past work.

I think that women are actually more likely to listen to their advisers; women are more likely to follow what their agents and managers and lawyers are telling them, rather than [dissent]. Sometimes the men are like, “Nope, I want $2 million for this movie. I’m not doing it at a penny less than that.” And that’s it.

Geena Davis is quoted as saying “women need to be able to walk away from bad offers.”  Perhaps it is more like the ending to Thelma and Louise: women have to be willing to act like assholes the way the guys do.

The agent does seem to eventually concede that female actresses need to up their game:

I totally agree that women need to get their quotes up, and they need to hold out for things and hold out for more money and everything like that.

The agent then moves into murkier territory: the roles themselves.

The thing, though, that also needs to happen, and this is harder and trickier (emphasis mine), is the roles need to be better. We had a client who passed on a project because she wasn’t being paid the same as her male co-star. We totally supported it, totally agreed. But in the script, this character, she was just the wife and there wasn’t that much for her to do and the size of the male role was bigger. So everyone said, not only did he have higher quotes, but he worked more days, more hours, more weeks, and it’s more to do.

“Harder and trickier” because it comes at the star and agent as a given, a part of the landscape.  It is harder to find discrimination here, unless one wants to indict a system, or the culture that supports it.

The agent concludes the interview on a suitably stirring note:

You have to say — and this also goes for women and people of color: “OK, this is a mandate. We are going to change this because it’s better for our business model, it’s better for the world, it’s better for storytelling.” I’m not advocating that the studios  to be a charity because it’s not charity. It’s better for creativity if you allow different diversity of storytelling in every sense of the word. But it has to be a mandate. “We need to have female directors as 50 percent of who directs our eight movies this year.” If you’re a studio and you say that, that will make a difference. Otherwise nothing will change.

That’s a worthwhile point of view.  But there are hidden complexities in the conclusion. The agent does not advocate studios becoming charities–i.e., she is aware of the tension between female roles and audience expectations.  But the hope is that there is a win-win, that better female roles will lead to more creativity, better filmmaking and higher studio profits. I have no reason (other than the fact she is a Hollywood agent) to doubt her sincerity here, or to suspect she is adhering to the correct line for Cosmo readers.

And she could be right.  Maybe it is a myth that young males drive box office demographics, and that the studios are unaware of what is good for them.

But even if she is correct that a mandate of sorts needs to go out, it seems to me that that is a studio matter to debate.  Getting the Feds involved, which is where this whole thing is going, seems to me pretty wrong-headed.  Unless of course they feel confident they will be able to find actual instances of discrimination, properly understood as a legal matter.

But what do I know?  What does anyone know?  As they say at the conclusion of many academic articles, more research is needed.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Movies, Performers, Politics and Economics, Sex and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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