There are innumerable forms of sexism that keep women from having the same success as men in the entertainment industry, but few have gained as much attention in recent years as the gender pay gap.
Over the last few years, more and more actresses have spoken out about the pay disparities in Hollywood. Some, like Emmy Rossum, Emma Stone, and Robin Wright, have been able to actually win the fight to be paid the same as their male costars. While the pay gap affects almost every single industry, the way it is implemented in Hollywood is unique. It comes down to what’s called the “quote” system.
In Hollywood, the amount of money an actor is paid for a project is often based on their existing “quote,” which refers to how much they made on a previous project. While establishing a salary based on what you’ve made before seems benign enough, if women are already being underpaid, then the quote system serves to perpetuate that disparity. This affects women of color even more, which is unsurprising; racial and gender disparities intersect in Hollywood just as much as in the rest of society.
Earlier this year, Emma Stone revealed that some of her male costars have taken pay cuts so that she could technically reach parity with them. Stone explained, “If my male co-star, who has a higher quote than me but believes we are equal, takes a pay cut so that I can match him, that changes my quote in the future and changes my life.”
Male actors are also far more likely to see bigger raises, which bumps their quotes up even further. As Cathy Schulman, president of the organization Women in Film, explained to USA Today, that stems in part from the undervaluing of women:
What we’re seeing is that when people are getting raises, it’s directly related to whether it follows a hit movie. But the jumps in “quote” are way bigger for men than they are for women at the moment, and it has to do with who is doing the negotiating and who is buying the talent. We’ve not seen the agencies, studios and financers fight for that kind of quote-doubling with women as much as men.
And while some have encouraged women to hold out longer for pay increases and be willing to walk away from projects if they don’t compensate actresses properly, it’s hard to walk away when the jobs for women just aren’t there. Of the top 100 highest grossing movies of 2016, women accounted for only 37% of major characters and only 29% of protagonists—and that’s technically an improvement from the year before. And of the 2,595 female characters, only 32% had speaking roles. Behind the camera, in 2016, women made up just 7% of all directors of the top 250 grossing films.
These statistics are a pretty clear indication of just how little women are valued. Last year, Cosmopolitan spoke to an anonymous female agent at one of Hollywood’s most successful talent agencies. The agent gave her two cents on the revelation from the Sony hacks that Jennifer Lawrence made far less than her male American Hustle co-stars despite having just starred in Hunger Games:
…[I]n some ways, the deeper issue is how much she and women are valued as a whole,” she said. It’s like, “Oh, well, we can always just get another actress.” [Whereas] with Leonardo DiCaprio you think, There’s no one like him. But Jennifer Lawrence, you just get someone else. Women all across the board are just not valued.
Combine the fact that actresses already have to fight that much harder for roles with the fact that negotiating for a bigger salary when you’re seen as disposable is too big of a risk for some, and you get the situation we see today. And there’s a clear connection between the kind of sexism-laced fear which allows women in Hollywood to be paid far less than men and the kind that silenced countless women who experienced sexual harassment and assault at the hands of powerful Hollywood men.
Of course, there are a lot of other factors when it comes to how actors are compensated. Some get perks like bonuses and back-end compensation (where an actor can take a percentage of box-office grosses). Actresses are also more likely to supplement their income with brand endorsements. Across the board, however, the consensus seems to be that the amount and quality of roles for women (women of color) must improve. We know that movies with diverse casts do better at the box office. We know that films led by women and women of color can be box office smashes.
But until women are valued the same way that men in Hollywood are, until women receive at least 50% of protagonist roles and women making at least the same as their male counterparts in film, we need to ban the quote system.
Banning the quote system is also a clear way to not only level the playing field between men and women, but particularly to balance things out for women of color. There is a clear racial wealth gap between women in Hollywood, and, given that roles for women of color are even scarcer than roles for white women, they are in a more vulnerable position and face bigger risks for demanding to get paid what they deserve. Scrapping the quote system could allow, say, Viola Davis and Kerry Washington—who reportedly earn $250,000 per episode for How To Get Away With Murder and Scandal, respectively—to achieve parity with Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo, who earns a reported $400,000 per episode.
We don’t even have to look hard for examples of these kinds of systems being eliminated. There are widespread efforts across the country to address the wage gap by combatting practices that parallel the quote system. Starting next year, employers in California will not be allowed to ask job applicants about their prior salary and will be required to provide a pay range for the job in question. California joins the city of Philadelphia, New York City, and the state of Massachusetts, with at least eight other states potentially taking similar action.
Technically, California’s new regulations would apply to Hollywood, but Hollywood has a unique ability to escape the reaches of the law. The law also has a loophole stating that an employee knowingly and purposefully discloses their previously salary, the employer can take it into account. So the degree to which the law would be enforced remains a mystery.
It’s clearly better to swoop in on Hollywood directly, play it safe, and get rid of the quote system altogether so that at least some justice could be restored.