The BBC article How Hollywood earnings can help us understand pay disparity is surprisingly insightful, but its attempts to draw an equivalence between actors and society as a whole fall flat, at least for me.
One of the principal reasons for the worldwide gender pay gap is occupational segregation: women and men are still largely concentrated in different jobs or at different levels of the same job. For example, official UK statistics show that women are concentrated in a smaller, lower-paid range of jobs than men, particularly the five “Cs” – caring, catering, cashiering, cleaning and clerical work.
True. Differences in average wages of men and women are primarily due to differences in the jobs being done, not differences in pay for equal work.
Professional acting is one of the very few jobs that has been done by both men and women for hundreds of years and it has always been commonplace for both to reach the highest level. Acting requires exercise of the same skills in the same workplaces by both men and women. And yet most women actors in the 21st century still earn less than their male counterparts.
So, on the face of it, acting is a profession in which one wouldn’t expect to see a difference in average wages.
My research over the past 15 years shows that in the US and Europe there are several reasons for these pay differences. In the UK, where the actor gender split is approximately 50:50, the main reason is that there are fewer roles for women in general and fewer lead roles in particular, so there are always more women competing for jobs at any one time.
In other words, there is an over supply of women actors. And when supply outstrips demand, the price falls.
Another issue is casting. All actors work within the same employment criteria in terms of age and appearance for the characters they play, but these are more narrowly defined for women. For example, female actors stop being auditioned for sexually attractive characters at much earlier ages than male actors. Talent and skill are important to casting directors, commissioning executives and producers, but so are looks. The right appearance is required to convey meaning to us, the audience.
This implies that producers believe women cease to be sexually attractive at earlier ages than men, and this does fit with human sexual behaviour. At least at an instinctual level, most men are attracted to women who are in their fertile years, whereas women are attracted to men who are able to protect and provide for them.
It also includes the absence of meaning. When minor roles are cast, such as a bank manager or solicitor, what is wanted are bodies that don’t make the audience think any further than “that’s a bank manager”. Employers want neutral symbols that, in the words of one television producer, “don’t interrupt the narrative”. When these minor roles are played by women there is greater concern that the audience will get distracted by her and start thinking idly: “Does she have kids? How does she manage?”. This echoes problems for working women more generally. Men are invisible in a positive way, because they are just the norm.
It’s understandable that directors don’t want minor characters to scene steal from their main characters as a rule. But where did the idea that directors would worry about audiences being distracted by questions about a minor female character’s family life come from? And how are men the norm in banking? Many bank branch managers are women these days. I agree that a female construction work wouldn’t be the norm, but in many roles, they could be.
This is familiar because actors are paid to represent us to ourselves. And we see this in two ways. First as direct proxies, acting everyday roles on stage and screen as engineers and nurses, company directors, parents. Second, as an indirect reflection of the way work is unofficially unequal for men and women in wider society. So women’s work is largely concentrated in the earlier parts of an acting career, after which their opportunities decline – as in many parts of the wider labour market.
How is work largely unequal for men and women in society? As mentioned at the start of this article, the kinds of jobs that attract men and women differ. If you are acting in a police drama, you should expect there will be more men, because there are more male police men. If you are acting in a war movie, you should expect to see more men. But if you are in a hospital drama, you might well expect to see more women. Have you been to a hospital? There are plenty of older women at work. If a film has only men or young women working in a hospital, it won’t look very realistic. So why are there so few female roles?
How society sees people has economic implications. The EU’s road map for equality between women and men highlights “Elimination of gender stereotypes” as a priority area for dismantling gender inequality. Gender stereotypes are seen as central to the persistence of unequal outcomes in employment and pay. Research also shows that women workers are affected more as a group by negative perceptions of ageing when it comes to rates of employment and pay. Actors shadow these patterns, as well as benefiting or losing out because of these same stereotypes.
Stereotypes are notoriously difficult to change. Arguably, government attempts such as affirmative action laws do more harm than good, by tarring those who actually break through the stereotype as having done so “just to fill a quota”. Hollywood is full of people who hold very progressive beliefs, but they also know that they have to make money. This leads me to believe that women are cast the way they are because producers (who are the ones responsible for making profitable movies) believe that it is what we want.
Hollywood stars and their earnings seem very far away from real life. But if performers are paid to represent us to ourselves, their treatment in the acting industry gives some interesting insight into the position of women and men more widely. The impact of gender and (gendered) age on their employment does not reflect an equal society. A peek behind the glittery curtain of the Forbes list makes that abundantly clear.
Equating acting with all other professions is a false equivalence. Because actors are performing in a visual medium, their appearance has vastly more bearing on their marketability. Even musicians and newscasters have much less riding on their looks, though you do see similar favouring of younger women and less favouring of younger men in these professions as well. But do we see the same pattern among doctors, lawyers, and scientists? If so, it is far less significant. Sure, ageism is real, and I can believe that it affects women more than men, but it’s not nearly as big a problem in professions where knowledge and skills are the most valuable thing one can bring to the table.