Negotiation in the News: In a new role, Hollywood actresses fight for equitable pay

Advice for women negotiators looking to boost their salaries.

By on / Salary Negotiations

In December 2014, leaks of data hacked from Sony Pictures revealed pay inequities between men and women, both actors and studio executives. The revelations drew attention in Hollywood and beyond about the lingering salary gap between men and women. In particular, the news that American Hustle stars Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams were paid less than their male costars—Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and Jeremy Renner—opened up a conversation about why women continue to be paid less than men for equivalent work.

Many, including Lawrence, attributed such inequities to women’s reluctance to negotiate forcefully on their own behalf, lest they face a backlash for doing so. Men and women alike tend to be penalized socially and financially for engaging in behaviors that violate traditional gender stereotypes. When asking for higher pay, women are acting against stereotypical expectations that they will be accommodating and communal. And, indeed, as we’ve reported in past issues of Negotiation Briefings, women—but not men—who negotiate their salaries do risk being perceived as less likable and as less appealing colleagues than women who don’t ask for more, Harvard Kennedy School professor Hannah Riley Bowles, Carnegie Mellon University professor Linda Babcock, and Tulane University Lei Lai found in their research.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and others have suggested that women might avoid such a backlash by framing their requests for a higher salary as communal in nature: “By asking for more for myself, I’m hoping to contribute to promoting a culture of fairness for all women,” one might say, for example.

Women might also benefit financially by breaking the common workplace taboo against discussing salary with colleagues. When pay inequities become public, male and female employees alike may feel galvanized to advocate for more egalitarian treatment.

Relatedly, men and women working at a similar level might choose to negotiate jointly with the goal of promoting equity. Cooper, calling Adams’s relatively low earnings for American Hustle “almost embarrassing,” told Reuters he had begun to team up with his female costars to negotiate salary as a means of doing his part to encourage equal pay.

In the past year, several prominent actresses have drawn attention to the gender pay gap in various ways. Their stories suggest several other methods that women both inside and outside Hollywood might employ to negotiate for more while avoiding a backlash.

Advocating for others

When accepting her 2015 Academy Award for her role in the film Boyhood, Patricia Arquette, motivated by the revelations in the Sony leak, delivered an impassioned plea for income equality across professions. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America,” she declared.
Speaking in April 2016 on a Tribeca Film Festival panel of female filmmakers, Arquette elaborated on the inequities she has experienced as a woman. “I always knew I was paid less than men,” she said, as reported by the New York Times. The actress said she had been told in the past, “‘They’re paying the guy, so they don’t have any money’—they would say things like that.”
Following the Sony leak, Arquette says, she began negotiating more assertively on her own behalf. At Tribeca, she said she recently had turned down a role in an independent film because those in charge refused to grant her as much back-end participation, or profit sharing, as the male lead. She had agreed to a lower salary than the male costar, who had a larger role, but, she said, “because you’re basically donating your whole normal salary, and your name value and your everything” in low-budget filmmaking, “if it does succeed, you should participate in the success of that.”

Arquette also said she had lost jobs because of her Oscars speech. “But I’m OK with that,” she said, according to the New York Times. “Sometimes when you’re in a position to make a difference, to be a part of that story is a great thing.”

It seems Arquette’s Oscars speech has made a difference: Lawmakers in California cited it during their successful efforts to secure stronger fair-pay protections in the state. Those positive changes made any lost roles worthwhile to Arquette. “At my age, it’s a time in my life where I want to do things that make the world a better place for everyone to live in,” she said. “They talk about the gender pay gap not closing for another 40 years. I mean, who’s got 40 years? I don’t have patience.”

A public complaint

In May 2015, during a press event for their Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, the show’s leads, revealed they had learned that they were earning the same salary as their male costars, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston.

“That doesn’t make us happy,” said Fonda, as reported by the entertainment website The Wrap.

“No,” added Tomlin. “The show is not Sol and Robert [the names of Sheen’s and Waterston’s characters]. It’s Grace and Frankie.”

The remarks prompted the actresses’ fans to launch an online petition asking Netflix to remedy the pay disparity between Tomlin and Fonda and “their male supporting actors.” With Netflix under fire, the actresses tried to tamp down the controversy with a public statement saying that their remarks about pay rates on Grace and Frankie had been taken out of context.

A year later, during an event sponsored by the Tribeca Film Festival, Tomlin and Fonda confirmed that they are still being paid the same amount as Sheen and Waterston—but revealed that they, and not their costars, now have a back-end deal.

A carefully thought-out threat

At a Rockefeller Foundation event in New York this May, actress Robin Wright, who stars as First Lady Claire Underwood in the hit Netflix drama House of Cards, revealed that during salary renegotiations with Netflix, she asked for the same salary as her male costar, Kevin Spacey, who plays President Frank Underwood. Wright had learned that Spacey was earning more than she was, despite the fact that the two share equal billing.

“I was looking at the statistics, and Claire Underwood’s character was more popular than [Spacey’s] for a period of time. So I capitalized on it. I was like: ‘You better pay me or I’m going to go public.’ And they did.”

In negotiation, a threat is typically a risky gamble. But Wright, who is also an executive producer and director of House of Cards, correctly calculated that she was indispensable to Netflix and that the network would be eager to avoid another public controversy over gender pay disparities like the one it had faced with Grace and Frankie.

3 strategies for more equitable pay

Let’s review the strategies these actresses used to address pay inequities:

1. Advocating for others.

Arquette used her Oscars speech to attract attention to the issue of income inequality—a decision that she says triggered an industry backlash against her but contributed to broader societal change. Those who feel called to advocacy should be prepared for the possible personal risks of speaking out.

2. A public complaint.

Fonda and Tomlin felt compelled to backtrack from criticism of Netflix’s salary structuring on their show. However, the actresses’ public comments may have led Netflix to sweeten their contracts with back-end profits. Keep in mind that going public with negotiation complaints comes with the significant risk of escalating tensions and souring relationships.

3. A carefully thought-out threat.

Wright savvily did her homework, identified Netflix’s vulnerabilities, and threatened to expose the network if it didn’t equalize her pay. To successfully pull off this type of high-risk threat, be sure you can make a convincing case for your position, as Wright did, and, if possible, argue for your demands on ethical grounds.

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