I began my career in the entertainment industry over 25 years ago. Over the last decade, I’ve run scripted programming at AMC, an international TV studio, and I’m currently running my own production company, Assembly Entertainment, with an overall deal at ITV Studios America. I’ve overseen and produced shows including Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Copper, and the upcoming Showtime series, I’m Dying Up Here. To say I love my job is an understatement. I work hard and am passionate about what I do. I’m very fortunate that I get to make a living doing something I love with people whom I admire and respect.
What I do is hard, though, and the hardest part is navigating the tricky waters of sexism that exists in the business. As the Academy honors today’s top actors and actresses, recent findings about inequality in the entertainment business show statistics that are grim, shocking, and infuriating. Women lag absurdly far behind men in every Tinseltown gig.
Top actresses make about 40 cents on the dollar compared with their male counterparts. Of course it’s absurd in this day and age that women and men aren’t paid the exact same amount for the same job. It’s even more frustrating and confusing when it occurs in an industry that claims to be progressive and forward-thinking.
Academy-Award-winning actress Natalie Portman, who has worked with directors such as Mike Nichols, Darren Aronofsky, and Luc Besson, recently went public with the fact that she was only paid a third of what Ashton Kutcher was paid for the film they co-starred in, No Strings Attached.
The Sony email hacks of 2014 revealed more of the same, with American Hustle’s male stars (Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper) getting 9% of the backend profits on the film, while the female stars (Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams) got only 7%.
On Forbes‘ list of the 10 highest-paid actors of 2016, only two women were listed: Jennifer Lawrence (No. 6) at $46 million and Melissa McCarthy (No. 9) at $33 million. The highest-paid actor, Dwayne Johnson, came in at $64 million. He wasn’t even the actor with the highest-grossing movie. That was Scarlett Johansson, who starred in both Captain America: Civil War and Hail, Caesar. But nowhere is she on the list.
Mic, a millennial-focused media company, looked at the box office grosses of the top 25 highest-earning films each year from 2006 to 2015, and concluded that box office hits with female protagonists grossed on average $126 million, while box office hits with male protagonists only made on average $80 million.
It’s understandable why most people wouldn’t cry a river over Natalie Portman making $3 million instead of $9 million for a film. But with actresses like her and Jennifer Lawrence finally speaking out about the pay gap issue for those on the big screen, a light is beginning to shine on how women across all jobs in the industry are dealing with the issue.
In 2002, the University of Southern California was commissioned by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film to look at how many of the top-100-grossing films were directed by women. Their findings? Just 7.3%. Then, they found that, in 2014, only 1.9% of the top-grossing films were directed by women. The worsening job opportunities for women, and the pay disparity between men and women in the industry, have prompted many to realize that something is seriously wrong in Hollywood, and that there are definite barriers for women entering the entertainment business.
About a year ago, a group of producers, actors, studio heads, directors, and writers got together and created REFRAME, formerly called the Systemic Change Project, which was founded by Sundance and Women in Film. It’s an industry group committed to getting more women hired in front of and behind the camera, and ensuring they’re paid equally to men. Members of REFRAME have been attending workshops to learn why such a vast divide exists and how to address it on all levels at different industry companies. It trains members on how to create mentorship programs and increase female hiring. It’s certainly a step in the right direction.
The biggest question of all is why this sexist dynamic exists in the first place in a creative business. I don’t think men or women who work in the industry wake up in the morning and decide to be sexist and treat other women as their inferiors. In fact, I believe most people think they are being fair and open-minded when it comes to hiring and making deals. The issue happens on a more subconscious level and begins with being raised in a sexist society that exposes people to consistent sexist messaging. These messages are so engrained in our way of thinking that we aren’t even aware of how it affects us. It’s called unconscious bias.
When I first heard this term or began to understand what it meant, my first reflex was to be defensive. How could I be sexist? I’m a woman, a self-professed feminist, who runs my own business. I’ve hired lots of women, supported their growth, and promoted them. But then I started to catch myself doing things—thinking things that made me realize I was falling into the trap of making sexist decisions. I became aware of my own unconscious bias at work and began to understand how it has affected my hiring decisions or the way I approach deals.
Here’s an example: When I need to come up with a list of writers or directors for a TV series I’m producing, I write out the list only to realize afterward—or, more likely, am alerted of it by one of my colleagues—that the list is entirely made up of white male names. Did I intentionally leave off equally talented and experienced women or minorities? No, but my brain is conditioned to think of white males when the idea of a writer or director comes up, because that is who I see and hear about working in the business.
So now, as I’m becoming more aware of my own unconscious bias, I make lists of writers and directors who are equally talented men and women. I make sure my decisions on hiring and deal-making are based purely on talent and the right fit for the project, and are not tainted by vestiges of messaging I grew up with. Being more aware of my own bias has helped me speak up when it comes to my own deal-making.
Recently, I was asked by a network to partner with an inexperienced producer, who had sold them an idea for a TV series. As the deal was closing for the project, it was brought to my attention that the male producer was going to receive substantially more per episode than I was, despite the fact that I was hired for the project because I was the more experienced producer. In fact, this producer had no previous experience making one-hour series, when I had nine TV series under my belt. In the past, I might have just let this inequality go without saying anything, but I stood up for myself and made it clear that we had to be paid the same fee. The network and studio agreed.
Always stand up for what you believe is right, and hopefully others will agree. And, the next time you find yourself dismissing a suggestion or a comment by a female colleague, when moments later you agree with the exact same sentiment said by a male colleague; you marginalize the woman on a team who is the same level or superior to the men on the team, and there’s no good reason why; or a job needs to be filled or a deal is being negotiated and someone suggests that it’s sexist or unequal, try not to get defensive. Instead, take a moment and think of all of the unconscious bias that has been ingrained in your way of thinking, and try to understand how it shapes your decision-making. You might be surprised, like I was, by what you find.
Christina Wayne is the founder and CEO of Assembly Entertainment. She is launching Televisionschool.com, online classes, in the spring of 2017.