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The UK gender pay gap: Lessons from Hollywood

Clapper board and money

10 November 2015

Figures released by the TUC show that the UK gender pay gap for top earners is currently 55%. Recent revelations from Hollywood show that both social and political action is needed to reduce this shocking statistic once and for all.

45 years after the Equal Pay Act first came into force, a TUC report released this week shows that there is currently a 55% gender pay gap for top earners in the UK, and an average pay gap of 14.9% less per hour for women working full-time. The date of the TUC release on Monday 9th November is appropriately Equal Pay Day, a day that illustrates the point in the year at which women effectively stop earning relative to men according to the pay gap.

At the same time the newly formed UK Women and Equalities Committee are launching an inquiry into unequal pay for women over 40, an age when typically women may be entering top leadership roles. The over 40s have been identified as worthy of inquiry for two reasons. They are seen as being hit the hardest , evidenced by the TUC latest figures, where the gap for hourly earnings becomes wider and grows further as women hit their 50s. Second although the UK government has promised to put in measures from 2016 to address the gender pay gap, the Committee say that this group of women have largely been ignored by government.

The gender pay gap for women in top jobs is not confined to the UK. Recent controversy surrounding pay amongst Hollywood's A-listers can help to explain its resilience. In an essay for the weekly newsletter Lenny, Jennifer Lawrence – acknowledged as the world's highest paid actress with an income of $52 million last year – exposed million dollar pay gaps amongst Hollywood's leading men and women. Her essay draws attention to how a hack into Sony Pictures Entertainment confidential data in November last year revealed how American Hustle male actors (Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale and Jeremy Renner) were offered a 2% larger cut of profits representing millions of dollars than their female counterparts (Lawrence and Amy Adams). Lawrence's essay reveals four issues that help to retain a persistent pay gap for women in leadership roles;

  1. Lack of transparency of actual pay. Lawrence and Adams' pay was only revealed following the Sony hack. This is not unusual – many of our organisations reveal broad salary structures or bands but not the actual pay of particular roles. Without clarity of actual salaries, it is not possible to see whether comparable roles receive equal pay so making it difficult to negotiate a fair salary.
  2. Pressure to remain quiet over discriminatory practices. Lawrence points out she is not exactly strapped for cash, "I didn't want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don't need. (I told you it wasn't relatable, don't hate me)." As Lawrence suggests it can be difficult to draw attention to unfair practices from a position of privilege particularly when others who earn much less may be more deeply affected by disparity in pay. Women earning large salaries may open themselves up for critique or be made to feel they are being spoilt or offensive if they complain. As a result discriminatory practices remain hidden and unchallenged.
  3. 'Fix the women' attitude. Lawrence writes: "When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn't get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early." Her response illustrates a 'fix the women' attitude where social or organisational problems such as inequitable pay are recast as problems for which women are responsible. In this case Lawrence blames her own lack of negotiating skills. Not calling organisations to account continues to reward the dominant, usually male norm, resulting in unbalanced power relations where those with less power have little influence.
  4. Deeply embedded gendered assumptions that shape how we view women and how women view themselves. Lawrence’s essay highlights how women have to work hard to be taken seriously in the workplace, "I don’t think I've ever worked for a man in charge who spent time contemplating what angle he should use to have his voice heard." Research on women entrepreneurs for example shows how deeply embedded gendered assumptions position women as subordinate and that this is played out through organisational practices that operate to exclude women from leadership roles. As a result women have to work much harder in order to fit in, employing complex strategies to be recognised as legitimate leaders by their fellow workers.

Power and politics

These four problems illuminate that behind the figures lies a complex web of politics and power. The gender pay gap for top earners is symptomatic of social, historical and cultural values that promote traditional and masculine ideas of what it is to be a leader. Women are still seen as unusual occupants of leadership roles. For instance, in the media it is rare that we see the term 'man leader' applied to men in top organisational roles, yet it is common to see the label 'woman leader' applied to women who achieve senior roles. These values are reflected in our organisations. Reproduced through organisational practices, including promotion to leadership roles, and therefore positions of power and influence (in the UK less than 25% of board positons are held by women), traditional attitudes continue to reinforce unfair practices such as unequal pay as the norm. Norms are typically taken for granted, and understood as 'the way things are'. To challenge norms is to challenge the establishment and this can be risky, unsettling and disruptive.

So, while we may have little sympathy for top earners whose pay is already far in excess of the general population, it is nonetheless important to challenge and address such blatant unfairness. If unequal pay is not tackled at the top amongst those of power and influence, then what chance does it have of being tackled at the bottom?

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