Male Hollywood Producer Thinks Industry Gender-Based Wage Gap Is Women’s Fault (SPOILER ALERT: It’s Not)
Gavin Polone is a successful Hollywood film and television producer whose credits include television shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Gilmore Girls, and films like Panic Room and Zombieland. After over 30 years in the industry, he clearly knows a lot about creating content people will watch. You know what he doesn’t know a lot about? How systemic sexism works.
Earlier this morning, The Hollywood Reporter gave him column space to wax ignorant on “Why Women Really Make Less Money in Hollywood (and How to Fight Back).” What he (and “all three” women he interviewed for this piece) doesn’t understand (He literally writes “all three” as though this piece amounts to some kind of thorough study. The Geena Davis Institute, the Sundance Institute, and the USC Annenberg School have got you covered) is that they are all conflating the reason “why women really make less money” with the “how to fight back” part.
Let’s break this down, shall we?
He opens by talking about how ridiculous it is that, in 2017, anyone for any reason gets paid less for doing the same job. Agreed. Awesome.
Then, he betrays his ignorance on the subject with this:
While the result of this inequity is simple to understand, the sources are not as clear. This isn’t like the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, where the cause of the problem is straightforward: that the film Academy’s electorate is mostly Caucasian, old and rich. Certainly, with regard to the topic of equal pay for women, the old, rich, white guy power structure could play a part, but contract negotiations largely are about perceived leverage, and female actors have more leverage now than ever, as do women who write, produce and work as executives. And still, their pay is not equal to that of men. While many headlines decry the situation, I haven’t read any articles that explain why this problem persists nor any offering a solution — probably because nobody fully understands why this dilemma exists in the first place.
“The sources are not as clear.” = I don’t know anything about the topic I’m writing about today.
“Female actors have more leverage now than ever.” Compared to what? Having zero leverage? Um, sure. Great. *sigh*
“I haven’t read any articles that explain why this problem persists nor any offering a solution.”
Waitwaitwaitwait. I need to catch my breath on that one. Whew!
So, because he hasn’t read them, they don’t exist? Clearly he’s not a Mary Sue reader. Maybe he should be! Not only do we write that sort of thing ourselves (I’ve written on this and related topics and proposed solutions HERE, HERE, and HERE for starters), but we cite major entertainment industry publications like Variety and, hey whaddaya know, The Hollywood Reporter for which he is a regular contributor, when they talk about these issues. There are also, of course, countless publications devoted to women in film and feminism that have been writing about this issue for decades. So, if he hasn’t read any articles “that explain why this problem persists nor any offering a solution,” it’s because he hasn’t read any articles period.
And apparently, that’s because he doesn’t think that silly things like studies and research into a systemic problem are all that important. After talking about his own anecdotal observations from his career as an agent, and listing off women in the industry who’ve cited their own hesitant negotiation as a problem (not the problem, mind you, but a problem), he says in his piece, “Studies and theories are interesting, but real-world experience is more informative and meaningful, so I asked three accomplished women (all names have been changed) in the industry for observations on pay and gender.”
So he goes to some real-life women in entertainment… but then has to change their names. Why? Hey, MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE WOMEN GET SHIT ON FOR TALKING ABOUT STUFF LIKE THIS BECAUSE SEXISM. The male privilege being exhibited here, with Polone being able to chime in with his two cents about this issue proudly under his own byline while simultaneously needing to protect the women he’s interviewing about this topic that affects them directly by changing their names is astounding.
“ERIKA” – successful entertainment lawyer:
“As a negotiator. I tend to feel overly protective toward my female clients, who are underselling themselves, whereas men very rarely question their own qualification and assume they are entitled to the maximum that can be gotten. They tend to ask more about what other people are getting, and I spend much more time persuading them not to dig in on irrational positions. Women tend to feel they need to deserve what they’re getting. I had a conversation with a woman who had three job offers. I pushed her to go for a 100 percent pay increase over what she had been offered. When I told her that they had accepted, she was in shock.
The discussion [for women] is often about the work environment. The sales pitch is, ‘She’ll be such a great fit,’ and then they make a low-ball offer.
Women are individually their own worst advocates. We believe we should be judged on our merits and then given what we deserve, rather than having to fight for it, and that has been true in my case. I can look back at times when I would absolutely not allow a client to walk away from or fail to demand a benefit or compensation, yet I have done just that for myself, because of an inherent feeling that it is unattractive and unseemly to go after something personally.”
Important things to note:
- Erika cites the reasons why women don’t negotiate as well, or as often: a gender-based difference in how they see themselves (“Women tend to feel they need to deserve what they’re getting” vs men “assume they are entitled to the maximum that can be gotten.”)
- She cites an inherent, fundamental difference in how women’s salaries are discussed from the start of negotiations.
- She cites societal programming (though she mislabels it “inherent”) “that it is unattractive and unseemly to go after something personally.”
These are all things that cause women to negotiate less well. They are symptoms of a larger problem. Namely, gender-based biases. In a word: sexism. Sexism isn’t just men sitting around twirling their moustaches talking about how women are only good for cooking, cleaning, sex, and babies. It’s all the ways in which women are taught that they are worthless. It is so deeply ingrained that they themselves believe it in their bones.
And what is a gender-based wage gap if not literally telling women that they are worthless? They don’t deserve the same pay for the same work, and if they want it, they have to jump through a million hoops to get it, because for them to simply receive it would undermine a fundamental truth. That women are worth less.
“LORI” – high-level film production executive:
“The men were willing to overreach, while the women didn’t. The way I justified the imbalance was that I went on maternity leave twice. I had other things going on. There was a woman at the company who would check up on who was in their office at 7 p.m. It was always the guys who were still there, because they didn’t have to go home to their families. When I left for another company, the woman I worked for gave me a big raise, but I pushed for more, because a man at my level was making more. She told me to drop it. I think there should be some sort of standards for pay, and I think women need to be better to women. Women say that they are, but they aren’t. Men take care of each other. Women don’t go on rafting trips together. They aren’t tribal like that.”
Important things to note:
- Lori says that men “didn’t have to go home to their families.” So, the problem isn’t that women don’t negotiate well, the problem is sexism. 1) No one should be “punished” career-wise for caring about their family. This is film. No one is curing cancer, and nothing anyone does in any aspect of this industry is that important, no matter what their job. 2) She’s saying flat-out that men get to do all this work because women are expected to take sole responsibility for taking care of their children. It’s not about negotiating, it’s about the systemic sexism that doesn’t expect/allow/encourage men to step up as fathers, placing all the burden on women. It’s about the gender-based expectation that women automatically want families by virtue of their womanhood, but men will always put career first.
- She’s correct that, very often, women feel the need to protect themselves and their positions by not helping other women, and I agree that women need to fight harder for each other (and believe that women coming up now see the value in that). But that, too, is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.
- “Women don’t go on rafting trips together. They aren’t tribal like that.” Um, whut? Oh, you know what, you’re absolutely right. They never dance in circles around their purses, or go on wine-tasting trips together, or form women in film groups so they can hang out and network with each other over brunch, or freaking go to the bathroom in groups. No, we’re not “tribal” at all. We never do or go anywhere together, and we certainly don’t communicate with each other well. Come to think of it, I don’t know how we got this reputation for being all “nurturing” and “constantly talking about our feelings” or whatever, when we so clearly hate groups and are totally in things for ourselves. I’m sorry, but this particular statement is just nonsense. Perhaps if we didn’t compare the way women get together to the way men get together, inherently placing more value on activities like rafting trips and less value on things like spa weekends, we’d get somewhere.
“CLAUDIA” – senior operations executive at a TV company:
“It all comes down to one thing: a sense of entitlement. To their jobs, their salaries, their promotions. Women don’t have that. I truly believed [this business] was a meritocracy, and over time I’ve been disillusioned. There are a lot of men at the top who are empty suits. … They’re not that impressive. The women in senior jobs are pretty impressive, because it takes more for them to get through.” Part of the problem, she said, stems from the fact that “women stick around where they are comfortable,” while men are more likely to switch jobs.
Clearly, to lure a successful executive from another company, the acquirer has to pay a premium. But that, of course, creates a situation where those at a company who have been there a long time may be paid less than their new co-worker, and those loyal long-termers are more likely to be women. Therefore, Claudia explains, “They don’t have the chance to reinvent their salary, so they’re always held to the level where they came in. It’s really hard to change.” She also suggested that women who don’t leave to serve their ambitions are the reason why women are still rarely at the very top, not only in the entertainment business but also in other industries (women make up only 5.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs). “My hypothesis is that because women stay at one company, it takes longer to get to the upper levels, and that combined with the added work of raising a family burns them out, hence they have less ambition at the end of their career.”
Important things to note:
- Again, men feel entitled to things whether they deserve them or not, women don’t feel entitled to anything, and society rewards people who are
entitled“confident,” while simultaneously training women to not expect anything for themselves. Therefore, society rewards men. The problem is sexism, not women not negotiating for themselves.
- Women’s lack of mobility is also a symptom of the problem, not the cause. Taking the above into account, of course it’s easy for men to flit about from company to company like ambition sluts. They’re encouraged to. They’re expected to. They’re rewarded when they do. If it takes a woman forever to even get a job, of course she’s going to want to keep it as long as she can before leaving it. That’s not her “making the decision to stay.” That’s her staying because she has to. Because no one is “luring her away” with big sums of money to go to another company, because she’s a woman and seen as worth less.
- Again, we’ve got the ol’ “women raise the families” chestnut. Gee, it’s almost as if it would be better for everyone if men and women were expected to both earn equal pay and do an equal amount of the childrearing and domestic work so that neither gender feels unnecessarily burdened by either, right? *sigh* This seems SO SIMPLE, and yet…
What’s interesting is that, rather than unpack what these female Hollywood veterans are actually saying, or interpreting it with any kind of knowledge or context (because he has none. Remember, he doesn’t read articles, or studies, or theories, or anything helpful), he uses what these women say to somehow get to this conclusion: “[M]aybe women also have to develop their own sense of entitlement. Maybe women need to push through the discomfort associated with confrontation and demand more in negotiations; maybe women need to always be looking for better opportunities and compensation and then be willing to leave wherever they are when a big leap is offered.”
Now, before you fume over this, wait! Because Polone is about to let you know what an enlightened, feminist guy he is. He really wants change, you guys! Really!
Or, maybe, the issue is not that women are underpaid at all. Maybe the real issue is that men are overpaid and the old ideal of being overconfident, disloyal and confrontational in order to be treated fairly is what needs to change. It’s hard to say that the upper levels of society are underpaid: The top 5 percent of the U.S. population controls 63 percent of household wealth. And if all that extra money that currently is paid to men were to be plowed into better work environments with better work hours, increased compensation for those on the lower rungs and better product, it is difficult to see how we all, including men, wouldn’t benefit in many ways. … Well, a boy can dream, can’t he?
There are actually some great solutions in here. But Polone’s trite closing line, “Well, a boy can dream, can’t he?” is the problem. The continual passing of the buck. The idea that men can acknowledge that there’s a gender gap in wages and hiring and career mobility in Hollywood, but… well, you don’t expect them to actually do something about it, do you? I mean, that would mean men would actually make less money. No one would stand for that! There would be outrage! (Actually, I think women would be pretty okay with that. Or even, you know, paying them as much as you pay men. Whichever thing you need to do to even things out.)
Polone is a man who has a production company (called Pariah, of all things) and a decades-long career in entertainment. Rather than “dreaming” about change, I would challenge him to take all of these things he said in his closing paragraph and apply them at his own company. Rather than expecting other people to do the work based on his “brilliant words,” he should put his money where his mouth is and do it. That’s how changes happen.
Rather than asking “if” something can happen, wouldn’t it be great if (if!) Polone took less compensation and compensated his female employees the same amounts as male employees at the same level doing the same job? Wouldn’t it be great if he showed that he doesn’t value the “old ideal of being overconfident, disloyal, and confrontational in order to be treated fairly” by calling out the behavior when he sees it in his own work environment (and maybe refrained from leaning into that kind of behavior so hard himself)? But he hasn’t. And I’m not sure he will.
Perhaps The Hollywood Reporter should interview the women who work at Pariah (on the record) about how they’re treated. And if they suddenly aren’t working there anymore… ?
However, gender inequality isn’t nearly important enough for Polone to lose sleep over. And why should he? He benefits from the way the system is right now. And that, my friends, is sexism. Straight up. The gender gap in Hollywood is “important” enough for Polone to shoot off an ignorant “think” piece about it (so trendy right now!), but not important enough to actually make the concrete changes he’s capable of making himself.
(image via Elnur/Shutterstock)
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