The real reason Mark Wahlberg earns US$42m more than any woman in Hollywood

It’s a man’s world.

Why should we care that, in Hollywood, female actors earn less than male ones? The latest tally of star pay, compiled by Forbes magazine, has men far outstripping women’s earnings. The highest paid woman – Emma Stone – makes her appearance at number 15, earning US$42m (£33m) less than the highest paid man, Mark Wahlberg.

It’s easy to be dazzled or disgusted by the huge numbers on the Forbes list and click onto another story about Hollywood stars, without realising the implications of the pay disparity on display. “Men earn more at work than women” has been the most familiar story across industrialised economies for generations.

But the Forbes list is significant because 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.

But 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.

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.

Actors’ agents know this. Employers also know this. So it’s hard for a woman to turn down an offer on the basis that the pay is lower than for a similar male role. Someone else will get the job and they will lose their window to work, which generally is smaller and lasts for less time than for men.

Combating stereotypes

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. A director’s comment during a casting session summed this up: “Does she read as a mother figure?”

Don’t ask me why I get paid less for doing the same job. Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

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.

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 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.

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.