Sharing Salaries: How Actresses Are Fighting Hollywood's Gender Pay Disparity With Transparency

Illustration by: Jenn Liv

Amid the #MeToo movement, women are chipping away at studio leverage and a longtime taboo by talking openly about their pay.

Don't ask. Don't tell. That has been the Hollywood modus operandi when it comes to paydays, which are guarded with the secrecy of CIA black ops missions — until now. Thanks to the Time's Up initiative, more actresses are feeling emboldened to share salary information with one another, both in person and on social media.

Previous lack of transparency hurt actresses negotiating film and TV salaries, and one antidote to the widespread occurrence of gender pay disparity appears to be sunshine. Take the example of All the Money in the World stars Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams. THR has confirmed that Wahlberg was paid nearly 10 times what Williams made ($5 million vs. $625,000) despite both having roughly the same amount of screen time — and Williams is the one being pushed for an Oscar nomination.

On the day after the Golden Globes ceremony, where the issue of gender pay disparity was thrust into the spotlight as a red carpet rallying cry, Melissa Silverstein, founder of Women and Hollywood and director of the Athena Film Festival, tweeted about that "egregious pay gap" between Wahlberg and Williams. That prompted Jessica Chastain to retweet, adding "I heard for the reshoot she got $80 a day compared to his MILLIONS. Would anyone like to clarify?"

By Jan. 9, USA Today confirmed the reshoot disparity. (Neither star was technically paid for reshoots. Williams received a per diem of $80 vs. the $1.5 million that Wahlberg's agent was able to negotiate as a salary bump because the actor had cast approval and could potentially torpedo the film, already reeling in the wake of the Kevin Spacey sex scandal.) The story then went viral, and four days later, Wahlberg agreed to give $1.5 million to the Time's Up campaign; WME, which reps both actors, donated another $500,000.

"For women in Hollywood, the system was created to isolate them from each other and to pit them against one another," says Silverstein. "Women are taking back the power by sharing the information in a way that has never been done before."

In the past, it would have been a major faux pas for Chastain to publicly comment on another actress' salary, especially before it had been published. But that's what happened thanks to a recent Time's Up meeting. According to a source who attended, the Wahlberg-Williams discrepancy was discussed at length, as was Tracee Ellis Ross getting paid significantly less than her Black-ish co-star Anthony Anderson.

With negotiations for the fifth season ongoing, sources say Ellis Ross feels that if she isn't brought up to Anderson's level, she may opt to appear in fewer episodes to make up the disparity by guesting on another show. The tactic has split opinions within Time's Up, with some worried that it's more a retreat than a forward-looking solution (fitting in extra work isn't always feasible, and often an actress wouldn't earn as much guesting as she would as a network star). A network source says a new deal will significantly increase her compensation and cautioned that Anderson and Ellis Ross' roles aren't equal given that he has been attached to Black-ish from the start and is an executive producer. Still, until a few weeks ago, this type of candid conversation would never have taken place outside an actress' agency.

Open discussion about pay is not without precedent in other high-profile industries. In the sports world, the public knows what everyone makes, from Tom Brady to a middle reliever on the Yankees. Hollywood's secrecy is easily explained by those it empowers — the studios, who until now have benefited from holding all the cards and have discouraged other parties from disclosing details of deals.

Turns out, that might run afoul of certain laws. In several states including California, it's illegal for a company to prevent its employees from discussing their pay. During the Obama administration, the National Labor Relations Board stepped up enforcement of these pay secrecy laws, stating that anything designed to discourage employees from exercising the right to discuss their salaries is unlawful.

"The intent behind all of the statutes is [to rectify] the fact that traditionally, women and minorities have made less than Caucasian males because they didn't know that they could ask for more, because it was a secret," says Wendy Lane, head of Greenberg Glusker's labor and employment group. The laws apply to both direct employers (like studios) and people acting as an intermediary (like a talent agency). "Transparency absolutely benefits women when negotiating," says ICM Partners Jessica Lacy, a partner at the agency and head of its indie film financing division. "It's paramount that we better understand how much disparity there is. Transparency is vital to ignite the spark for that conversation."

Now there's talk of the Trump administration rolling back those actions. "If nobody is allowed to discuss it, how will we ever know that there are these disparities?" Lane asks. "If employees can speak about it, then that can be the beginning of the process of having the discussions for higher pay."

Silverstein won't say where she heard about the Williams-Wahlberg gap but says she would tweet about a similar case in a heartbeat. "This statement made women powerful," she says. "The industry reaction and response are huge indicators that more revelations add to the conversation that things need to change."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.