Women and Minorities are Hired Less, Paid Less in L.A.'s Creative Sector (Guest Column)

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The cast and producers of 'Moonlight' at the 89th Academy Awards

Even as Hollywood celebrates an inclusive Oscar night, female and diverse candidates "are less likely to be hired, and when they do get jobs, often earn less" in film, TV and other creative fields, according to a Milken Insitute study of city employment data.

As Hollywood still reels from the best picture snafu at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, somewhat lost in the noise is the fact that diversity may have been the night’s biggest winner, as movies made by and about minorities won major categories, including best picture for Moonlight, the story of a young man who grows up gay, black and poor.

People of color also won Oscars for best supporting actor and actress, best documentary and best adapted screenplay. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who boycotted the ceremony to protest the U.S. ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, won for his foreign-language film The Salesman.

The awards represent a sharp — and welcome — change of direction for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They come after the Academy took the proactive step of adding hundreds of women, minorities and international filmmakers to its membership in response to criticism that their contributions had been ignored by Oscar voters. This is not to say that films such as Moonlight and Fences were honored simply because of the membership change. The quality of the films alone merited recognition, but the industry should make note of the academy’s approach to increasing diversity among its members.

The question now is whether this new focus on diversity represents a long-term trend, and whether it will influence pay and opportunity for underrepresented groups who labor in less glamorous behind-the-camera jobs that attract little public attention. Those groups’ scant presence in this year’s nominations for several Oscar categories, such as cinematography and editing, suggests there is much to be done.

Our analysis of Los Angeles area employment data for 2012 to 2014 in the Milken Institute report "Hollywood’s Diversity Problem: It’s Not Just Actors” confirms that women and minorities working behind the camera face steep odds in an industry driven by connections and a desire for stable, long-term relationships. They are less likely to be hired, and when they do get jobs, they often earn less.

Whites, who make up 61 percent of the general population in the Los Angeles metropolitan statistical area, have 74 percent of the jobs in the creative sector (this includes film, television, computer/web design, performing arts and a few other occupations involving content creation — but in L.A. workers in film and TV make up the vast bulk of this group). Women make up 47 percent of the population, but hold only 35 percent of creative sector jobs. Significant pay gaps also appear in the data. More than half of blacks working in the creative sector are paid $45,000 a year or less. Only 14 percent make $90,000 a year or more. In the jobs they most commonly hold, Asians are more likely to earn a livable wage, but they still make less on average than whites with the same jobs. The available data doesn’t break out employment of Hispanics, but anecdotal evidence suggests they are underrepresented as well. The problem isn’t a lack of education or training. The data shows that minorities and women typically meet or exceed the required education levels.

Their challenges go unnoticed because the media focus on top-tier actors. Although a pay or diversity gap among Oscar nominees may be more headline-grabbing than the underrepresentation of minority cinematographers or camera operators, the omission of behind-the-camera workers from the debate ignores the role they play in creating the tone, direction and impact of art. Inclusiveness on the set is a necessary precursor to putting a genuine message of inclusiveness on the screen.   

Efforts have been underway from the executive and grassroots levels to increase diversity and reduce pay inequality, but more deliberate action is needed. The problem is one of access, not willful discrimination. Those who hire, from studio executives to producers, tend to choose, and recommend, people they have worked with previously. In this respect, Hollywood’s problem is a lot like the Academy’s. Perhaps, then, Hollywood decision makers — the studios, independent producers, directors — need to follow the Academy’s example. They need to make a concerted effort to bring additional women and minorities into the system and elevate those who are there now. They can do this by reaching beyond traditional relationships and comfort zones to make film crews diverse.

Producing content with a more diverse viewpoint, and using more representative casts and crews, can provide substantial benefits. They include the prospect of larger audiences, not only within the U.S., but also among an expanding global middle class.

In recent decades, the creative industries have invested heavily to adopt a diverse range of new technologies to meet changing audience expectations. Just as technology evolves, the next generation of Hollywood’s creative elite is emerging as we speak. It is in everyone’s best interest to make sure that the industry prepares for the future by embracing a diversity of talent with equal enthusiasm.

Kevin Klowden is the executive director of the Milken Institute’s California Center and a managing economist at the institute. Jessica Jackson, a research analyst specializing in regional economics research, contributed to this article.