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This story first appeared in the 2015 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A woman came up to me the day after I won an Oscar to thank me for my speech. She told me that her boss called her in to his office that Monday morning and gave her a raise. There was no reason she was getting paid less, and she deserved the raise. She started crying, and I started crying.
That was a really meaningful moment for me.
I knew that pay inequality was a risky thing to bring up at the Oscars. There is an unspoken understanding that you shouldn’t be political on that stage. But the truth is, I don’t think women can wait anymore. We have to be political. I don’t think we can continue to be left out of the conversation.
I blame myself for my stupid wording that night when I was calling for male activists to have our backs and remember women, to support the women’s movement and to include women in the conversation. I was talking about the really devastating consequences of the women’s movement stalling out. It was my own lack of clarity backstage that made some women feel left out or slighted. This of all things makes me sad, because they are my heroes.
Since the speech, I have learned a lot more about the feminist movement and how women of color have been left out of the process. I understand that more now. I am really sad that I may have added to their feeling of being excluded.
Some people said that women are paid the same as men. Which is not true. Some people thought I was asking for actresses, or even white actresses, to be paid more. When I brought it up, I was talking about all women. I meant Native American women, Asian women, Latino women, African-American women, trans women, lesbian women, white women.
People like to talk about the Sony hack and the pay gap facing actresses, and yes, that happens in this industry. But what the Sony hack also revealed that nobody is talking about is that there is a pay gap in the sound department, in mixing, in editing and on and on. If it wasn’t Sony that was hacked but instead it was another nonindustry corporation, we would have seen the same gender pay bias play out.
It was never about only actresses or white women to me. The reality is that the gender pay gap exists in 98 percent of the world’s professions, and it gets worse the more education you have. Wage disparity costs the average woman $400,000 and robs women with higher education of $2 million over their lifetime. You have a girl taking out the same college loan as her male counterpart in her class. But she will take years longer to pay off her student loan. It will take her longer to buy a house. She will have less money in her retirement account and be more likely to be poor when she’s elderly. Her kids will be affected.
The issue of pay inequality is really important because experts say it will take 40 years for that gap to close. (Editor’s note: The “Global Gender Gap Report” released Nov. 19 calculated it will take 118 years.) We don’t have 40 years to wait. We are not in an Ozzie and Harriet world anymore.
We need to make a radical, unnatural readjustment. We need really strong pay laws like the measure Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson recently passed in California that will better protect women against unfair pay practices. I’m so happy this conversation is happening, but we need to remain strong and make sure our leaders don’t forget women as the conversation continues.
I knew before getting up onstage that the issue of equal pay is what I would talk about. It only took a couple of minutes to write the speech — I wrote it while they were putting on my makeup. A friend of mine, Kamala Lopez, had been working on this documentary titled Equal Means Equal, about the Equal Rights Amendment and equal pay, child trafficking, spousal abuse and many other issues that predominantly affect women. So I had been learning a lot about these topics and thinking a lot about my character in Boyhood. She had to move her kids multiple times, and she put herself through school. Her life — their lives — would have been different had she earned a full dollar.
But here’s the most important issue to me: There are tens of millions of single mothers right now in this country, and 75 percent of all low-wage earners are women, many of whom are trying to feed kids. There’s a direct correlation between mothers not getting paid a full dollar and child hunger in America. One in five kids is hungry, and we have 33 million full-time working moms and kids who wouldn’t be in poverty if those moms were getting their full dollar.
Beyond poverty and hunger, there are other urgent issues facing women. For example, three women a day are murdered in domestic violence cases, while 3.5 million requests for domestic violence shelter housing are turned down each year — I find it strange that we have more animal shelters than women’s shelters in the USA. And the most common reason a woman returns to her abuser is economic instability. So women being paid fairly also affects their safety when a lack of protection can be deadly.
We also need to hear more about our lesbian sisters and our trans sisters. Our trans sisters are the most likely women to be living in deep poverty, with 15 percent of them making less than $10,000 a year. That’s crazy and needs to change.
After my speech, an African-American studies professor came up to me to thank me, and he told me that 70 percent of the African-American community is being raised by single mothers. They are also raising 70 percent of the special-needs kids in that community alone. Last year, African-American women were making 64 cents on the dollar, and this year they are making 60 cents on the dollar. It’s economically brutal. It’s even worse for Latino women, who are making 55 cents on the dollar. That is one hell of a race and gender tax they are paying.
I didn’t really know how the speech would be accepted until afterward. I almost fainted right after, and I was shaky. I felt very weird, like somebody had shot me up with a strange drug. But what I was doing was very clear to me: I was really trying to appeal to our leaders, our great activist leaders. I also appeal to the great male activists that we have, and I feel strongly that they, too, need to stand up for women and help us. Because women are being economically smothered. When men support change, it has been shown that change comes 10 times faster. We need our sons, brothers, friends, lovers, husbands, uncles, grandpas, co-workers and heroes.
Winning an Oscar changes people’s perception of you. If I could go back to the morning after the speech and tell myself something that I know now, I would say: “You know what, breathe deep. It’s all going to be OK. You may be human and flawed and make mistakes, but your intention is good. Your intention is to shine a light. Your intention is to activate, agitate. Start people talking, and that is a good start.” — As told to Chris Gardner
Read more essays from THR‘s Women in Entertainment issue:
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