The Hollywood Pay Gap Wasn't Always This Bad — In Fact, Women Once Made More Than Men

by Tatiana Tenreyro
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

In the past year, gender inequality has been at the forefront of every conversation, in part thanks to Time’s Up calling attention to the harassment and unequal treatment women in Hollywood and out regularly face. It might seem like these conversations are bringing change, but there’s still a long way to go. Just take the gender pay gap; the issue is so prevalent that it even affects Hollywood's biggest female stars, like Claire Foy, who was paid less for The Crown than her male co-star Matt Smith. And then there's Michelle Williams, who was was paid nearly 10 times less than her All the Money in the World co-star Mark Wahlberg.

Clearly, there's a problem, and women everywhere are fed up. The Time’s Up campaign has helped many women in Hollywood feel brave enough to speak out against unequal pay; according to The Hollywood Reporter, Williams’ experience was discussed at a Time’s Up meeting, as well as other similar incidents like Black-ish star Tracee Ellis Ross reportedly being paid less than her co-star Anthony Anderson. And women are taking it upon themselves to support each other in the workplace, like Jessica Chastain helping Octavia Spencer receive equal pay for an upcoming comedy (lest you forget, women of color are affected by the pay gap even more).

We’re moving in the right direction, with studios being forced to publicly acknowledge pay inequality, but there’s still a lot left to do to make sure Hollywood’s extensive history of discrimination doesn’t continue for much longer. And if you're unsure just how bad things have been when it comes to pay inequality over the years, here's a timeline — you'll see not only the history, but learn exactly how we've gotten to the point where there is, finally, a larger conversation about equal pay.

1937: Bette Davis

Davis was ahead of her time and had no qualms being outspoken about how she was treated as a woman in Hollywood. In a 1963 interview with PBS, she hinted at the inequality she faced, saying:

“We all work for men, you know, they’re the people in charge, and I think they find women easier who haven’t the ability to think for themselves or stand up for themselves. One can make more enemies as a female with a brain, I think."

26 years prior to that interview, Davis took matters into her own hands, suing Warner Bros. for not letting her leave her contract. The actor felt that she wasn’t offered as many opportunities, or equal pay, as male stars working for Warner Bros. She didn’t win the lawsuit, but by demanding change, she was able to get better starring roles.

That same year, Fred Astaire also made $211, 666 in comparison to Ginger Rogers’ $124, 770, who was as big of a star as him. Interestingly, though, KQED reports that that year's top earners were Gary Cooper, who made $370, 214, and Mae West, at $323, 333. That makes women's earnings much closer to men's than they are now. In fact, according to KQED, in 1932, the top three earners in Hollywood were women.

As you can imagine, however, this didn't last very long.

1942-1943: Olivia De Havilland

By the early '40s, men began dominating the big screens and earning more than female actors. Betty Grable and Greer Larson were the only women in the top 10 list of 1942. Olivia De Havilland, meanwhile, followed Bette Davis' footsteps, suing Warner Bros after facing the same difficulties. The studio made sure to show De Havilland they were the ones holding all the power, suspending her and then extending her contract. De Havilland won the lawsuit, however, creating a law that limited contracts to seven years.

This caused a major change in studios’ treatment of actors, as limiting the years under contract allowed actors to have more freedom of roles and autonomy of what they wanted to do with their careers.

1962: Elizabeth Taylor

In 1962, Marlon Brando was the first Hollywood star to earn $1 million, for his role in Mutiny on the Bounty. It says a lot that the first would be a male actor, but Elizabeth Taylor caught up less than a year later for her iconic role in Cleopatra, becoming the first woman in Hollywood to receive the same payment as Brando. Taylor knew her power and how much the movie would bring in if she starred in it. Parade reports that when producer Walter Wanger asked her to play the starring role, Taylor demanded $1 million, or else she wouldn’t be in it.

1996: Kathy Griffin

Kathy Griffin has always been vocal about her mistreatment in Hollywood, even when she was a young comedian known for a breakout role in Suddenly Susan. After finding out she had the second lowest wage out of all the show’s stars, she demanded a raise to Warner Bros. TV chief Peter Roth. In an interview with Variety, Griffin referred to the situation as an “all-out brawl,” but it led to her immediately getting a raise. Still, she made much less than her male co-stars.

2003: Diane Keaton

In her memoir Then Again, Diane Keaton detailed her own experience with the Hollywood wage gap. The actor was paid much less for Something’s Gotta Give than Jack Nicholson, who had a smaller part. Variety reports that Keaton was shocked to discover that not even a starring role would allow her to earn more than her male co-stars. Although Nicholson gave her part of his check, this didn’t solve the startling inequality between them.

2007: Melissa Silverstein

Writer and activist Melissa Silverstein founded Women and Hollywood, a site that advocates for women’s rights in the industry. It has been instrumental in opening up the discussion of equal pay in Hollywood, as well as highlighting the importance of making sure more women, especially those of color, are given employment opportunities behind-the-scenes.

Even if you're not familiar with the site, you might recognize Silverstein's name. She's often asked to weigh in on important issues regarding women's rights in Hollywood, including the pay gap. In a 2016 interview with USA Today, she noted, “the fact that people are paying attention to this is what's new — it's only in the last couple of years and only since the actresses started talking about it.”

2014: The Writers

A study by the Writers Guild of America West on the wage gap between film and television writers showed that it expanded beyond actors. Instead of having female writers receive better compensation for their work through the years, they made 78 cents on the dollar in 2012, then 68 cents two years later. This affected female writers of color even more.

The study said that “accounting for 13 percent of television writers, minorities remain underrepresented by a factor of about 3 to 1 among writers in the sector.” In other words, female writers of color are being vastly underrepresented and underpaid. Without writers of color, the diversity of roles available for Hollywood stars are limited, too.

2015: Jennifer Lawrence & More

2015 was a huge year for the discussion on the wage gap in Hollywood. Due to the Sony hack, the public learned of the shocking discrepancy between the amount female American Hustle stars, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams, were paid in comparison to their male co-stars. At the time, Lawrence was the highest paid female actor in Hollywood, and she penned an essay for Lenny Letter sharing what it felt like to learn of the pay gap. Wrote Lawrence,

“It's hard for me to speak about my experience as a working woman because I can safely say my problems aren't exactly relatable. When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn't get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early. I didn't want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don't need. (I told you it wasn't relatable, don't hate me.)

Scarlett Johansson, who was the second highest earning woman in Hollywood that year, also made nowhere near as much as her male co-star Robert Downey Jr. in Avengers: Age of Ultron — $20 million less, to be exact, according to Forbes. She received the same wage as her co-star Chris Evans, but it still calls into question the way women are treated in blockbuster franchises, especially since many fans have demanded a Black Widow standalone movie to no avail.

In the same year, Mo’Nique opened up about being “blackballed” by director Lee Daniels after speaking out about how little she was paid for her role in 2010’s Precious. The mistreatment of women of color in Hollywood expanded even further that year after Patricia Arquette’s controversial speech at the Oscars, which was devoid of discussing the race gap that many women of color are affected by in Hollywood.

In 2015, only one woman of color, Bingbing Fan, was within the list of highest female earners among a list of 18. Black women and Latinas were excluded completely.

2016: Taraji P. Henson

The following year, Chris Rock said in an interview with the New Yorker that "You hear Jennifer Lawrence complaining about getting paid less because she's a woman – if she was black, she'd really have something to complain about." Lawrence’s race doesn’t change the fact that she did experience gender discrimination, but Rock's point is still valid. Just take the experiences that Taraji P. Henson wrote about in her 2016 memoir Around the Way Girl. In the book, the actor opened up about her own wage gap struggles, revealing that she was paid nowhere near as much as her co-stars for her role in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — and was reportedly required to pay her own location fees, too.

Although Henson said she considered rejecting the role, taking it on meant creating more visibility for women of color on-screen. As Viola Davis summed up in her 2015 Emmys speech, “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”

In 2016, Robin Wright also brought attention to how unfairly women are paid in Hollywood by openly discussing her fight to earn a similar wage as her former House of Cards co-star Kevin Spacey. She threatened Netflix with going public if they didn’t raise her wage, but she ultimately decided to go public about it anyway to bring awareness on what it’s still like for women in Hollywood.

2017: Emma Stone

In an interview with Out, Billie Jean King and Emma Stone discussed at length the gender wage gap. "If my male co-star, who has a higher quote than me but believes we are equal, takes a pay cut so that I can match him, that changes my quote in the future and changes my life,” said Stone. King, who was one of the very few prominent female figures in a male-dominated sport, called attention to the gap this affects women everywhere, especially those of color, as well.

Even though the conversation about equal pay has opened up a bit more recently, it's infuriating to know that even some of the biggest stars in Hollywood are still fighting to be recognized for their hard work and be paid as much as their male counterparts. Thankfully, women are working to change things, and not only by speaking out about the mistreatment they've experienced throughout their careers. Stars like Frances McDormand have called attention to inclusion riders, demanding more opportunities for women and people of color.

It's not only up to women to make the changes, though. As Liam Neeson said, according to Indiewire, “men started it, so we have to be part of the solution.” That doesn't necessarily mean male actors taking pay cuts or donating parts of their paychecks to organizations. That's certainly nice, but what's really needed is women just getting paid the same as their male co-stars to start with. Strides are being taken; on Jan. 1, for instance, California enacted a law that bans employers from asking prospective employees about past wages in an effort to close the gender-wage gap in all industries. Here's hoping that's just the start, as it's simply archaic for women to be considered less than men while working just as hard.