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The Real Cause of the Earning Gap

The Real Cause of the Earning Gap

In which our intrepid blogger explains why there is a wage gap,
and offers no good solution whatsoever…

On this week’s episode of Scriptnotes, John August and Craig Mazin discussed the WGA Writers Report. They made a lot of good points, and you should totally listen to that episode, but I’d like to add something to the discussion.1

The report features a lot of charts and graphs that illustrate the income disparity between men and women, and between whites and minorities:

How did they pick the colors?
Human inequality, reduced to graph form.

How could this happen? Hollywood is supposed to be progressive! We’re not prejudiced in any way! This is crazy!

I think the answers lie in the age statistics:

Age Gap
They seem to contradict each other, no?

As Craig rightly pointed out in Scriptnotes, the second chart is misleading. The reason the under 30 crowd has such a high employment rate is, most people get their start in their twenties. A lot of 20-somethings haven’t sold their first script,2 which means they aren’t tracked by the WGA. The 80% employment rate is for people who’ve actually made it into the Writers’ Guild in the first place.

On the other hand, if you sell one script at age 29, then don’t sell a script for another 12 years, you’re in the minority– most 30-40 year-old WGA writers worked at some point this year. But in that same age cohort, there’s a lot fewer aspiring writers who’ve never sold a script in the first place. Basically, that chart is apples and oranges and pears and bananas and a hedgehog.

So, go right ahead and ignore that employment rate chart; focus instead on the share of employment. Craig and John agree that, at their age, they hold an advantage; they’re right in their peak earning time right now. Most working writers are between the ages of 30 and 50. Craig seems to think there’s ageism afoot, in the opposite direction most actors feel it. Young writers are being discriminated against.

But the question you should ask yourself is: Is that wrong?

Older writers tend to have more experience, and more experienced writers tend to be better. They deserve to be hired more frequently, and paid more when they do, because they do the job reliably and get results.3

A young writer is a risk. Logically, if the studio is going to gamble, they’ll want to gamble as little as possible, as infrequently as possible.4

Also, let’s go back to the law of supply and demand, as I so often do: there are a lot more 25 year olds who want to write than 35 year olds. That’s because, by the time you’re 35, if your writing career hasn’t taken off, you’ll probably quit and try something else. So what happens when you have a large supply? The price goes down.

“That explains/justifies the wage gap in ages,” you say. “But what does that have to do with the gender and race gaps, TAPA?”

A surprising amount.

I don’t believe Hollywood is terribly racist or sexist,5 although racism and sexism certainly do exist. I think the studios are mostly motivated by greed and profit. If they could get someone to do the exact same job for three-quarters the price, they’d totally hire that person. Few people are prejudiced when hundreds of thousands of dollars are on the line.6

I’ve already explained that younger writers can’t do the exact same job, which leads to their lower pay. But I can’t possibly be suggesting women and minorities are worse writers when compared to white men of the same age, can I?

No. Absolutely not.7

I think Hollywood, like most of America, used to be a lot more sexist and racist than it is now. Twenty or thirty years ago (when over 80% of today’s working WGA was getting their start), executives really did hire mostly white men in above-the-line positions.8

The consequence is, in the present, the highest paid writers (and directors and producers, etc) are white men. It’s not to say that these guys don’t deserve their pay; most of them do. But a lot of women and minorities were never given the chance to start in the 1980s.

A lot is made of the fact that more than half of film school graduates are women,9 yet less than a quarter of above-the-liners are women. But if you look at it as a function of time, it’s ridiculous to compare those numbers.

Take a hypothetical: suppose, for ease of math, there are only 100 writers in Hollywood, and they are all currently men. Further suppose that the studios impose a rule that all new writers must be women. How long will it take for women to be equally represented?

That depends on the rate of retirement. Let’s be generous and say 5% of the workforce retires in a given year.10 Every year, 5 male writers (presumably mostly older ones) retire, and 5 female writers take their place.

At that rate, it will take 20 years to reach parity. If you only hire women. I don’t think anyone would suggest that as a solution.11 It would take twice that long if you hired men and women evenly from now on.

There’s an added wrinkle: people are working a lot longer than they used to:

ZZZZZzzzzzz...
From Monthly Labor Review’s Labor force projections to 2014

In 1980, less than 35% of people over 55 worked. Now, it’s nearly 45%. That’s a big bump. And look at the 65-69, 70-74, and 75+ lines: they’ve all nearly doubled in the last 35 years.

People are living longer, healthier lives, thanks to modern medicine. That also means they’re working longer and retiring later. It wasn’t that long ago that you could expect to be dead before you turned 60.

And that chart is the overall workforce. That includes miners and construction workers and shit. Writing is not a physically intensive job; you can work well into your twilight years.

More writers at the top of the ladder means there’s less room at the bottom, whether you’re male, female, or somewhere in between.

So, what do we do about that? I’m… not sure.

I don’t want to force retirement on people who may still have something to say with their art. I don’t want to tell minorities: “Just wait a little bit; it’ll get better.” I don’t want quotas or profiling or, really, anything. Diversity programs have their own issues.

We’re in this situation because of the sins of our fathers. I don’t have a good solution.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. Because I’m on hiatus, and I have time to think about stuff like this now.
  2. Including me. 🙁
  3. There’s something to be said for older writers being “out of touch,” but that’s why writers’ rooms are such a good idea: you have older writers guiding the process, shaping the story and characters, keeping everything on track; you have younger writers cracking jokes with Harry Potter references.
  4. I’m talking about staff jobs and work-for-hire scripts, here; a spec script is a different beast altogether.
  5. Except in casting, but that’s a discussion for another day.
  6. Hell, Donald Sterling hired black basketball players. Why? Because he wanted to win!
  7. PS: I’m 1,000% certain I’m going to get angry comments/emails that accuse me of this very idea.
  8. In fairness, not always.
  9. I was among the first graduating classes at USC for which that was true.
  10. I can’t seem to find this information anywhere. Does anybody know where I can get it?
  11. Well, maybe not nobody, but still, nobody reasonable.
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2 Responses

  1. Also, the WGA isn’t tracking nonunion work, like reality shows, docu-series, etc.. Story editor are writers, field producers are directors, just different names. Women more often write and direct episodic because it’s easier to have a family than on features.

  2. The demographic pig is indeed moving through the Hollywood python. When I started in this business in the late 70’s, most of the women I saw were actresses or secretaries. I ran into a few female coordinators and even a couple of producers, but the vast majority were men. There were, however, legions of female PA’s… and over the years, I’ve watched them move up the ladder to become 2nd AD’s, First AD’s, UPMs, producers, writers, directors, grips, juicers, Best Boys, Gaffers, and cinematographers.

    On my current (on-hiatus) show, more than half the writing staff are women — smart, funny, extremely capable women.

    Men still outnumber women in many of the crafts, but if men dominate grip, electric, and the teamsters, women pretty much run wardrobe, hair, and makeup. There are exceptions in every department, of course — to each his-or-her own.

    Is change coming about too slowly? Sure, but these things take time — generations — to change. The landmark civil rights legislation of the 60’s became law fifty years ago, but we still have clowns like Donald Sterling spouting off, and idiots like that self-righteous, racist, brain-dead rancher out in Nevada who made the news by not paying his grazing fees for the last twenty years.

    I don’t know how long it will take before full parity is reached across the boards… but by then, many of the jobs will doubtless have been eliminated by technology and/or outsourced to cheaper foreign shores. As the work pool shrinks, there will be a lot more losers than winners — young and old, all races, men and women…

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