Why It Matters When Hollywood Actresses Talk About Pay Equality

This week everyone was talking about “House of Cards” — not because Netflix just dropped a new season on us, but because a star of the series, Robin Wright, dropped her own personal bombshell at an event in New York.

The actress revealed that she recently demanded to be paid the same as her costar Kevin Spacey for her work on the show, The Huffington Post first reported Tuesday. And her bosses complied. She spoke candidly to a roomful of activists and philanthropists at the Rockefeller Foundation about the horrid fact that women make less than men in the United States.

One might be inclined to roll their eyes at the revelations of a superstar. Wright is just the latest female entertainment figure to speak up about pay inequality. Patricia Arquette did it to much fanfare — and inevitable criticism — at the Oscars in 2015, accepting an award for her work on “Boyhood.” Jennifer Lawrence spoke out after Sony was hacked later that year, revealing an enormous pay gap throughout Hollywood.

These are the cries of the privileged few, you might say. What does this matter to us mortals?

Turns out it does matter. A lot. These well-known actresses opened up a conversation about equal pay that spread across the country over the past year and a half, inspiring women to look into their own pay, even ask for raises. But more than that — the stars were the galvanizing force behind a rash of new state laws that have sprung up protecting women’s right to equal pay for equal work. These laws serve to protect all working women from being underpaid relative to their male counterparts.

Since Arquette’s Oscars speech, nine states have passed equal pay laws. Seven of those — Connecticut, Delaware, North Dakota, Oregon, New York, Illinois and California — did so in 2015 alone. That same year, several other states introduced pay bills, as well. This past March, Nebraska passed equal pay legislation of its own.

On Thursday, Maryland’s governor signed an equal pay law that goes into effect this summer. The new measure makes it easier for workers to file suit against their employers for paying them unfairly. It also makes it illegal for an employer to “mommy track” a female employee — denying them promotions or pay because they’re mothers or could one day become a mom.

A Turning Point For Equal Pay

“To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” Arquette said last year, clutching her speech in her hand. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

It was a true “hell yeah!” moment, cemented by Hollywood’s highest priestess, Meryl Streep, clapping her hands, pointing at Arquette and saying, “Yes, yes!”

“It was a match that lit a simmering issue,” California state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson told a roomful of actors, business people and activists at a dinner in Beverly Hills earlier this year.

The momentum of Arquette’s speech, Jackson said, enabled her to push through an equal pay law in California which holds companies to a higher standard when it comes to compensating men and women fairly. The law went into effect this year — and has companies scrambling to comply.

The law is one of the strongest in the nation, Julie Kashen, policy director at Make It Work, an advocacy group, told HuffPost. Under the law, employers have to pay workers equally for “substantially similar” work, a stronger guideline than the federal law that requires equal pay for “equal work,” considered a narrow framework.

Arquette, Lawrence and the revelations of the Sony hack, which showed so clearly how much it matters to make salary information public and transparent, helped make equal pay part of the “mainstream conversation in a really powerful way,” Kashen said. State legislators were forced to pay attention, she added.

Of course, Hollywood activism is not the reason these bills passed. But it was the catalyst for movement.

“All of the advocacy work, all of the research, all of these amazing efforts really pushed it so that once that turning point happened. Everything was teed up to go,” Kashen said.

A Long Time Coming

Hollywood actors were hardly the first to raise the issue of the gender pay gap. In fact, our president has been talking about it for years. So have economists. Activists. Politicians. Soon after Arquette spoke up, the chief executive of the software company Salesforce said he was going to close the pay gap at his firm. Investors have been pressuring companies to make their salary information public.

That women in the U.S. make just 79 cents for every dollar earned by a white man is not news. There are pay gaps in 439 major occupations, the Wall Street Journalrecently reported.

If you are a woman reading this, you’re probably not making as much as you should be. You probably know that. Yet, until recently — until that “hell yes!” moment — we weren’t really discussing it on the national stage.

“It is the dirty little secret that nobody likes to talk about,” said Charly Carter, executive director for Maryland Working Families, one of the nonprofits that pushed for the state’s new law.

For Carter’s group, which started working on its equal pay legislation in 2014, Arquette’s speech couldn’t have come at a better time, just days before Maryland Working Families started campaigning for the bill.

“It definitely got people talking,” she said. “When we had our hearing [at the state legislature] it wasn’t uncommon to hear legislators say, ‘Patricia Arquette said this.’”

As for Arquette, the joy of her Oscars moment didn’t last long. After making some unscripted comments in a post-awards interview, Arquette was savaged. She was called, essentially, just another rich, white, privileged lady dipping her toe into the activist waters, erasing the experience of nonwhite women, of African Americans, of LGBT people.

Arquette said she lost out on at least two jobs because she spoke up. “That was fine,” she told The Huffington Post earlier this year. If no one ever hired her again, “I was like, ‘I’ll sell the house. We’ll be all right,’” she told HuffPost.

Still, this wasn’t known at the time, and many feminists were harsh in their assessment.

“Her comments were bad for the cause of equal pay and for feminism,” Amanda Marcotte wrote for Slate in February 2015, a few days after the Oscars.

Fifteen months later it’s incredibly clear how wrong that statement was. This week Wright helped kicked off more talk about how women are paid. Let’s keep this going until the pay gap vanishes.