The Fight for Equal Pay: Women, Minorities on TV Still Making Less Than White Men

Female Paygap on television
Jeremy Enecio for Variety

July 31 was Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. Actress Yvette Nicole Brown marked the occasion — which recognizes the additional seven months that a black woman, on average, must work to make as much money as a white man does in a year — by swatting down Twitter trolls who claimed calling out the inequity was unnecessary.

“I found out that as a series regular I was making just a smidge over what a white man was making as a GUEST star,” Brown wrote, sharing a disturbing discovery she made at one point in her career. “Dude was just visiting.”

Pay in Hollywood is a reliable topic of gossip but has seldom been talked about so openly. That’s changing. The earnings gap that separates female and minority performers from their often better-compensated white male counterparts has recently catalyzed public discussion — and public negotiations. As performers and their agents drag pay inequality into the light, studios and networks face increased pressure to make the issue central to their diversity and inclusion efforts.

Jeremy Enecio for Variety

In December, “Shameless” actress Emmy Rossum negotiated a deal that would pay her the same amount that co-star William H. Macy — who had just renewed his contract and always made more than Rossum — would earn for the show’s eighth season. But Rossum’s was a rare victory. On “The Big Bang Theory,” Melissa Rauch and Mayim Bialik sought to match the $1 million per episode that producer Warner Bros. agreed to pay each of its mostly male co-stars for the next two seasons but fell short, with $500,000 deals finalized in April. Then last month, CBS allowed Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park, both of Korean heritage, to walk away from “Hawaii Five-0” rather than match their pay to that of white male stars Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan.


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Brown refuses to identify the show on which she was paid the same as a white male guest star, but she’s clear it wasn’t her new series, ABC’s “The Mayor,” or her first as a regular cast member, NBC’s “Community.”

She recalls sitting in a hair-and-makeup trailer, joking with her fellow actors about pay, when a guest star “just blurted out” what he was making for the episode.

“I was like, ‘That’s five dollars less than me,’” Brown tells Variety. “It’s not like this was Tom Cruise. If Tom Cruise comes, back up the Brinks truck. This was a journeyman actor. He wasn’t performing a series-regular role.” Brown soon realized she was making far less than the other series regulars on the show, “because no one else in the room was shocked” by what the guest star earned. “I’ve been a series regular now for eight years on network television, and I’m making what a guy coming for a week is making,” Brown says. “And it’s because I’m a black woman.”

For female actors and especially actors of color, pay is depressed by lack of demand. There just aren’t as many roles as there are for white men — and with fewer casting opportunities, nonwhite and non-male actors seldom see increases to the quotes that their agents demand from studios.


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According to GLAAD’s 2016 “Where We Are on TV” report, 44% of series-regular primetime broadcast roles last season were female (women make up 51% of the U.S. population). Only 20% of series regulars on broadcast television were black; of those, only 38% were black women.

“Your quote goes up when you book pilots,” Brown says. “Minorities don’t have as many opportunities to book pilots. I’ve been in the running for four pilots in my life, and I’ve booked three of them. There are some white actresses who go out for four pilots on a Tuesday morning.”

For women and actors of color, this year’s pilot season offered little change. A May Variety analysis revealed that of the 46 lead roles on new broadcast series ordered for the upcoming season, only 20% were cast with nonwhite or Hispanic actors. Just 33% of all lead roles were female. For the second year in a row, CBS ordered no new show with a female lead or co-lead for fall.

Emmy Rossum now earns the same pay as her co-star, William H. Macy, who supported her push for pay parity.

“We price people based on their quotes, based on their role,” says Gary Newman, co-CEO of Fox Television Group. “We’re committed to paying people on those criteria, and we’ll continue to do so.”

But Newman concedes that minority actors are disadvantaged by the scarcity of opportunities to raise those quotes.

“I think that’s a legitimate issue,” he says. “I think it requires greater sensitivity than people may have had in the past.”

NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt says his studio division, Universal Television, is conscious of pay equality when structuring deals.

“Whether they’re overall deals or acting-fee deals or producer deals, yes,” Greenblatt says. “At the same time, you can’t ignore experience, and you can’t just say that because someone is of a specific diversity, they’re going to make 10 times more. You have to take all that into consideration.”


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Greenblatt emphasizes the diversity on his executive team — noting that he is gay and that several top-level NBC Entertainment executives are LGBTQ, female or racial or ethnic minorities. He claims that NBC has made an effort to address pay inequality within its ranks, trying to ensure that the salaries of female executives are on par with those of their male peers.

“Everything doesn’t get reset at the same time, but we’re very conscious of it,” he says.

The issue isn’t just an American problem: In the U.K., the BBC has promised to close its gender pay gap by 2020 following public outcry over the revelation that more than two-thirds of its top earners are male.

Despite such efforts, women remain stubbornly underrepresented on-screen. What has changed, though, is that female actors are now speaking up.

“I’ve passed on jobs because I was going to get paid the same as somebody who had fewer lines than me and was male,” says Eliza Coupe, who stars in “Future Man,” an upcoming Hulu sci-fi series. “Actually two projects.”

Coupe turned down those offers, which preceded “Future Man,” with gusto. In each case, her representatives made clear to producers exactly why she was rejecting them.

“I’ve been a series regular now for eight years on network television and I’m making what a guy coming for a week is making. And it’s because I’m a black woman.”
Yvette Nicole Brown

But it’s only in the years since Coupe’s breakout on ABC comedy “Happy Endings,” and her emergence as a sought-after performer during the crush of pilot-season casting, that she has been able to comfortably say no to such situations.

“In the past, I would have been like, ‘Eh, f— it.’” Coupe says. “Because you say, ‘Eh, f— it,’ to a lot of things when you’re starting out.”


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“Saturday Night Live” alum Nasim Pedrad, who’s joining TBS’ “People of Earth” in its second season, isn’t aware of having ever made or been offered less than that of a male equal. But she takes precautions.

“I ask questions, and I make sure that I’m being compensated in a way that’s fair and comparable to what my male counterparts are making,” she says. “Where the industry was when I started in 2003 and where we are now — I still feel like we’re at the 10-yard line and not where we should be. But the fact that we’re even having a dialogue about it is promising. I don’t think people were talking about it 10 years ago.”

Susan Kelechi Watson of NBC’s “This Is Us” also has never known herself to be paid less than a male co-star. But she realizes that may have happened at some point in her career. “The thing is finding out, because otherwise you just know what you know,” she says. “As a black person and as a woman, I’m seeing a lot about it, and I’m glad that this is becoming a conversation.”

The imbalance isn’t isolated to broadcast — the massive amounts of money being spent by streaming services on original programming don’t translate to equal pay. Speaking at the Rockefeller Foundation last year, “House of Cards” star Robin Wright told an audience that she had secured a raise that would put her on an even plane with Kevin Spacey, her co-star in the Netflix drama. Months later, she told United Airlines’ inflight magazine Rhapsody that she had not, in fact, achieved parity with Spacey, saying, “I really don’t like being duped.”

Amy Schumer couldn’t have been hotter as a personality when she set a deal last year to star in a comedy special for Netflix, “The Leather Special,” which premiered in March. But when Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle made headlines for commanding eye-popping deals for $20 million per special, Schumer’s team went back to Netflix and flatly asked for more money. According to a source, Schumer was initially paid about $11 million for her special. She received significantly more compensation after she raised the question of fairness relative to the Rock and Chappelle deals.

“The issue of pay parity looms large in our industry,” says SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris. “I’ve seen it for years in my own career, but it was surprising in talking with members and people within the industry to see how pervasive it really is.” She links that pervasiveness to hidebound skepticism about the marketability of female and minority stars, which she dismisses as baseless. (The annual Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies backs her up: The most recent installment reveals that median Nielsen 18-49 demo ratings for broadcast series with a greater-than-40% minority cast exceed those of shows with lower minority representation.)

“There is a financial benefit to having inclusion,” she says. “We see that with diversity overall; there is an economic value.”

But while women are speaking out in public, they’re not getting the chance to do so on-screen. A 2016 study by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that only 39% of all original scripted television speaking roles belonged to women — down from 40% the year prior. Cable (33%) and streaming (38%) fared worse than broadcast (41%) in female representation.

Peak TV may have spawned 500 series at last count, but it hasn’t always translated to significant opportunities for performers of color. CBS this summer came under renewed fire for trailing its competitors in on-screen diversity — once again lagging behind NBC, ABC and Fox last season in percentage of primetime series regulars who are Hispanic or nonwhite, according to GLAAD.

Jeremy Enecio for Variety

At the Television Critics Assn. press tour in July, the bulk of questions for the network’s new programming heads Kelly Kahl and Thom Sherman had to do with diversity. During the executive press session, one reporter went so far as to challenge the earnestness of Kahl and Sherman’s promises of future improvement, noting that their predecessor, Glenn Geller, had made similar assurances.

The CBS executives were also questioned about Kim and Park’s departure in June from “Hawaii Five-0.” CBS had offered significant raises to both actors but would not bring their fees up to match O’Loughlin’s and Caan’s. (Park had sought additional concessions, including flexibility around her time-commitment to the show.)

“I’m in a fortunate position where I’ve made a very good living off of doing something I love to do,” Kim tells Variety. “I was in a position where I could accept something that I didn’t feel was sufficient or appropriate, and I chose not to.”

He hopes that decision affects change.

“Any time you talk about equality in general, it has a lot of implications,” he says. “It has implications about race, about gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion — so many things. To spark a conversation about that is not such a bad thing.”

Darnell Hunt, director of the Bunche Center and author of the Hollywood Diversity Report, points to the “Hawaii Five-0” departures as public examples of “what others have complained about” privately in television.

Data related to actor pay is scant, as SAG-AFTRA doesn’t publish the detailed stats on members’ earnings that the WGA has for years when it comes to writers. But Hunt’s work using WGA data to analyze employment trends for writers and producers supports the existence of a lower pay standard for female and minority actors.

“Anecdotally, we know that there are disparities,” Hunt says. “Women and people of color have traditionally lagged behind white men in terms of their earnings in both film and television as writers. So it stands to reason that we’re probably going to see similar disparities in front of the camera, because the people behind the camera are the ones developing the characters and the stories.”

Thus the on-screen pay gap is fused to the shortcomings in diversity and inclusion that networks and studios have made progress in addressing but failed to correct. The realization that increased opportunity can help close that gap has emboldened actors to talk about pay in ways their peers previously had not.

“I speak up because others who are coming up cannot speak up,” Brown says. “It’s so someone who’s just starting out can say, ‘I know you said you’d pay me $5 and a chicken sandwich this week, but someone else is getting $1,000. Could I possibly get that thousand?’ Because if you don’t get it coming in, you’re always behind.”

Debra Birnbaum and Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.

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  1. John Drae says:

    Okay, is that proven.
    I mean like in the same series with the same screentime, the same role importance, performance and popularity?
    Can we actually say that?
    Can you proof that you are paid less because you are a women?

    For example in Community Brown was basically s– compared to most other actors and her onscreen time was often relatively short. And if your role does not have so much text that’s what it is.

  2. I hope this changes says:

    I hope this changes. Girls Trip and Get Out are two examples that bust continue to best the decades old gatekeeping disaster of a myth “that minorities don’t sell a movie”. Its blatant and purposeful exclusion. This is in other industries too. WOC are the most underpaid group and its painful. Just read Taraji P Henson’s memoir chapter where she mentions that the producers of Benjamin Button made her pay for her own room and board! We strive as an industry to push for diversity and moral right but inequality is still alive and well in our industry. I really hope we change for good. Its unfair. It wont hurt a TV or Film if a person of color took home a large check too.

  3. L L says:

    Make sure to check out the real story from Amy Schumer herself. I don’t think hers is the only example in this article slanted to support the narrative that is being told.

  4. Jack says:

    Variety. Great graphics in this article. Good job.

  5. Actors decide their worth. If they’re willing to take or stay in a role for less, it’s on them. What we have here are special interest groups trying to manipulate the market.

  6. CMac says:

    Love the author comparing Amy Schumer to Chris Rock and Chappelle when the stated topic of the article is women AND minorities are paid less. Last I checked, both Rock and Chappelle were minorities. Bottom line, Schumer is very talented, but as she points out, nowhere near the draw and fame of two of the greatest comics of our generation, regardless of race or sex. Since the author wants us to believe women and minorities are paid less, should she not point out an example of a white comedian making more money than Rock and Chappelle? Other than maybe Seinfeld, who has credibility to be making a great deal of money, hard to imagine there is anyone making more but that does not fit the narrative now does it?

  7. azarkhan says:

    Is this article a joke, or are there actually ignoramuses out there who believe this nonsense?

  8. Do you use a paypal account, in the event if you do you can add an extra 1900 weekly in your pay working on the internet 4 hours per day.. look at
    Good luck_________

  9. Sally Shears says:

    So if there’s a problem why don’t they sue based on the already established in 1963 Equal Pay Act instead of lying and whining and getting “journalists” to propagate said lying and whining.

  10. Allan Falk says:

    Yes yes, we get it , white men are evil………they should def stop supporting hollywood and let women and minorities go pay movietickets instead . that would be a good start

  11. KMFDM999 says:

    White men earn less than Asian men. You don’t see me complaining.

  12. Questions? says:

    Let face it most the information that is presented in this article is circumstantial mixed in with a lot of assumption and presumptions to formulate an opinion. I challenge the journalist across all media outlets to really do their homework on this matter. And I don’t just mean simple research by looking at appearances, but hard core research as in, weight the amount of work done as well as race, religion, the LGBT community and gender. I’ve seen people with the same job title have the exact same salary but that one person put in a lot more working hours then the other.
    Also, out of curiosity is America the only 1st world country with this problem or is this world wide, but that given the large fascination on Americans in general, the stories are just more America based? Or is it because Canada, UK, Europe people in general are more accepting and that is why there are less stories on race, religion, the LGBT community and gender coming out of those countries? Why in big metropolitan city are people more accepting of race, religion, the LGBT community and gender, while more rural and suburban places are less open to them? Or is it just because there are more media personal in large metropolitan cities to show the diversity? Truth is there are to may question and not enough answer just pure speculation and presumption these days. We need hard fact not speculation and presumption.

  13. CJB says:

    As usual this article ignores most of the salient facts.
    Pay has far more to do with name recognition, talent, experience and in some cases, history with the production. Maybe the guest star was a former series star. Maybe a movie star on the fade. They got top of show or even dbl top. Maybe the series regular is an unknown in a new series. There are so many hypothetical’s in this article it boarders on nonsense. All things being EQUAL, so should the pay, of course. Mostly this article describes an opportunistic money grab.
    But hey, welcome to HOLLYWOOD!

  14. Lisa says:

    The truth is the films and shows that make it are written by white men for white men. And the same ole Anglo-Saxon male (names like Scott, Chris,Tom and Mike) attitude is everyone else can go blow because they don’t matter.

  15. Taylor Evans says:

    hand* no name actors….

  16. Taylor Evans says:

    An absolutely awful article that brings up ridiculous comparisons. The Hawaii Five 0 negotiations were about people playing second banana’s wanting lead character money. Do you think that the actors who played Mr. and Mrs. Costanza were paid the same as Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Richards, Jason Alexander and Julia Louis Dreyfus on the set of Seinfeld? Heck no! And stop making it about race and gender! The myth pushed by the left that women make less for doing the same job is a LIE that has been debunked for decades.
    The Shameless example is even worse. William H Macy was the only established star who was an Academy Award nominee who was a member of that cast. In season 1, nobody had ever seen the vast majority of people on that show. They don’t had no name actors the same salaries as established stars That’s just silly. But now that the show is a huge success, and she’s a big part of the show, she earned the right to renegotiate. Her quote has gone up. This is how the system works!
    Oprah Winfrey made more money than any daytime TV talk show host in history.Two of the top 3 highest paid actors in Hollywwod for 2017 were black. The Rock & Vin Diesel were both top 3 earners for actors in Hollywood. highest paid actor in Hollywood today. When Demi Moore was in her prime, she was getting paid 12.5 million to star in films like GI Jane, & that was over 20 years ago!
    Emma Stone made 26 million last year, which is very comparable to Tom Hanks 31 million. Guys like the Rock and Diesel have FRANCHISE SUPERHERO movies that catapult them out of even great actors like Tom Hanks pay scale.

    • Mark says:

      Rossum has been underpaid since the end of Season one of Shameless, there is no show without her character, Macy’s character could be killed off and the show would go on.

      • Movieguy says:

        Even if that’s true, ALL of the marketing for Shameless has Macy front and center. He’s clearly the lure to bring new viewers to the show.

    • Lisa says:

      Taylor: Are you a man or a woman or a man pretending to be a woman to make it appear that women will still tolerate men to make more than them? Because what I find lately on these comment boxes is a lot males making up female names so as to sound like they are speaking up for women. Kind of petty and immature.
      Anyway, the facts: Julia Louis Dreyfus was the only main character among three men on the show. About Rock and Vin Diesel, most action heroes are written as men – not women. Last time I checked 26 million is less than 31 million. In the grand scheme of things, women have less speaking parts and less lead rolls than men. It’s worse for minorities.

      • mwah says:

        Ugh–fewer, fewer!! And a woman I tend to agree with Taylor (and Mary, Ellie, Movieguy, Questions, LL, Sheila, Dan, CJB…)

  17. Dan says:

    “Only 20% of series regulars on broadcast television were black; of those, only 38% were black women”

    You do realize only 13% of the US population is Black. What you are actually saying is that black actors are over represented as series regulars.

  18. SheilaB says:

    Please stop misrepresenting the Hawaii Five-O negotiations. Co-stars were trying to get lead pay and it didn’t fly. That’s it. Nothing more.

    • Apres says:

      Hawaii 5-0 was also trying to get paid on the “back end” like to the leads. But apparently, CBS thought differently.

    • L L says:

      I completely agree with you. If you consider this quote from the article: “I’ve passed on jobs because I was going to get paid the same as somebody who had fewer lines than me and was male,” says Eliza Coupe, who stars in “Future Man,” an upcoming Hulu sci-fi series. “Actually two projects.” If this is the benchmark there’s no question the offers to Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park were more than fair. Their line counts, screen time or character-centered storyline have not been the same as Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan’s even taking into account the 5 episodes Caan misses for which he receives no compensation.

      Also, the media never mentions Daniel Dae Kim’s separate development deal with CBS under which he developed The Good Doctor which he ended up selling to ABC. It’s been reported that Daniel Dae Kim’s offer was $195,000 per episode which the link about would show would have put him, as a supporting actor, above many leads on other series.

      As a fan I’ve admired and supported Daniel’s quest for more diversity in Hollywood both in front of and behind the camera but here I believe we shouldn’t be talking about equality but rather fairness.

  19. Movieguy says:

    The Emily Rossum, William H. Macy example is a terrible one. Macy is a major star, has been nominated for Academy Awards and is STILL the centerpiece of all of the marketing and promotion for Shameless. More power to him for leaving money on the table, but he is subsidizing the show, calling it “pay parity” is absurd.

    • pete says:

      he was paid more for 7 seasons the show has shifted and emmy is really the lead now. she should be paid as much as him.

      • Movieguy says:

        With Modern Family, Ed O’Niell got paid the most (or more than co-stars like Sofia Vergara). As time went on and the show got more established, all of the leads essentially ended up getting paid the same. But, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that the promotion for Modern Family started to Feature Vergara, Ty Burrell, etc, as much as O’Niell if not more. Shameless is still all about Macy, the only reason I even know who Rossum is, is because of articles like this that rely on a few anecdotes and ambiguous cases like Daniel Dae Kim, who was clearly not a lead and if everyone was white, would still be making less than Scott Caan.

      • Mark says:

        Yup, wish she’d gotten more than him, she’s been the driving force on the show since Season 1.

    • Ellie says:

      Totally agree.

  20. Ellie says:

    Unless job is posted and competed for by résumé and interviews, you get what a network/show thinks you bring to the table. If I eere an exec, I would not consider Schumer in the same class as Chappelle and Rock, has nothing to do with gender.

    • Movieguy says:

      Good to know that Netflix is taking my subscription dollars and giving it away to the charity of Amy Schumer. Her special was terrible, everyone knew it, and Netflix pays more than it is contractually obligated to match Chris Rock, just because she asked?

      • Mary says:

        Ya Schumer is not funny. Maybe funny years ago but now she’s just gross. Makes women look bad. She’s a horrible example of what funny women are.

  21. 1Ronald says:

    But they ARE working on TV and not a hot dog cart on the street. And the envy of many who aren’t. Is your cup half empty or half full? I prefer to think it’s half full.

    • J.F. says:

      You have entirely missed the point.

      • Lisa says:

        That’s the old ‘They don’t do a good enough job’ claim white men have been using for decades. I find it funny that it just so happens that white men are considered the best actors in the world.

      • Mary says:

        No point missed here. It’s all ridiculous. Boo Hoo maybe you are a shitty actress. It’s not because you are black. Get over yourself.

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