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Women in Art Director, Costume Groups Are Still Fighting for Equality

Stars such as Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, and Sandra Bullock have raised awareness of pay inequality between male and female actors in Hollywood. The issue is out in the open and being debated. But what about the below-the-line professions — especially trades that are dominated by one sex or the other?

Take, for example, the Art Directors Guild, whose members are nearly 73% male. The base weekly on-call rate for art directors and production designers is $3,754.47. By contrast, among members of the Costume Designers Guild, which is nearly 80% female, the weekly base salary is $2,622.91 for TV production and $2,789.73 for film work. Add to this the fact that, unlike the job of art director, there are no rules requiring studios to officially hire a costume designer for a project, and it’s easy to see a pattern.

While ADG executive director Chuck Parker was unavailable to be interviewed for this story, his guild has increased its diversification efforts, having established a committee to perform an internal survey of members to identify problems and find solutions.

Nickolaus Brown, president of Motion Picture Costumers IATSE Local 705, says there’s no animosity between the two guilds. But CDG president Salvador Perez argues that the pay disparity is a systemic problem rooted in the stereotypes of gender roles.

“I think that for the longest time, it was, ‘Well, my girlfriend shops. How hard could it be? My wife shops; she should be a costume designer,’” says Perez, the costume designer for Hulu’s “The Mindy Project.” “There’s more to my job than shopping…. Yes, production designers build the sets and the world of the shows, but we help create characters through their costumes.”

Perez adds that costumes can add considerable value to a show via merchandising — a revenue opportunity seldom provided by production design. This added value comes when the look created by a costume designer has an impact on the fashion industry at large — such as occurred with Janie Bryant’s costuming work on “Mad Men” and Lyn Paolo’s on “Scandal” — or when studios and networks seize opportunities for marketing tie-ins. Such initiatives make costume designers’ jobs harder and don’t necessarily result in financial compensation for them.

“I get emails and texts all the time about the clothes on the show and who makes them,” says “Transparent” costume designer Marie Schley. “It’s a way for the audience to relate to the show. When you’re looking at the actor, you’re looking at the clothes. It’s a question of why that isn’t more respected.”

The deck seems stacked against women in more ways than one. Even as female costume designers find challenges in capitalizing on their work, women who are production designers find it difficult to advance in that profession.

“I’ve worked with female artists all my life, and we all say that you have to work twice as hard as everyone else — and even then it’s luck,” says “Transparent” production designer Cat Smith. “I knew that if I was going to get that chance [to advance to production designer], it was going to be on the recommendation of a woman.”

She adds that men have an easier time advancing in production design. “You’ll see a lot of guys skip [stages]. It’s like, how did this guy get this position?”

Smith says she has heard of women production designers being denied jobs because the people in charge wanted a man for the role. “I think people are loath to admit that nowadays,” she adds. “I’ve been told in art director interviews that they want a guy because guys would be more aggressive with production. Or that women don’t design boats or spaceships or — my favorite — jails.”

In an era when “Equal pay for equal work” is a mantra for women in all careers, this dispute appears to be another classic example of the disparity.

“It’s all been brought to life with Donald Trump and the way women are perceived,” says IATSE’s Brown. “This is a national conversation. There are things that are helping to level the playing field, but we still have a way to go.”

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