Dear Jennifer Lawrence, You are not to blame for getting paid less.

“I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early,” she said.

That is the line that jumped off the screen in Jennifer Lawrence‘s cracking essay in Lena Dunham’s Lenny.

jennifer lawrence pay gap

When she discovered she was being paid less than her male co-stars, she didn’t blame Sony Pictures for the discrepancy, she blamed herself.

At the point I thought game, set, match to Sony. To everyone who has been selling — or benefiting from — the notion that the pay gap is the fault and responsibility of women.

That it’s explained by women’s deficient negotiations skills and their depleted confidence. That it would be solved if women were a little more forthright in asking for more money.

Aside from being incorrect, this serves as a brilliant decoy. So long as women are being told and believing that they’re paid less because they didn’t ask for more, management are off the hook. Why would a company take action when they can simply peddle the line that it’s a mess of women’s own making? They wouldn’t and most don’t.

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Game. Set. Match.

As prolific as the argument that women just need to ask for more is, it’s false. Hannah Riley-Bowes, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the director of the Women and Power program, says women are far less likely to negotiate more money than men are, but it doesn’t explain the pay gap.

Researchers have examined the why and the  answer has more to do with how women are treated when they negotiate than it has to do with their general confidence or skills at negotiation,” Riley-Bowes writes.

jennifer lawrence pay gap
Lawrence and Amy Adams were payed significantly less than their American Hustle co-stars. But it’s not their fault.

Studies from Harvard Business Review & Carnegie Melon show that women who do ask for more money are punished for it. They get demoted. They’re sidelined. They lose their jobs.

It’s called a “gender blowback” or “backlash” and is essentially a penalty for acting outside the scope of expectations.

Lots of women, Jennifer Lawrence included, are reluctant to push on the issue of pay for fear of seeming difficult or pushy. Their fears are absolutely spot on.

As Riley-Bowes writes:

“The results of this research are important to understand before one criticizes a woman — or a woman criticizes herself — for being reluctant to negotiate for more pay. Their reticence is based on an accurate read of the social environment. Women get a nervous feeling about negotiating for higher pay because they are intuiting — correctly — that self-advocating for higher pay would present a socially difficult situation for them — more so than for men.”

The truth is women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t when it comes to negotiating pay.

As she pointed out, Jennifer Lawrence is obviously in a unique position: she’s earning millions of dollars and doesn’t need any more money. But when she said she’s not particularly relatable she couldn’t be further from the truth. Her experience — if not the zeros at the end of her paycheques — is entirely relatable.

The pay gap is far more complicated than women asking for more money and buying into that discussion takes the focus away from the area which it’s needed. It takes the pressure and impetus away from organisations to act.

The pay gap is representative of the factors that contribute to inequality between men and women in the workforce. It is indicative of indirect and direct gender discrimination. The pay gap exists because women are over-represented in lower-paid roles and in lower-paid industries. It exists because women are under-represented in leadership positions. It exists because women’s skills are undervalued. The pay gap exists because women are still financially penalised, directly and indirectly, for taking career breaks to have children. The pay gap exists for reasons that can’t be explicitly explained. The fact that the divide between men and women’s earnings begins at graduate level in Australia is evidence of this.

Many of these factors can’t be addressed by an individual. When it comes to countering the subtle dynamics that contribute to women being paid less than men, organisations are in a far better position to tackle this than any single employee. This is why the Workplace Gender Equality Agency is challenging Australian companies to undertake a pay gap assessment.

It has enlisted 84 Pay Equity Ambassador organisations that have signed a pledge, acknowledging the impact gender bias can have on pay outcomes for women and the importance of analysing payroll data and taking action.

As WGEA’s acting director Louise McSorley explains, “We know that bosses don’t set out to pay women less, but the pay gap persists. Undertaking a pay gap analysis [is] essential.”

jennifer lawrence
In 2014, leaked Sony emails revealed Angelina Jolie had been labelled a “minimally talented spoilt brat” for negotiating equal pay.

Earlier this year at an NEEOPA event to publicise this challenge, two male leaders spoke frankly about the pay gap. Both assumed their respective organisations would have no gap and both assumed wrong.

Henry Davis York’s Managing Partner, Michael Greene, had assumed men and women would be paid equally in his firm because “there would be no rational explanation” for why that wouldn’t be the case. And yet a pay audit revealed a 17% pay gap across the organisation that has now been addressed.

Network Ten’s CEO Paul Anderson shared a similar story, an organisation-wide audit revealed a gap that is being rectified.

Women in both those organisations could very easily have blamed themselves had they discovered, like Jennifer Lawrence, that their male peers were being paid more. They could have concluded they didn’t have the confidence or negotiating nous to land a higher salary.

But like Lawrence, these women were up against a number of systemic biases that resulted in them being paid less. If they had asked for more, chances are they might have been punished for it.

So Jennifer, don’t blame yourself. Take that back. Start a conversation with Sony Pictures about what they’re doing to tackle this issue. Recognise the dynamics that are proven to penalise women who dare to ask for more are beyond your control and the control of any single woman.

Do you believe your workplace has a pay gap? 

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