Jennifer Lawrence Calls Out the Wage Gap

In writing about her discovery that her male co-stars were paid more, the actress asks an important question: Are women socially conditioned not to negotiate?

Jennifer Lawrence at the 2015 Comic-Con International Convention in San Diego, California. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

According to the White House, American women working full-time only make 78 percent of what their male counterparts make. Coincidentally, that is almost exactly how Jennifer Lawrence’s box-office take compared to her male co-stars’ for the 2013 movie American Hustle. On Tuesday, Lawrence wrote a short essay in Lena Dunham’s newsletter, Lenny, on the matter:

When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early. I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need. (I told you it wasn’t relatable, don’t hate me).

The Sony hack last year revealed an email between executives for the movie American Hustle indicating that Lawrence and her co-star Amy Adams were getting less than Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale, two of the film’s other big names. The Daily Beast reports that Lawrence and Adams got 7 percent of the movie’s box-office profits, while Cooper and Bale each got 9 percent. Lawrence explains that part of the reason she didn’t negotiate was a fear of not being liked, and that she suspects other women are having this issue as well:

But if I’m honest with myself, I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn’t want to seem “difficult” or “spoiled.” At the time, that seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realized every man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being “difficult” or “spoiled.”… But this is an element of my personality that I’ve been working against for years, and based on the statistics, I don’t think I’m the only woman with this issue. Are we socially conditioned to behave this way?

The short answer seems to be yes: The wage gap persists, and numerous studies have shown that women who ask for raises can suffer social consequences at work. So many women contemplating a raise perform a cost-benefit analysis, and, like Lawrence, decide it’s simply not worth it to ask.

There are a couple proposed solutions to this problem. Sheryl Sandberg has long advised presenting a raise as a communal decision—that “we” (both the boss and the worker) want this. And then there’s the point Lawrence hits on: Women could, and should, negotiate a lot more than they currently do. Research has shown that for MBA grads, eight times as many men ask for raises on their initial offers compared to women. The researchers of that study wrote in Harvard Business Review that women are indeed cultured to behave this way:

Women are less likely than men to negotiate for themselves for several reasons. First, they often are socialized from an early age not to promote their own interests and to focus instead on the needs of others. The messages girls receive—from parents, teachers, other children, the media, and society in general—can be so powerful that when they grow up they may not realize that they’ve internalized this behavior, or they may realize it but not understand how it affects their willingness to negotiate. Women tend to assume that they will be recognized and rewarded for working hard and doing a good job. Unlike men, they haven’t been taught that they can ask for more.

And asking for a raise is only half the battle: One study found that only 43 percent of workers ask for a raise, and only 44 percent of those who asked got the raise they were looking for. Of the 57 percent in the study who didn’t ask, 28 percent said they didn’t because it made them uncomfortable.

Women like Lawrence, who is 25 years old, might have the best hope of closing the wage gap. According to Pew, the gap is smallest for women aged 24 to 34: For that age group, women’s hourly earnings are 93 percent of men’s. It is in mid- and later- career that the gap widens, after women miss out on promotions (and even when they get promoted, they’re often paid less), experience the “motherhood penalty” when they have children, or drop out of the workforce.

As for Lawrence, it looks like she has already internalized her own message. For her upcoming Sony-produced movie, Passengers, she demanded double Chris Pratt’s salary: $20 million. Additionally, sources say she has negotiated for 30 percent of the movie’s profits after it breaks even. And for that, she could fairly be called many things—and “difficult” or “spoiled” are not among them.