“The Math Ain’t Mathing”: Black Women in Hollywood and the Wage Gap

| Feb 16, 2024

Just over one month ago, Taraji P. Henson joined Gayle King on Gayle’s podcast to discuss The Color Purple and her acting career. Nearly one million of us watched or heard Gayle ask Taraji about rumors of her quitting her acting career when Taraji began to cry as she explained why.

“…I’m just tired of working so hard, being gracious at what I do, and getting paid a fraction of the cost…”

Her tears are the tears that many Black women, specifically in the workplace, know all too well. They are the tears of trying time and time again to prove one’s worth to their employer. Despite efforts to go above and beyond, and produce quality work, Black women are often met with baseless and insulting reasons as to why they can not be paid adequately; and in the same sentence being told that white counterparts can.

In her twenty-year career, Taraji has grossed over $3 billion in the box office and has earned several awards for her talent. In 2015, Taraji won the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series – “Empire” – which aired on Fox for five years. Taraji became the first Black actress to receive this award. Her talent and success is undeniable, yet she has been undervalued and underpaid.

Hollywood has long been a place where representation and diversity is lacking. Despite steady gains over the last decade, people of color remained underrepresented on nearly every industry employment front in 2022. People of color are less than two to one (21.6%) of theatrical film leads and less than a proportionate representation among total theatrical film actors (36.1%).

National Partnership research shows that Black actresses typically make just 64 cents for every dollar white, non-Hispanic actors make. Black women directors and producers make just 68 cents compared to their white, non-Hispanic men counterparts. Even though these gaps are within an occupation, they are nearly as large as the overall wage gaps for Black women.*

The data serves as a critical reminder that acclaimed actresses may be both famous and also highly under-compensated – the two are not mutually exclusive. There are a number of factors that contribute to wage discrimination, and one significant factor is stereotypes. Black women in Hollywood experience an uphill battle against the stereotypes that have and have continued to plague them for generations.

In the first half of the 20th century, before Black women took center stage, they were forced into offensive, dehumanizing, and stereotypical roles such as “mammy” and “sapphire”. And Black men were reduced to animalistic and other degrading caricatures, such as “beasts”, “brutes” and “Uncle Tom”.

While these stereotypes may not be perpetuated so publicly, they are ingrained in American society and continue to manifest in different forms, and Hollywood is no exception.

“…I’m tired of hearing my sisters say the same thing over and over…”

Black actresses have been vocal over the pay disparity, but little seems to come from these conversations. In 2016, Mo’Nique shared in an interview that she was only paid $50,000 for her role in “Precious,” which grossed $47.5 million at the box office. Three years later, Mo’Nique sued Netflix for pay discrimination for a potential comedy special. Netflix allegedly offered Mo’Nique $500,000 for a comedy special, but offered Amy Schumer $11 million, and Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle were each offered nearly double Amy’s offer – $20 million.

Viola Davis has also been an outspoken advocate for equal pay in Hollywood and on the wage gap that punishes Black Hollywood. In a 2018 interview, Viola explained that while she won award after award – an Oscar, an Emmy, and two Tonys – her professional value remains in question. Despite her accolades, education, and being called the “Black Meryl Streep”, Viola explained that she is nowhere near her comparable counterparts, “not as far as money, not as far as job opportunities, nowhere close to it”.

Three years ago, Gabrielle Union advocated for pay transparency, citing a wide pay disparity among Black actresses. Gabrielle expressed how being paid so much less as a Black actress can bring forth feelings of shame and lead to thoughts of failure.

Black actresses have continuously spoken out against equal pay for decades, yet Hollywood continues to low-ball them contract after contract.

“…We see the lights, camera, action, and then they tell me we don’t translate overseas…”

Black film leads have been regularly told that Black films do not translate overseas. Yet, this pervasive myth has been disproven, repeatedly. A 2023 study found that theatrical films with casts that were from 31 to 40 percent minority were released in the most international markets, and on average, had the highest global box office earnings in 2022. In short, to say that films with people of color as leads do not translate abroad, is simply untrue.

“…if I can’t fight for them coming up behind me, then what…am I doing?…”

So many Black actresses have paved the way for the icons of today and continue to do so for the trailblazers of the future. Black women continue to carry the impossible burden of making more progress so those who follow them do not suffer the same obstacles they once did. It is time for Hollywood, and the United States, to see Black women, listen to Black women and value Black women.

“…I’m only human and every time I do something to break another glass ceiling, when it’s time to renegotiate I’m at the bottom again, like I never did what I just did…”

With Equal Pay Day being a few short weeks away, and Black Women’s Equal Pay Day following, there are ample opportunities for Hollywood to support Black actresses. Hollywood executives can invite Black women to the table when discussing potential salaries, or practice salary transparency. In addition to Hollywood’s efforts, Congress can also help ensure that all women are paid for their work by passing the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Credits: Author would like to thank Gail Zuagar, Sharita Gruberg, Katherine Gallagher Robbins, Anwesha Majumder, Molly Kozlowski, Sarah Suleman, and Mettabel Law for their contributions.

*Methodology note: Figures are National Partnership for Women & Families calculations based on American Community Survey 2019-2021 via IPUMS. Figures are median annual earnings for workers with earnings who worked at least 20 weeks per year (roughly approximate to the 102 eligibility days SAG AFTRA uses for health plan eligibility). Figures for directors and producers are based on the same number of weeks for comparability, but the wage gap for all Black women directors and producers compared to white male counterparts is the same (68 cents). All Black women workers made 57 cents compared to their white, non-Hispanic male counterparts. Narrowed to people just working 20 weeks or more, this figure is 61 cents.