The XX Factor

Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper Have Us Wondering: Why Don’t More People Discuss Their Compensation?

Bradley Cooper Jennifer Lawrence
Equal-pay advocates Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence at the 2014 Golden Globes.

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Jennifer Lawrence published an essay in Lena Dunham’s Lenny newsletter about finding out, courtesy of December’s epic Sony hack, that she received less in back-end compensation for American Hustle than her male co-stars Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner. (Jeremy Renner! Was he even in that movie?) “When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks,” the Oscar winner wrote, “I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early.”

Yup, Jennifer Lawrence blames Jennifer Lawrence, not Sony executives or her own representation at Creative Artists Agency, for not getting paid what she was owed on American Hustle.

“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,” Lawrence added.

Ironically, the person to help point out the flaws in this logic was not only a man, but one of Lawrence’s overpaid co-stars.

When a reporter for Reuters asked Bradley Cooper about the essay during a press junket, Cooper commended Lawrence for speaking up, adding that what Amy Adams earned on Hustle was “really horrible” and “almost embarrassing.” Cooper said he’s started “teaming up with female co-stars to negotiate salaries” before films go into production, Reuters reported.

“Usually you don’t talk about financial stuff, you have people,” Cooper said. “But you know what? It’s time to start doing that.”

In the United States, this is something of a revolutionary idea. We’ve got a problem when it comes to sharing compensation details with one another. Not only is it considered uncouth, a social faux pas—it’s also something that many businesses do not allow, even though it’s a violation of federal law to punish employees who discuss their pay with one another. Many people seem to fear getting fired or otherwise punished for talking about salary with co-workers.

The Internet allows ways to get around this—forums to share your salary while remaining anonymous. The website Who Pays Writers has been a boon to freelancers. A group of Google workers, led by now former Google engineer Erica Baker (now employed at Slack) also established a spreadsheet for employees to share their compensation. The result?

Without knowing what others are earning, it’s all but impossible to determine if one is getting paid equally or fairly. Just ask Lilly Ledbetter. Her version of the Sony hack was an unsigned note—received after she’d put in 20 years at Goodyear Tires—that listed her salary and the (higher) salaries of several men performing the same job.

One dominant strain of thought—reinforced by Lawrence’s essay—says women simply need to be tougher about negotiating their pay. According to research by Linda Babcock at Carnegie Mellon University; Hannah Riley Bowles at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government; and Lei Lai, also at Carnegie Mellon—yes, women are less likely to negotiate. But there is a good (that is, very bad) reason why: Both men and women are less likely to want to work with women who ask for more money.

Yet Bowles and Babcock, writing with Kathleen McGinn at Harvard’s Business School, also found that women receive a much better reception when they seek to get someone other than themselves more money. Bowles and Babcock also discovered that women can get bigger bucks if they take extra care to position themselves as part of an organization and working for the good of the team—which means more work, of course, and a bigger emphasis on social aptitude. Still another piece of research found that the time-honored strategy of finding a matching offer from another organization was perceived negatively.

Taken all together, women have “good reason,” as Bowles said in the New Yorker last year, for not wanting to take a tough approach if and when they ask for their due.

Hollywood raises one other problem, one that even the indefatigable Bowles and Babcock haven’t gotten to yet: A study published last year in the Journal of Management Inquiry discovered that actresses can expect to see their earnings per film top out at age 34, and decline rapidly after that. Actors? They get another 17 years, hitting peak earnings potential at 51. So 25-year-old Lawrence has nine years to go, while 40-year-old Cooper has 11.

When it’s every man or woman for him- or herself, we know who will get the short end of the pay stick. Kudos to Cooper for pointing that out.