by Megan Eiss-Proctor
Megan Eiss-Proctor is Founder & CEO of Heddy Consulting. Heddy works with people and organizations to maximize the power of diversity and inclusion. From ensuring equal pay to anti-harassment workshops and fighting micro-agressions and discrimination - we help you create a more successful and inclusive workplace.
I don’t often have a “Celebrities… they’re just like us!” moment. But Michelle Williams’ pay disparity story struck a personal chord. Not just because we were both victims of pay discrimination, but because I think we both unknowingly played a part in actually encouraging the discrimination.
A quick summary for those of you not following celebrity news all that closely: Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg are two of the stars from an Oscar-nominated movie, All the Money in the World. The movie also starred Kevin Spacey until allegations about his sexual abuse of Anthony Rapp, among others, was disclosed. The director opted to fire Kevin and reshoot his scenes with another actor, Christopher Plummer. Obviously reshoots required additional time and work from the lead actors, including Michelle and Mark. The director asked the cast to do the reshoots for free. Michelle was happy to oblige. She thought the entire cast was working for free. Michelle was paid less than $1000 for the reshoot, approximately $80 per day to cover expenses like food, but no other compensation. Mark’s agent (who was also, disturbingly, Michelle’s agent) apparently didn’t get the “the cast is working for free” memo and negotiated for Mark to be paid $1.5 million for the reshoots.
There are many problematic aspects to this story - it is a case study on sexism in the workplace. Why would the director allow the discrepancy? Is Michelle sticking with the shitty agency that left her in the dark? Is Mark’s donation to Time’s Up (and a smaller donation from the agency) enough to prevent this from happening again? Each of these questions deserves its own investigation. But one of the most fascinating pieces to me is that Michelle offered to work for free.
Does that make her part of the problem?
I too offered to work for free - at a small non-profit I was trying to get off the ground. Later, like Michelle, I became the victim of pay discrimination. I feel her pain. How does the fact that she volunteered for the work (while Mark Wahlberg asked for a big payout) play into the pay disparity that later occurred? What does all of this mean for how we fight the gender pay gap?
In December of 2017, before news of Mark’s $1.5 million payday broke, Michelle spoke to USA Today about the reshoots. She told USA Today she gave up her planned Thanksgiving holiday at home and happily agreed to the reshoot.
“I said I'd be wherever they needed me, whenever they needed me. And they could have my salary, they could have my holiday, whatever they wanted. Because I appreciated so much that they were making this massive effort,” Michelle said.
Michelle offered to work for free not just because of the bigger picture, but because she cared about the integrity of the movie and actors she was working with. She wanted to help out. She didn’t try to negotiate. After Harvey Weinstein’s story broke many men and women in Hollywood grew concerned about the insanely high levels of power super-harassers had. Once it was revealed Kevin Spacey was a harasser, Michelle wanted to support the cause. Was Michelle also served by the reshoots? Perhaps. If audiences didn’t show up to see the movie because they didn’t want to support Spacey then presumably Michelle might not make as much money. But this was far from guaranteed (after all, Woody Allen continued to draw audiences for decades after his harasser/assaulter/pedophile status was revealed). Ultimately, though, Michelle had altruistic motives. She didn’t want to participate in promoting a movie featuring a sexual harasser, and was willing to work overtime for no pay because she cared about righting a wrong.
I offered to work for free to right a different wrong. In the summer of 2014 I saw injustice in the way our government treated immigrant youth, who were being asked to appear in immigration court and risk deportation, all without a lawyer to represent them. I was on the Board of a volunteer-only non-profit but as more and more immigrant kids arrived in the US from increasingly desperate circumstances in their home countries, public and private funders wanted to help and make change. Public and private funding doesn’t come in quickly, though, and the organization I was working for so tirelessly had a bank account with less than $50,000 in it. I knew the organization needed help and I had the necessary skills, so I volunteered to step off the Board of Directors and work as a full-time staff member for free for six months. Over the course of six months we hired paid staff members, but I continued to work for free for the good of the organization. Working at a mission-driven company meant that every day I got to go in to work proud that our organization was making a massive effort to change the world.
Working for free was a risk both Michelle and I were willing to take in the hopes of bettering the world. Michelle’s kindness was not rewarded. Her male co-star (who is not being promoted as an Oscar nominee for this film, when Michelle has been nominated for four Oscars and is being shopped for an Oscar for the film she was being paid no money to reshoot) felt no qualms about asking for payment of $1.5 million to do the reshoot. He was clearly less concerned about the movement and the bigger picture to remove harassers from the film and more concerned with his own personal bottom line.
Similarly, my gesture was later met with pay disparity. After working for free for six months, I joined the payroll of the non-profit. Over the next year the organization grew and a male colleague with seven years less experience than me was promoted to an equal position in the organization. He was less prepared to tackle requirements of his job due to this inexperience. I later learned he and I made the same salary despite the total inequity in our levels of experience and work load.
I had been Mark Wahlberged. My male colleague had fought harder for an increased salary and won. I was still worrying about what was right for the bigger picture.
Do I think Mark Wahlberg did the right thing by demanding to be paid and Michelle did the wrong thing? Not at all. But, like it or not, Mark Wahlberg, and the people who think and act like him, are the people who hold the power. Until people who think and act like Michelle - the people who are more concerned with society than their individual gains - hold more of the power, we have to play Mark’s game.
Toppling the patriarchy requires many different approaches. There is no one-size-fits-all. The $1.5 million pay discrepancy is not Michelle’s fault. It’s not Mark’s fault. It’s the fault of a system that continues to reward men while devaluing women. However, while I can’t speak for Michelle, in retrospect I believe my offer to work for free did play into a growing pay disparity at my organization. I hope it didn’t affect other female salaries there. If we are going to end the gender pay gap in my generation, and I believe we can, all women need to demand payment for our hard work.
How? Ask for what you’re worth. This is one tactic to fight pay discrimination I wish I had used a few years ago. Asking for what you’re worth raises the bar for the entire organization, the entire system - paving the way for not just for me but for every woman looking for equal pay.
You may not be working entirely for free, but this lesson still applies. If you find yourself taking on extra projects or acting as secretary or den mother for your office, you’re allowed to ask for compensation for these tasks. And, if your employer refuses to pay, you are are allowed to stop doing the tasks above and beyond your job duties.
Before reading Michelle’s story I had mixed feelings about working for free. But in reading Michelle’s statement and recognizing the similar reason I offered to work at no charge, I see I made the wrong move. I should have valued myself more. Even if ultimately negotiations led to something less than what I was worth, I should have never volunteered to work for free. I didn’t create the rules our workplaces operate under but as long as those rules exist I need to play the game. I will never offer to work for free again.