U.S. Markets closed

Why Robin Wright and Jennifer Lawrence shouldn’t be the heroines of the equal pay debate

Why Robin Wright and Jennifer Lawrence shouldn’t be the heroines of the equal pay debate

Robin Wright asked for more and she got it.

At a charity event earlier this week, the “House of Cards” actress told the story of how she negotiated a pay raise that would put her on equal footing with her co-star, Kevin Spacey. (Spacey is rumored to earn half a million dollars for each episode of the hit Netflix series.)

Wright saw her opportunity when “statistics” she was following showed that her character on the show was becoming more popular than Spacey’s character.

So she pounced.

“I was like, ‘You better pay me or I’m going to go public.’ And they did, ” Wright told the audience to rapturous applause, later adding “You do have to shame and guilt them into it.”

And all at once, another equal pay “shero” was born. Wright joins a growing list of A-list Hollywood actresses like Jennifer Lawrence, Patricia Arquette and Emma Watson to publicly denounce the pay gap that has long plagued women in Hollywood on both sides of the camera.

The key takeaway from Wright’s story seemed to be this: You can’t get what you don’t ask for, ladies. It’s a familiar piece of advice to any woman who’s ever secretly Googled salary negotiating tips right before their annual review.

But it’s not enough. Can I just say that? It’s not enough!

It’s not enough for women to simply ask for more. And it’s not fair for women to feel like the entire weight of closing the gender wage gap rests on our shoulders. Yet, so much of the advice out there focuses on what we, as women, should be doing better in order to earn more.

Do your research. Track of your performance. Bring notes. Dress the part. Be nice but not a pushover. Be firm but not a bitch. Undo decades of social constructs that have taught you to give and to please and never to ask for more. And if all else fails just go ahead and “shame them and guilt them into it,” Wright says.  

Anyone else out there crumbling under the weight of all that pressure? (::Raises hand::)

Yes, Wright was completely badass for standing up for her right to earn more. But here’s the question we should really be asking ourselves (and it’s not "How can we teach women to ask for more?").

Why (why why WHY) do we have to ask in the first place?

We all seem to agree that paying workers differently for doing the same work is pretty lame. And yet, here we are, with our minds completely boggled by the news that a famous woman earns the same pay as a famous man. What about the other people (her agent? Netflix higher-ups?) who thought she was worth less in the first place?

There are a few other reasons I found the reaction to Wright’s story so disappointing. For starters, Wright has tools at her disposal that most women never have at the negotiating table.

One of her biggest bargaining chips was her own celebrity. Go ahead, Linda who works in sales in Omaha! Try telling your boss that you’ll “go public” and alert all 147 of your Twitter followers if they don’t give you a raise. See how well that works out for you.

Wright also had access to information that is still frustratingly difficult to obtain: She (or, more likely, the agent who represented her) had to have known how much Kevin Spacey was paid. So often, the rest of us are negotiating blind, with no idea what our coworkers earn or what to ask for.

Lastly (but not unimportantly), she had race on her side. And this is not a privilege that we can afford to ignore, especially when it comes to equal pay. There are many brilliant discussions about equal pay taking place in America today, and yet the only ones that seem to garner any real attention are the ones that are led by white, successful women who are already in a position of power. It’s not just an issue in Hollywood, either (hello, Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton).

When Wright said that women earn 80-ish cents for every dollar men make, she missed a crucial point: That’s really only true for white women. Women of color are in far worse shape. African-American women earn 63 cents of every dollar men earn. Hispanic women earn 54 cents.

Actress Viola Davis nailed this dichotomy in a recent Mashable interview. When asked about the equal pay gap in Hollywood, Davis said thinking about earning as much as men isn’t a luxury she, like many black professional women, can afford.  

“The struggle for us as women of color is just to be seen the same as our white female counterparts,” Davis said. “Forget the men! We’re not even in that realm yet … It’s like talking to someone who lives in poverty! ‘You don’t want that Bentley?’ They’re like ‘Shoot, I’m just trying to get bus fare money.’”

In the ongoing battle to achieve equitable pay for women in America, the real heroines shouldn’t always be A-list celebrities or CEOs with publicists and agents and a world of resources at their feet. Yes, they have the power to bring much-needed attention to causes like equal pay and we should all be inspired anytime women stand up for themselves.

But we have to also acknowledge that all women are not impacted by the wage gap in the same way.

Read more:

There are 5 things you should always negotiate

4 things workers need to know about the new overtime rules

Jennifer Lawerence misses a crucial point in her wage gap essay

Mandi Woodruff is a reporter for Yahoo Finance and host of Brown Ambition, a weekly podcast about career and finance. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook.