From Julia Roberts to Jennifer Lawrence to Viola Davis, the list of women who have taken a stand and fought for pay equality is long and inspiring. Many actresses, including the three named above, have worked hard to ensure equal pay for themselves, and they have been transparent about the pay disparity they have experienced compared to their male co-stars. So, let’s take a look at a few examples of women who have stood up against the gender pay gap in Hollywood.
Julia Roberts was a pioneer when it came to fair compensation for actresses, and she helped break the glass ceiling when she sought better pay for her role in Erin Brockovich. The Oscar winner -- and she won for this movie might I add -- demanded $20 million to play the leading role in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film. Ultimately she became the only woman during that time to make as much as a male actor, and she had to fight for it, as she explained in 2022 during History Channel’s History Talks in Washington D.C. (via Variety):
I didn’t feel so boxish about it, but I felt like, ‘Come on.’ Which is my nature — not to be all up-in-arms about something, but to say, ‘Come on. Let’s get real. Let’s be fair.'
Not only did Roberts have the box office success of some of her best films like Pretty Woman and Notting Hill, among others, to show her worth, but she also explained just how hard she works on set, explaining that she’s “all-in. So, show me the money.”
Jennifer Lawrence penned a brutally honest essay on the pay gap in Hollywood back in 2015, which was years after she won her Oscar and around the time the final Hunger Games film came out. In the open letter to Lenny Letter, the Silver Linings Playbook star explained why she found it unacceptable that she, and many actresses, weren’t making as much as their male colleagues. She wrote:
I’m over trying to find the “adorable” way to state my opinion and still be likable! Fuck that. I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a man in charge who spent time contemplating what angle he should use to have his voice heard. It’s just heard. Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper all fought and succeeded in negotiating powerful deals for themselves. If anything, I’m sure they were commended for being fierce and tactical, while I was busy worrying about coming across as a brat and not getting my fair share. Again, this might have NOTHING to do with my vagina, but I wasn’t completely wrong when another leaked Sony email revealed a producer referring to a fellow lead actress in a negotiation as a “spoiled brat.” For some reason, I just can’t picture someone saying that about a man.
The three actors she named were her co-stars in David O. Russell’s American Hustle, and she and Amy Adams also starred in the film. All five were advertised on an equal level on the poster, but as Lawrence noted, she was worried she’d be called a “brat” if she negotiated like her male co-workers probably did. However, with this letter, she put her foot down and made her worth known.
Viola Davis has spoken candidly about the pay gap and how women of color are specifically affected by it. The actress, who joined the list of EGOT winners recently, spoke about how she’s had a similar career to other prominent actresses like Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. However, she has not received the same treatment as them. The Fences star explained during a conversation with Women in the World CEO Tina Brown in 2018 (via Mashable):
I have a career that's probably comparable to Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Sigourney Weaver. They had the same path as me, and yet I am nowhere near them. Not as far as money, not as far as job opportunities, nowhere close to it. People say, 'You're a black Meryl Streep ... We love you. There is no one like you.' OK, then if there's no one like me, you think I'm that, you pay me what I'm worth.
She went on to say she thinks Black actresses probably get “a tenth of what a Caucasian woman gets,” noting that she’s “number one on the call sheet,” and still doesn’t make as much. Davis makes a valid point, she has had a career that is just as prestigious as all the actresses she names, and she’s been awarded for it at the highest caliber. However, when it comes to her paycheck, as she said, it’s not so equal, and it needs to change.
Priyanka Chopra Jonas
Priyanka Chopra Jonas was a wildly successful Bollywood actress before making her debut in the United States in the hit ABC drama Quantico. However, she didn’t receive equal pay until this year for her show on the 2023 TV schedule, Citadel. While speaking at the South by Southwest Film Festival, the actress explained that even though she’s been working for 22 years, and has over 70 credits to her name, pay parity wasn’t something she received until recently. According to THR she said:
I’m laughing about this, but it’s kind of nuts. I put in the same amount of investment and work, but I get paid much less. But the ease in which Amazon Studios said, ‘That’s what you deserve, you are co-leads, that’s just fair,’ and I was like, ‘You’re right, it’s fair.’ And I wonder: Did that happen because there are very few female decision-makers in Hollywood? Would that have been a different conversation if a woman didn’t make that decision? Those are not conversations that happened very easily.
Chopra Jonas explained that Jennifer Salke being the head of Amazon Studios probably helped her receive equal pay. The actress starred in the show alongside Richard Madden, and they were billed as co-leads, which logically meant they both made what they deserved and there wasn’t a pay gap when it came to their respective salaries for the Prime Video series.
Before leaving Grey’s Anatomy as a series regular last fall, Ellen Pompeo had led the show for 19 seasons. She saw the changing of the guard both in front of and behind the camera, and she always led the cast as Meredith Grey. However, despite her character’s name being in the title of the show, she had to fight to get fair pay, and she’s been very open about that battle.
In 2018, the actress explained to THR that she tried to negotiate a higher salary when Patrick Dempsey left the show in 2015, saying:
At one point, I asked for $5,000 more than him just on principle, because the show is Grey’s Anatomy and I’m Meredith Grey. They wouldn’t give it to me. And I could have walked away, so why didn’t I? It’s my show; I’m the number one. I’m sure I felt what a lot of these other actresses feel: Why should I walk away from a great part because of a guy? You feel conflicted but then you figure, ‘I’m not going to let a guy drive me out of my own house.’
Well, in 2017, she was finally able to come to a deal that made her “the highest-paid woman on television” as she signed a $20 million per year contract. The Merideth Grey actor also explained she was able to take on producing too, saying what they were able to do to close the pay gap on this show and provide more opportunities for women in entertainment was “unprecedented.”
If you look at a list of the highest-grossing movies of all time, the common denominator among the top three is Zoë Saldaña. As one of the stars of Avatar, Avengers: Endgame and Avatar: The Way of Water, she has played a role in films that are pivotal to modern cinema, and she deserves to be paid equally for them.
To show her support for the fight for equal pay, the actress celebrated Latina Equal Pay Day on Instagram in 2018, as she, and others posted this message:
The gap is widest for Latina workers, who on average only get 53 cents for every $1 a man is paid. The gap has widened since last year, and for some, it's even worse. This is an injustice, and there's still so much work to do for Latinas to be treated equally. I am #PhenomenallyLatina, and I support Latina equal pay!
Along with Saldaña, Latina actresses including Sofia Vergara, Gina Rodriguez, Melissa Barrera and more posted the same message to their socials, as ET compiled, so they could all shine a light on the pay disparity that Latina actresses face.
Groundbreaking work was done during Season 3 of Westworld when it was confirmed that Thandiwe Newton and Evan Rachel Wood had negotiated their contracts to finally get equal pay to their male co-stars. While speaking with Vanity Fair in 2018, Newton opened up about the entire cast of the HBO hit getting equal pay, as she said:
They’re all happening right now, and yeah, we’re all equal across the board. It’s really exciting. It’s unprecedented. It’s—goodness; it shatters so much calcified pain, resentment, frustration. It just shatters it.
She went on to talk about how the negotiations went, and why she felt it was important to work toward an agreement that closed the pay gap on the show. She said:
It’s an uncomfortable conversation to have, but I think people have to start being more open and talking to each other about it, and peers have to start talking about it. Otherwise, the silence keeps perpetuating it, you know? It makes it easier to do shady dealings. So I think we’re all gonna have to just kind of be uncomfortable for a second so that we can sort it out.
Considering how big of a hit Westworld was, it feels logical that its female stars would receive the same pay as the male ones. And, thank goodness they did.
There are tons of other examples of women standing up for themselves, and demanding better and equal pay for actresses. Michelle Williams spoke at the Democratic Women’s Caucus four years ago about her experience negotiating a higher salary after finding out her male costar was making a lot more than her. Emma Watson also gave a now-famous speech to the United Nations about feminism, women’s equality and equal pay. Plus many others, including Aunjanue Ellis, Meryl Streep and more have spoken out about women’s rights to make a fair and equal amount of money. Luckily, steps forward have been taken, but there’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to closing the pay gap.