Women in the culture industries

American_Hustle_Logoby Allyson Stokes

The Sony hacking scandal of 2014 has Americans talking about gender inequality. One of the notorious leaked emails revealed that the two female stars of the film American Hustle, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, earned less back-end compensation for the film than their male co-stars, Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper (7% versus 9%). This despite the fact that all four actors are comparable in terms of star power, critical acclaim, and award nominations for their performances.

Information also came to light about a pay gap between top executives. Among the 17 Sony employees whose salaries topped 1 million dollars, there is only one woman – Hannah Minghella, Co-president of Production at Columbia Pictures. Even more striking is the fact that Minghella earns much less than her co-president, Michael Deluca, a man with the exact same job title. While Deluca’s salary is 2.4 million, Minghella earns 1.5 million annually.

Unfortunately, the case of Sony pictures is just one example of a larger pattern of gender inequality in the cultural economy. According to Ashley Mears, the cultural economy is comprised of all sectors that “cater to consumer demands for ornamentation, amusement, self-affirmation, and social display,” including industries such as art, fashion, film, and music. These culture industries offer products that have not only utility functions, but contain great aesthetic or semiotic content and provide status and identity to consumers. With few exceptions, men possess ownership and control over the production and distribution of culture, and typically occupy the highest paying and most prestigious positions in culture industries.

Although we have no holistic account of what causes these gender disparities, several factors have been found to be associated with the underrepresentation or devaluation of women.

First, women can experience discrimination at the point of job entry and promotion. Sometimes this is because jobs and positions associated with more control, autonomy, technical skills, and prestige, are stereotyped as “masculine.” The construction of the role of music producer as an occupation with autonomy and control for example, may certainly contribute to the fact that only about 5% of all music producers are women.

Second, women are also sometimes typecast into subfields and specializations that are less lucrative and lower in status. For example, sociologists Mark Banks and Katie Milestone found that in the new media sector, women were excluded from creative and technical roles and placed in support or administrative positions deemed more feminine. Women screenwriters are also often typecast into writing for “women’s films” and passed over for opportunities in genres such as action and adventure, as evidenced by the work of sociologists Denise D. Bielby and William T. Bielby.

Third, networks can also be a barrier for women. Networking is a key route to success because it builds contacts and helps identify job opportunities. In the cultural economy, a great deal of work gets performed, and decisions made, outside the office during social times (e.g. in bars or restaurants). Research shows that in many fields of work the most powerful networks are often male-dominated and revolve around stereotypically masculine activities so women are often excluded or alienated from these “boys clubs.” This is no less true in cultural production. The reputations and careers of female musicians, for example, have suffered because of fewer ties to artistic circles and exclusion from male-dominated networks. Even the representation of network ties by the media can be gendered. For instance, as Brenda Johnson-Grau demonstrates in a chapter in Steve Jones’ Pop Music and the Press, female musicians are usually only compared to other female musicians, not musicians generally.

Fourth is the issue of work-family relations. Cultural work is associated with intensive schedules, and long and irregular hours. Since women continue to bear the brunt of responsibility for childcare, domestic labor, and the organization of family life, this lifestyle can create barriers for working mothers. In their research on chefs, sociologists Deborah H. Harris and Patti Giuffre show how long and irregular hours can force women to make tough choices, such as leaving the field, delaying or forgoing parenthood, switching to jobs with more standard hours (which not coincidentally usually offer lower status and visibility), or attempting to balance work and family, usually with great stress and guilt.

Fifth, family responsibilities have also been used as justification for women’s exclusion from particular fields and subfields. For example, while art was traditionally seen as an appropriate hobby for middle and upper class women, it was deemed an inappropriate career that could interfere with one’s “womanly duties” in the home.

Sixth, organizational mechanisms also have an impact on gender inequality. For instance, Bielby and Bielby show that in Hollywood the shift from a studio system with long-term contracts to a more loosely structure system where screenwriters were hired for specific projects had a negative impact on women’s representation among screenwriters. As well, Banks and Milestone argue that organizational characteristics of industries involved in cultural production can hamper efforts to promote equality: Because these industries emphasize creativity and individual talent, measures such as equal opportunity legislation, collective representation, and anti-discrimination policies are considered constraining and inappropriate.

Finally, symbolic mechanisms are important. When considering gender inequality among cultural producers, we must account for gender gaps in symbolic measures of success, such as media attention, critical appraisal, and awards. My own research on fashion design shows that discourses used by fashion media and other tastemakers to represent designers are highly gendered. Women are less likely to be represented in ways that match the traditional image of the ideal cultural producer (i.e. autonomous, artistic, devoted, and authentic). Sociologists Vaughn Schmutz and Alison Faupel found similar processes at play in the consecration of rock musicians. In my article, I argue that the ambiguous and uncertain nature of cultural value provides opportunities for biases and stereotypes to seep into the discourses that tastemakers use to represent cultural producers, reproducing the masculine image of the artist or creative genius.

Decades ago, art historian Linda Nochlin responded to the question, “why have there been no great women artists?” by arguing that women are no less creative, talented, or skilled than men, but that socially constructed definitions of greatness in art and culture discriminate against women. Unfortunately, this continues to hold true in a variety of cultural fields and occupations. The gender inequalities revealed by the Sony hacking scandal have kindled public outrage about gender discrimination, and should serve as renewed inspiration for organizational sociologists studying workplace inequality among cultural producers.

Allyson Stokes is a postdoctoral researcher in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on cultural work, creative industries, and gender inequality. Currently, she is conducting a comparative study about fashion designers, filmmakers, and music producers in Austin, Texas.

[Image via Wikimedia Commons]

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