The Gender Pay Gap and Race

Actress Natalie Portman is the latest White woman celebrity to talk about the gender pay gap in ways that demonstrate tunnel vision on the intersections between racism and gender inequity. From Patricia Arquette’s highly misguided attempt to discuss the wage disparity during her 2015 Oscars speech, to Jennifer Lawrence’s essay calling for equal pay, White actresses have a very skewed view of the inequities faced by “women” in the entertainment industry and in everyday life.

What does the gender pay gap look like when viewed through the intersections of gender, race and other social categories? What do we learn about mainstream feminism’s vision for equal pay, when we become more conscious of Whiteness and White privilege?

Whitewashing equity

Gender equity is distinct from gender equality. In everyday speech, most people, including rich White actresses, use gender equality to talk about the rights of women, as if all women belong to a monolith group. Equality is the idea that all people should be treated the same. This makes sense for the universal declaration of human rights. Gender equity is the idea that all people should have fair access, participation and inclusion to move ahead in life, but with the recognition that not everyone starts off on equal ground.

A gender equity frame helps us paint a picture that not all women have the same needs. Some women are born with additional hurdles if they are poor, from a racial minority, or if they face other barriers that affect their life chances. What works for a White, heterosexual middle class, able-bodied woman in a big city does not work for a working class, queer Indigenous woman with a disability in a remote region.

White women’s needs, knowledge and experiences do not define all womanhood. Yet for centuries, right through into the present day, and across all walks of life, White women have come to expect that their ideas on equality should define the struggles of all women.

While I discuss three high-profile White American women to make this point, this is not to disparage the hard work of these individual artists or to single them out. The aim of the analysis here is to illustrate how Whiteness shapes discussions on pay. The examples here echo discussions in other societies, including much of the work I’ve done in Australia on gender equity and diversity in academia, business and the not for profit sectors.

Let’s start with the much-discussed case of Arquette.

White privilege

In her Oscars speech, Arquette gave an impassioned account of “women” who fought for the equal rights of “everybody else” and that it was time for “women” to have equal rights. Immediately after her speech, Arquette spoke to the press gallery, calling on people of colour and sexual minorities (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual – LGBTQIA) to speak out on behalf of “women.” This erases women of colour, queer women and other women who belong to multiple racial and sexual minority groups. Her speech also showcases that Arquette is ignorant of the general activism of all women of colour, as Brittney Cooper pointed out:

“Earning the same paycheck as one’s male counterpart is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing wage inequality. For there are also issues of access, fair treatment and evaluation, and opportunities for promotion, alongside receiving fair and equal pay. There is also the matter of whether earning equal wages translates into wealth… Taken together, addressing these matters demands not an equality framework but a justice framework, one that is infinitely more concerned from bottom to top with the way that workers are treated within systems, the conditions under which they work, and equitable compensation that they receive.”

Many famous White women and White commentators praised Arquette. Arquette deflected criticisms on race as nothing more than controversy. Arquette doubled down on her comments, seemingly incredulous or irate that she was being criticised for showing ignorance on her White privilege. American sociologist Peggy McIntosh describes white privilege as a “knapsack” or a special bag of benefits that White people can take for granted as they go about their daily lives without harassment, fear, stigma or discrimination. This includes, amongst many other things, being able to see other people like you being reflected at your work and in the media.

Bearing in mind that many of the discussions on Arquette’s speech were being led by women of colour, this was her response:

“Don’t talk to me about privilege. As a kid I lived well below the poverty line… I was a working single mom at 20. I know how hard it is to pay for diapers and food .Explain why women should be paid less? The working poor women of this country have been asking for help for decades. If I have “privilege” or a voice I will shine a light on them.”

In order to side-step race, Arquette draws on class and her former status as a single mother. This ignores the plight of poor women of colour, including those who are single mothers and dealing with poverty on top of racism, sexism and other structural issues. As I said at the time, it is possible to use one’s privilege to shine a light on the pay gap. It is also possible to do this while also acknowledging the connections between multiple forms of inequalities, without denying privilege.

Arquette and her supporters, from the most elite in Hollywood to ordinary White women watching at home, never seemed to understand why women of colour were put off. Effectively, White women continued to protect their White privilege.


Later in the same year, Lawrence discussed her own pay inequities. This experience is important to share; pay is a taboo issue. Silence about pay it hurts women. The point is that it does more damage to some over others.

In her essay, Lawrence positions herself simultaneously as exceptional, an individual and representative of all women. The reason why Lawrence can dance across these seemingly contradictory positions is due to Whiteness.

Whiteness is a concept describing how White culture dominates social institutions in “Western” societies to the point where it is so pervasive, so central, so familiar, that it becomes invisible to those who possess it. Whiteness is everywhere, taken for granted, and therefore not questioned by White people on a day-to-day basis.

For White women who identify with dominant social groups, their sense of otherness is therefore only felt acutely in terms of gender. Even then, it is in relation to White men, not Others.

Lawrence starts off her essay on pay by acknowledging that her position is not “relatable” given her profession (exceptional Whiteness). She notes she was complicit in being underpaid because she didn’t want to be negatively labelled . She considers it might be her personality that prevented her from speaking out about unequal pay (ordinary Witness). Then she asks, “Are we women socially conditioned to behave this way?” (representative Whiteness). She goes on to make broad sweeping statements about “women” that apply mostly to middle to upper class White women.

As a White woman, she feels confident to extend her personal experience to all women.

Lawrence wrote about the social norms that kept her from speaking out about her pay earlier. She didn’t want to look ungrateful or like a troublemaker, something that White men do not have to fear. Then again she did so by centring Whiteness and ignoring the effect of race. She did so in a publication helmed by Lena Durham, a White woman who constantly proves herself to be ignorant on race relations. The same gender norms that lead to self-sanctioning in White women are amplified for women of colour who have to deal with stereotypes of being “angry” and “crazy” on top of being called ungrateful and troubling.

How could Lawrence make the same mistake as Arquette given the criticism her predecessor faced? We can’t know for sure as she did not address racism. Either she does not follow the writing and activism of women of colour, or she chooses not to engage with this long tradition.

Solidarity is for White women

This week, in a newly published interview, Portman reflects on the threefold pay discrepancy between herself and her White male co-start, Ashton Kutcher. Portman is an educated woman with a degree in psychology. She should have a relatively strong understanding of statistics and the problems of overgeneralising from data. Instead she cites the statistic for White women (who earn 82 cents for every dollar White men earn). She presents this as a fact for all women. It is not. Women of colour earn considerably less.

Despite her education, race does not factor in her public outcry over pay. Portman is Jewish, a religious group that is generally better off than other religious minorities, yet one that faces ongoing prejudices. Still, Portman does not speak of the role of religious marginalisation and race with respect to the gender pay gap.

Portman, like Arquette and Lawrence before her, and like many other well-off, educated White women, see that gender is the biggest barrier they face. Whiteness allows this erasure to happen.

Following Portman’s revelation, Kutcher tweeted his “pride” for Portman, praising her courage. It’s good when White men verbalise support for underpaid White actresses, but it would be better if they did something about it. It would be even more meaningful if they were committed to battling pay inequities of women of colour as well.

In an industry that perpetuates so much inequality, it seems courageous that White women speak out on the gender pay gap. It is! Yet White women should also recognise the myriad ways race compounds gender inequity. Failing to do so only reproduces the lack of diversity in representation that already exists for Latinas, for Black women and other underrepresented groups of women.

On Twitter, the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen is used by women of colour to share experiences of racism within feminist discussions. First coined by writer and diversity consultant Mikki Kendall, the hashtag reflects the various ways White women dismiss the effects of racism on gender equality. This can be through refusing to recognise that racism is a major problem within mainstream feminist practices, or in feminist attitudes, words and actions that make women of colour feel unwelcome, ignored or silenced.

The entire way in which White actresses talk about the pay gap, and the feminists who laud them uncritically, is a giant exercise in White solidarity. “I support you because you’re like me and you don’t challenge my privilege and world view!” White women’s conversations about pay keep playing over and over in the same way because the majority of White women do not see that racial inequity concerns them. Why?

Hollywood versus ordinary pay gap

In Hollywood, as in everyday life, there are inequities between men and women; amongst different groups of women; and in between these groups.

The highest paid White women in Hollywood are paid less than White men but more than people of colour. In 2015, Robert Downey Jr was the highest paid man, earning $80 Million. Jennifer Lawrence was the highest paid actress, earning $52M; while Jackie Chan and Vin Diesel earned $50M and $47M respectively. The only woman of colour to crack the top 18 list was Chinese actress Bingbing Fan with $21M.

All of these highly paid actors present as heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender people, perhaps with the most notable exception of Angelina Jolie ($15M) who is bisexual and has spoken about her mental illness in the past.

Highest Paid Actors – Women and Men (2015)

Hollywood represents a gross magnification of the gender pay gap in ordinary wages. In the USA, Latin and Black women earn less than White women and men. Racialised gender inequity persists with higher education. Even more noteworthy, perhaps, is the fact that the pay gap for White and Asian women has closed more than for Latin and Black women.

In Australia, women make up around half of all paid workers (46%), but they earn an average $283.20 less weekly than than men, even though they are also the primary carers for children with disabilities, elderly parents and partners. The caring, domestic labour and other forms of unpaid work that women do on top of paid work is what sociologist Professor Arlie Hochschild calls the second shift. Heterosexual people say they believe in gender equality, but their actions do not match this perception. This creates a double burden for women that deepens gender inequity, as sociologists like Professors Michael Bittman and Frances Lovejoy have documented. When we factor in race and other social inequalities, beliefs and actions about fair pay grow in disparity.

So, if women in general do the bulk of paid and unpaid work, what does this mean for women from disadvantaged groups? Of course it leads to greater inequities.

Women with disabilities are poorer than other groups and yet they are employed at half the rate of men with disabilities. All of these issues of pay and gender are compounded for transgender women of colour, especially Indigenous transgender women who have higher health risks. Consider then that transgender women of colour experience the greatest gender discrimination at work, let alone in finding work in the first place. They are paid less than transgender men, and suffer racism and transphobia on top of sexism. Now we get a much more complex view than the brushstrokes by Portman and other middle class and upper class White women.

White feminism

White feminism describes feminist practices that ignore, erase and silence race in scholarship and activism. White feminism also undervalues the history, contributions and experiences of women of colour in advancing women’s rights. It shows how White women benefit from, and are complicit in, racism and class inequality, through their behaviours and attitudes, or through inaction.

The founders of the Women’s March in Washington used anti-racism to shape their protest of USA President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration. The event will be held in cities around the world on 21 January 2017 Australia time. Many White women’s responses to race within this movement exhibit a form of White feminism, as they refuse to engage with questions of race. They marginalise women of colour in conversations about gender equity. Similarly, Pantsuit Nation, another collective American response to Trump from the left, has brought White feminism to the forefront.

White feminism is present in Australia every time we talk about sexual harassment without talking about racism. White feminism is the backdrop to national conversations about violence against White women, while generating silence for Indigenous Australian women’s deaths in custody. Even as White women galvanise local Women’s Marches in Australia, the calls for solidarity for Ms Dhu, who died at the hands of police and doctors, have largely been ignored.

Wherever gender inequity is divorced from racism, White feminism is driving this chasm.

White women who pay no mind to leaving out race from discussions of pay effectively want to be excused from racism in Hollywood and in other areas of society. These White women refuse to see that racism doesn’t need their active participation. Just because they aren’t yelling racial epithets at every street corner does not mean that White women aren’t benefiting from racism. Inaction helps just as much. If you don’t act, nothing changes, at least not for the better.

Similarly, talking about gender inequity in ways that papers over issues of Whiteness and privilege actually helps to keep racist systems firmly in place. White women who are feminists do not necessarily practice White feminism. Then again, White women cannot escape White feminism if they are not consciously applying intersectionality to themselves and the world around them.


It is significant when White women talk about gender inequity in pay without also discussing race and other forms of discrimination. Without an understanding of intersectionality, gender inequity cannot be truly advanced.

Intersectionality is a concept used to critically examine how gender discrimination is affected by race and other social disadvantages that include ableism (discrimination against people with disabilities), homophobia, transphobia, age and class. Without an intersectionality framework, the gender pay gap reproduces gender inequities. White, elite women may get a little bit further ahead with such a myopic view, but the system of patriarchy remains unchanged.

A true test of White women’s commitment to universally ending the gender pay gap is to insert Whiteness wherever it’s left unsaid.

Let’s revisit what Portman really said by omission of intersectionality:

“Compared to White men, in most professions, White women make 80 cents to the dollar.”

Portman might have also said: But then again, Latin women earn 58 cents for every dollar a White man makes and Black women earn 56 cents. I am disadvantaged as a White, Jewish woman, but women of colour have it even worse, as do other people of colour and underrepresented groups. It’s important that we all work together and be mindful of how structural racism impacts on fair wages for those who are less privileged.

Lawrence actually said:

“It’s hard for me to speak about my experience as a White working woman because I can safely say my problems aren’t exactly relatable… At the time, that [my pay] seemed like a fine idea, until I saw the payroll on the Internet and realised every White man I was working with definitely didn’t worry about being “difficult” or “spoiled.” This could be a young White-person thing. It could be a White woman personality thing. I’m sure it’s both. But this is an element of my White woman personality that I’ve been working against for years, and based on the statistics, I don’t think I’m the only White woman with this issue. Are we White women socially conditioned to behave this way? White women, we’ve only been able to vote for what, 90 years?”

She should have also added: Though in effect for Black women in the USA, the right to vote was not fully realised until around 50 years ago. Native Americans had to wait even longer to be officially allowed the vote, and to this day, access barriers persist for Black people, Native Americans, and undocumented migrants who wish to exercise (or be granted) their right to vote. These facts, along with other aspects of structural racism, means the pay inequality that women of colour face is even more profound, especially when we start to look at the needs of LGBTQIA, disabled, working class women, and those who belong to more than one of these groups.

What Arquette said:

“To every cisgender White woman who gave birth, to every White taxpayer and White citizen of this nation, as well, we White women have fought for everybody else’s equal rights, so long as they are White; it’s our time, White women’s time, to have wage equality to White men once and for all, and equal rights for White women in the United States of America.”

Other things she should have included to make her speech more factual: I recognise that undocumented women face even greater pay inequities given they are denied citizenship, even if they’ve lived the majority of their lives in the USA and their children were born in America. It is even tougher on them given their precarious employment and the threat of deportation of their families. I see that, while not all women give birth, and motherhood does not define what it means to be a woman, women of all genders and backgrounds deserve respect, recognition and equal pay. White women actively kept Black women out of the suffrage movement, and they collectively did not speak up for the rights of Native American women, Mexican women, and other racial minorities. Subsequently, we are all the poorer as a result. White women should not repeat the mistakes of the past. White men may be at the top of the current social hierarchy, but holding White women to White men’s standards is not equality, especially at the expense of other women. Only when all women, from all backgrounds, enjoy the same security in pay, at work, at school and in life, will we truly find equal rights for all.

The next time a White woman talks about gender equality without at the very least acknowledging race, keep inserting Whiteness back into their speech. Does this really sound like equality? The same could be said for researchers, activists, business leaders and policy makers. What’s fair about a system that leaves lots of women behind?

To paraphrase Flavia Dzodan’s evocative call to arms: if your feminism isn’t intersectional, what are you really advocating?

My feminism will be intersectional of it will be bullshit


Images: header shows a stylised, waist-line photo of the of a woman of colour holding a high-end bag. In the body: images 1 & 2) list of highest paid actors by gender;  3) bar graph showing White men had higher hourly earnings than all except Asian men in 2015; 4) stylised photo of a street intersection with the phrase: My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit! – Flavia Dzodan.