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Old-Fashioned Gender Discrimination

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Several years ago I was asked to compose the score for an independent feature film. I had worked with the director and producer on their previous film and was looking forward to collaborating with them again. The director and I had several creative meetings and he was very excited by the musical possibilities I suggested.

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All was going well until the conversation turned to finances. The new film required double the amount of music that the first did. Nevertheless, knowing how difficult it can be to finance an independent film, I presented the producer with a fee that was very reasonable yet would still allow me to dedicate the time needed to create a quality score. He responded with a “take it or leave it” offer that was only slightly more than my previous fee and far less than I could afford. Although I was disappointed with his decision, I assumed he simply could not afford my services. And so, we parted on good terms and I wished them luck on their project.

Several months later I heard through the grapevine that the producer hired a male colleague of mine with little experience, but agreed to pay him $7,000 more than I proposed, and much more than they offered me. The reason, I was told, was because they were in a terrible time crunch and simply had to accept his fee.

My first thought was a common retort: “There is never enough money to do it right, but there’s always enough to do it over.” In time, however, I came to learn that the producer had difficulty paying me my fee because I was a woman. His decision wasn’t based on budgetary issues; it was pure sexism. This was the first time in my professional life I had experienced old-fashioned gender discrimination.

According to a recent N.E.A. report (PDF), female artists are only making 75 cents to the dollar in comparison with our male colleagues. At first, I was a bit surprised to learn that such disparity still exists. I had always assumed the arts had evolved beyond such prejudices. A commission is a commission, after all, and the amount is determined before the artist is selected. Individual reputation and audience draw are what I believe to be the factors that have the greatest effect on an artist’s fee.

I recently took my daughter to see Julie Taymor’s beautiful and enchanting production of The Magic Flute. I imagine Ms. Taymor was paid well to conceive that production, surpassing many of her male colleagues, and, in my mind, she earned it. Supreme artistry and well-deserved fame allow her to earn the top of the top.

On the other hand, Taymor probably represents an outlier in general statistics and I do believe other deserving women have not earned what their male counterparts have. I am still flummoxed, for example, by the fact that it took the Vienna Philharmonic 125 years to hire its first female member in 1997. And I can’t help but think that if we had women at the helm of the banks, we wouldn’t be in this economic mess! But I digress.

With the Super Bowl just behind us, I am reminded of a situation from my youth. I grew up in a traditional, Italian-American family in Pittsburgh. (Go Steelers!) I was a young girl during the great Pittsburgh championships of Super Bowls IX and X. On these Sundays, many members of my large, extended family would come to our house for dinner before the game would begin. When the meal was over, all the men and boys would retire to the living room to watch the game while the women and girls went to the kitchen to clean dishes. While decades have passed I can still remember the injustice I felt. And I was not mute. Over the clanging of pots in the sinks and the scraping of leftover meatballs into the bowls I would pontificate with great dramatic effect about the inequality of what was going on. My sermons were always permitted but mostly greeted with knowing smiles and a “whaddaya going to do?” gesture of the hands. I was allowed to talk with ease in the kitchen, but never dared bring my tirades into the living room. I needed to know myplace. Thanks to a strong and progressive mother and a father who was kind-hearted despite his tough exterior, I was able to move light-years away from my childhood kitchen sink—yet I am still aware that, hypothetically, my brothers and cousins who were in the other room watching the game are now the employers out there.

Aside from statistics, we must acknowledge some other issues in play here, which are not mentioned in the N.E.A. report. For example, as a mother, I know a little secret: women with children will often take a pay-cut in exchange for a little flexibility in their schedules. Does this undermine our ability to demand higher salaries? In addition, women with children may not want to do the necessary travel that’s often required to boost a career. Are women more holistic in their approach to life and men more linear? If so, does aspiration change over time more quickly with women than men? It’s a mighty sticky subject. Rather than taking the N.E.A. report at face value, I am left feeling that the answers regarding pay discrepancy are incredibly complicated.

In the Sunday Week in Review section of The New York Times, there was recently a cartoon that caught my attention. A woman and man are sitting side by side at their desks in an office. The woman is reading a newspaper where the headline reads, WOMEN PAID 78% OF WHAT MEN MAKE, to which the man responds, “What is 78 percent of doodly-squat?”

Humor aside, awareness is always a first step. While Hilary Clinton was not able to get the Democratic ticket for the presidential nomination, her much deserved assent has paved the way for all our sisters and daughters. And, with optimism in abundance surrounding the recent inauguration of our 44th president, I cannot help but hope, even in these difficult economic times, that these kinds of issues are getting further and further behind us.

I will admit I had some apprehension in writing this commentary. I had the feeling that, by approaching this subject, I would get tangled in a spider’s web. How could I possibly add anything to this discussion that hasn’t been addressed by people far more qualified than I? Women constitute almost 50 percent of the work force and nothing can happen without them, from making art to driving the bus to performing the surgery. And, we all agree, equal pay for equal work. So why is there still a problem here?

 

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