What Jennifer Lawrence reveals about women and equal pay

Story highlights

  • Jennifer Lawrence wrote essay about wage gap in Hollywood after learning she was paid less than male stars in "American Hustle"
  • Dasha Burns: Women, not just in Hollywood, must push back at idea they are compliant, undeserving; teach daughters to demand more

Dasha Burns is a writer and a strategist at Oliver Global, a consulting agency, where her work centers on leveraging media and digital technology for global development. She conducted research on gender in film and television at the University of California-Berkeley. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Feeling sympathy for the rich and glamorous Hollywood elite is pretty tough -- especially when it comes to their salaries. But reading Jennifer Lawrence's recent essay in Lena Dunham's feminist newsletter, Lenny Letter, replaced my typical "screw-you-and-your-perfect-talented-flawlessness" reaction with some actual frustration on her behalf.

Dasha Burns
Her essay addresses the wage gap in Hollywood, which was made explicitly clear to her after the Sony hacking scandal revealed she was paid less than her male co-stars in "American Hustle." But she wasn't so much upset with Sony as she was with herself, believing she "failed as a negotiator." She attributed this failure to "an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight. I didn't want to seem 'difficult' or 'spoiled.'"
It's hammered into women that being easy to get along with, easy to work with, easygoing, easy (period) is how you get and keep your job. This is as true for any industry as it is for Hollywood. And, as JLaw points out, it's not just about the substandard pay for women, it's about women not demanding that their salaries reflect their value.
    From a young age, men are taught to walk into a room and demand to be heard. Women are taught to wait to be invited -- and then walk in and be grateful.
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    Men expect women, especially in negotiations, to be likable by being sweet, apologetic, agreeable. The moment we stray, we're labeled aggressive, pushy, unlikable.
    The pressure to prove one's value with a giggly, passive charm leads to more than just the occasional bathroom breakdown. It affects women economically.
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    Women may have gotten the Equal Pay Act in 1963, making it illegal to pay men and women differently for the same type of work, but today, women are still paid, on average, only 78 cents for every dollar a man earns. For women of color, that pay gap is even wider. In 2009, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, intended to restore and improve on equal pay law.
    This is what made JLaw's piece powerful: It highlighted that women still experience pay inequality across the board -- whether you're Hollywood's top talent, a clerk in a retail store or a businesswoman.
    And it's hard to make this better when a lifetime of social conditioning -- not surprisingly -- leaves many women laboring under an imposter syndrome. This is the feeling, mostly experienced by successful women, of being a fraud, undeserving of accolades and accomplishments. The syndrome tends to subtly creep to the surface and inhibit women from making too much noise, lest they be found out.
    One can imagine the difficulty in asking for more money with all of these internal and external pressures.
    Women must do it anyway. It's time a new generation rethinks the qualities we value in women and the way we talk about money.
    Talking openly about money is considered uncouth in our culture. But this empty etiquette does little good for anyone -- and it harms women. It has become an excuse for obfuscation, making it difficult for women to know when they've been slighted or to feel empowered when addressing their wages.
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    The conditioning starts early. So we need to start being open with our children, especially our daughters, about money. Teach them what worth means (and that they are worth a lot).
    And as adults, we should start talking about salary with our peers. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but we need to free this topic from its "taboo" status. Until we successfully pass and enforce equal pay and companies become transparent about wages (in other words, until hell freezes over), we need to support each other in receiving the compensation we deserve.
    Most women have no idea they are paid less than their male colleagues. Build up some courage by talking to your co-workers and friends in similar industries before you take the issue to your boss. The outcome of those conversations might have you storming into the corner office pretty quickly.
    Perhaps, if we work to educate ourselves and one another, we'll find it easier to wake up each day, know our worth, and demand it.