Why did Mark Wahlberg – the former rapper turned actor – earn US $42 million more than any other woman in Hollywood this year?

It’s a simple question with a complicated answer, but one thing’s for sure: pay disparity is one of the rotten roots on which gender inequality festers. You don’t have to be Emma Stone (the most well paid woman in Hollywood this year) to know that some man, somewhere, is being paid more than you for doing the same job.

The economic empowerment of women – their ability to succeed economically and act on economic decisions – isn’t just something for the Hollywood elite to busy themselves with. Today, there are roughly one billion people living in extreme poverty, and many of them are women and children. In fact, globally only one in two women over the age of 15 is in paid employment, compared to about three in four men, whilst simultaneously taking on around three times more unpaid work. What’s more, when women do work, their jobs are typically characterised by low pay, poor working conditions, and horizon-blunting career opportunities. 

Some may ask why this is a problem. Giving women financial autonomy is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do – the case for action stems from the universal case for basic human rights, all the way to the myriad ways in which national economies thrive when women have equal rights. The case is so compelling that women’s economic empowerment – and the gender equality it stretches us towards – is one of the cornerstones of the Sustainable Development Goals. We cannot achieve sustainable development unless women and their wallets are front and centre of the picture.

But when it comes to realising gender equality (Goal 5), progress against the targets has been woefully slow, and the gender gaps are so persistent as to feel permanently unbridgeable. This was why the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, founded the first High-Level Panel for Women’s Economic Empowerment last year, and invited leaders to drive an action-orientated strategy to accelerate change. At its heart, the panel was convened to address the specific economic issues which affect women, and to help realise the ambition for the 2030 Agenda – leave no one behind. Not minorities, not migrants, not the disabled, not the poor. And not women.

Under the leadership of Co-Chairs President Luis Guillermo Solis of Costa Rica and Simona Scarpaleggia, CEO of IKEA Switzerland, the panel has now produced a powerful set of tools which show how organisational leaders can significantly shift the needle on women’s economic empowerment and, correspondingly, on gender equality. They have identified seven key change drivers that can be used to build economically empowering systems.

One of the most toxic and slippery reasons that gender inequality persists is due to adverse social norms. The panel states that social norms are “the rules of behaviour that are considered acceptable in a group or society” and they go onto elaborate the many social norms which relate to women and work. These include things like the type of work women should do, the value it holds, how mobile women should be outside of the home, and the expectation for equal pay and respect. In many instances, social norms can be extremely harmful because they limit women’s access to work to begin with, and then they devalue the very nature of the work done when it is.

But this is also an issue where we go full circle, all the way back to that hefty pay gap in the Hollywood hills. Because where else do we reinforce our stereotypical images of women at work than through the media? In fact, one academic has recently written about the way in which the films we watch shadow the experiences that women more widely have in the work place. Deborah Dean writes that “actors are paid to represent us to ourselves” and that “the way society sees people has economic implications.” The majority of popular media has put women on a negative feedback loop, entrenching harmful social norms by feeding them to us time and again.

So profound is this problem, that the High-Level Panel says that changing norms should be at the top of the 2030 Agenda to expand women’s economic opportunities. Businesses have a real opportunity to take the lead here, and benefit from the opportunities that result from clear processes for addressing bias in recruitment and promotions, ensuring formal pay equity processes, and offering training and mentoring for women to develop their skills. Speaking of the role that IKEA Group has played in the panel, and will continue to play as an activist on this topic, Simona Scarpaleggia says “we are committed to doing our part by reaching gender equality in all leadership positions, and providing equal opportunities and equal pay by 2020.” To this end, IKEA Group has already achieved 50/50 on the group management team.

So why does Mark Wahlberg earn so much more than any woman in Hollywood? In part, because the social norms we continue to perpetuate place the value of his work so much higher than any of his female peers. It’s time to write a different script. Let’s run with the powerful tools we now have under our belts, and maybe, like all the best Hollywood films, we’ll finally get our happy ending.

  • Find out more here and by following @SScarpaleggia

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