Like many women who work in any industry, I have a story about the first time I encountered the gender pay gap for myself in a tangible way. My story also happens to be so wild that it feels like a way too on-the-nose metaphor for gender disparity. I am a screenwriter. If I wrote this into a script I would be told “Tone that down, no one is going to believe it.” Unfortunately, it is true.
It was my very first professional comedy writing job, and the first original content for a big streaming platform. I was part of a very small crew, and everything felt very gritty, like a startup. I was, for some time, the only female on the writing staff. That changed later. Because our crew was so tiny, I ended up also running the TelePrompTer. For those of you not in the film and TV industry: running a teleprompter is a separate job. There is a person who is designated and paid to do this and only this, because it is a specific skill set. It has absolutely nothing to do with writing, although for live shows and broadcasts usually a writer will sit next to the TelePrompTer operator in case there are changes that need to be written quickly during the show. I was paid nothing extra to do this additional job that none of the other writers did.
I learned the skill because someone needed to, but after I did it once the guys suddenly just “couldn’t” take a turn or learn how because it was “too complicated.” This was also one of my first lessons in how extra responsibilities can trickle down to women if we aren’t careful. I am, by nature and nurture, a helpful, caretaking person. At the time I was happy to help, and hey, I was a comedy writer writing for real live celebrity comedian guests. So cool!
About a year into the job, a new guy was hired onto the staff. He’s still one of my dearest friends to this day. One night, not long after the new guy was hired, we all went out for Tiki drinks after work. The guys started complaining about the low pay and I was right there with them until… one of them mentioned the actual amount they were getting paid. The other men agreed and went on scoffing at how bad it was while I sat there absolutely stunned. All of them. Every single one, including the new guy, were getting paid $300 per week MORE than I was making. I was shocked. I wrote just as many scripts, I supervised the edits of my episodes in post-production, I went on field shoots for sketches just like they all did. Plus, I ran the TelePrompTer five days a week: A WHOLE ADDITIONAL UNPAID JOB.
After I scraped my jaw off the Tiki bar, I did what any working gal in every 80s movie I ever loved would do: I took my complaint to our showrunner. This guy was a character. On display in his office, taking up an entire wall, was a giant self-portrait he’d painted of himself flexing shirtless. It was a LOT to confront walking into the room.
I gathered all my courage to stand up for myself and plead my case. I was raised to be a very docile, Southern woman, so it really took a lot for me to even advocate for myself at this point in my career. (I’m still working on this part of myself years later.) I was proud of myself for taking a stand and I very respectfully laid out my case: I have seniority over some of the other writers, I also do extra jobs, my scripts are as good as the guys’ and I don’t get extra notes or do less valuable work, so… I would like to make what the men on the writing staff make.
My boss then looked at me and said, “I don’t have the budget to give you a raise, but I know that one day you and Cat (my at the time girlfriend, now wife) want to have kids and I would be honored if you would use my sperm.”
I did not know how to react. I was speechless. None of my “what if” scenarios about how this would go had included this moment.
And then, because I was uncomfortable and I did not know WHAT to do, I started laughing. We were a comedy show. I thought maybe he was attempting a terrible joke. Instead, he looked at me with hurt in his eyes and said, “I’m serious. Don’t use [redacted name of male coworker].”
To be very clear, there was no world where I was planning to make babies with ANY of my co-workers. Cat and I did get married and did eventually have a child, but this was not that moment.
I realized he was dead serious. I had asked for equal pay and my boss offered me his SPERM.
Sperm to fix the pay gap. He offered a lesbian sperm instead of equal pay. This is a real thing that actually happened to me in my first tv writing job and I still can’t believe it.
I wish I could say I quit. I didn’t. Worse things went on to happen there, far worse, which is probably unsurprising considering this reaction to a normal pay raise request. My advice to any and everyone working in any industry is please do not ignore red flags, get out of toxic work environments as soon as you are able.
Unfortunately, while this incident was over ten years ago, the pay disparity is still happening. According to a study by The U.S. Census Bureau’s Quarterly Workforce Indicators women in the United States in 2020 earned 30% less than men, and that pay gap increases as women age. The situation gets even more extreme when you add in race. Multiple studies have consistently shown BIPOC women have even larger pay gaps than white women and those gaps tends to adjust at an even slower rate. Then, we throw the pandemic into the mix where the majority of childcare and medical care issues fell to women and drove many out of the workforce. According to the Center for American Progress 1.5 million fewer women are working today than were employed in February of 2020.
As we head back out into society and back into the workforce, it is imperative for workers to discuss salaries. Men especially need to tell the women around them what they are making in similar jobs—and hopefully it will lead to less appalling post-tiki drink conversations with bosses. My hope for all of us is that we can be more transparent, help each other spot inequalities, and collectively notice and avoid giant red flags in the form of flexing topless paintings.