Paula and Pay Equity.
by Leslie Morgan Steiner
I never imagined cute, ditzy Paula Abdul as a feminist. Shame on me for assuming that a Los Angeles Lakers cheerleader and music video diva couldn’t also be strong, smart and gutsy. Because Abdul’s dispute over women’s pay equity – an issue that affects all women in the U.S. and around the world -- seems to be the back story behind last week’s departure from American Idol, eloquently justified by National Public Radio’s Michel Martin and other pundits. Give me an A, Paula!
Celebrity buzz brings another teachable moment for our kids, who can certainly learn an interesting lesson in fairness from the fact that Paula quit because the men on the show were paid far more than she was. Entertainment pay packages are tough to verify, but the New York Times reported that Abdul made $2 million per year in salary and another $1.5 for wardrobe and expenses. Idol host Ryan Seacrest’s pay recently doubled to $10 million a year, and flame-thrower Simon Cowell earns in the range of $30 million per year. Abdul asked for $10 million per year, with the show countering $5 million.
Heady numbers, for sure – but that’s not the point here. Statistics prove that inequal pay for equal work is the reality for most women in most professions in the U.S. whether you earn minimum wage or millions. According to Catalyst, women in Abdul’s age bracket (45-54) make 74.5% of men’s earnings. The 2008 median income for women hit only $638 a week vs. $798 for men. Over the course of a career, some studies show that women earn only 38% of what men make. The situation is widespread and serious enough that President Obama made it illegal to pay women less than men back in January as his first law signed while president.
Paula Abdul was offered 50% less than her male peers despite the fact that her very ditziness is critical to the show’s unique, Twitter-worthy appeal. Abdul, who’d been with Idol for eight seasons, gave the show’s producers plenty of chances to make it right; she negotiated as all career coaches tell women to do; she stood up for herself and asked to be paid what she was worth in terms of the media attention, viewers and ratings she brought to the show. I think Abdul had few respectable choices but to walk away from the top-rated Fox program, even if walking away kills what’s left of her strange and varied career in entertainment. (Fortunately early reports indicate she’ll be fine, with ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and other shows reportedly pursuing her.)