‘Equal Pay For Equal Work’ - Enforceable Practice Or Wishful Thinking?
Deepika Padukone’s exit from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Baiju Bawra’ made headlines this week. The actress, who has collaborated with Bollywood’s famous filmmaker many times in the past, reportedly backed out of his upcoming project because she was not going to be paid the same fees as the male lead of the film, who interestingly happens to be her husband Ranveer Singh. One of the biggest actresses in Bollywood today, Deepika’s last film with SLB ‘Padmaavat’ was a blockbuster hit. Her demand for equal pay for equal work was refused by the filmmaker, which led to the actress dropping out of the film.
Gender pay parity is a reality in almost every country in the world. While Iceland, France, Canada, Switzerland, and Sweden have made significant progress in reducing the gap, women in these countries are still not making as much as their male counterparts. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 by World Economic Forum, Iceland has the smallest gender gap at 87.7%, while Yemen is at the highest at 49.4%. India ranks at 112 (out of 153 countries) with an index score of 66.8%.
In India, the issue of ‘equal pay’ generally comes into prominence in the context of sports or cinema - two of the biggest religions in the country. Women in both these sectors neither have the same opportunities as the men, nor the funding. For example, the state of Haryana recently announced a cash prize of Rs 2.5 crore for the state players of the Indian men's hockey team who won a bronze medal at the Olympics and a prize of Rs 50 lakh for the women’s players. While the women’s team did not manage to bag a medal, their fourth place spot was secured after a narrow defeat to Great Britain. For a medal, their male counterparts got five times the amount that was gifted to these women who made history!
In the context of Bollywood, it’s hardly news that the three Khans charge truckloads for their appearances in films. While actresses like Kareena Kapoor Khan, Anushka Sharma, Aditi Rao Hydari, Deepika Padukone, Taapsee Pannu, Sonam Kapoor, and many more Bollywood biggies have brought up the issue of gender pay parity in the film industry, things haven’t progressed very far for these actresses. Not too long ago, Kareena Kapoor Khan faced a lot of flack online for hiking her price to 12 crores from her regular fees of 6-8 crores to play the mythological character of Sita for Alaukik Desai’s multi-starrer ‘Ramayana’. Comparatively, South Indian superstar Prabhas’ massive remuneration for his two upcoming films ‘Adipurush’ and ‘Salaar’ - the first one also being a rendition of the Ramayana - is a whopping 100 crores. A much-loved star mainly due to his portrayal of Baahubali, Prabhas was neither criticised by netizens nor were eyebrows raised for his massive fees.
While no one is likely to deny that gender pay parity exists, the question that arises is what can be done to close the gap. ‘Pay women the same as the men’ sounds obvious but many employers in the country feel that women do not bring the same value to a team as men. Women are also not assumed to be the sole breadwinners of the family, as opposed to men, which is a justification many employers might use to pay men more. In comparison, women are expected to prioritise their families as the primary caregivers, which doesn’t win them any favours from their employers. In terms of employability, women are not likely to even be considered in jobs that demand physical labour due to the myth of them being the ‘weaker sex’. The latest viral meme on a woman’s response to a rejection letter says it all. Women in India mostly work in unorganised and informal sectors, which often fall outside the purview of many labour laws. This increases their chances of exploitation and denies them the benefits of steady wages, health, safety and security.
While women are still struggling to fight for equal pay, the condition is even worse for women from marginalised communities. DBA women are neither given the opportunity to hone the necessary skills required for better promotions, nor considered to be at par with men or women from upper class and upper caste backgrounds. Director Neeraj Ghaywan's ‘Geeli Pucchi’ (a short film from the Netflix anthology ‘Ajeeb Daastaans’) explored this beautifully. Here, Konkona Sen Sharma played a Dalit worker in a factory, where the work was arduous and unrewarding. What set her apart from her male counterparts was that she had the skills to be promoted to a data operator, a job opportunity she eventually lost out to an upper caste woman (played by Aditi Rao Hydari) with no experience. Konkona’s character had to work much harder and resort to sneaky means to finally get the job she wanted. This movie is an eye-opener to the conditions of women at the workplace and the opportunities systemically denied to them.
While sports and cinema - the two mediums in which women have shown significant growth in the last few years - have massive pay parity among genders, there’s still a long way to go before the other sectors are ready to close the gap. For women to be paid the same as men, we primarily need equal opportunities for both men and women to flourish. When employers are willing to invest in their female employees as much as their male employees, there can be a significant progress in closing the economic gap that has been created on the basis of sex. Men, too, can do their part by not only speaking up on behalf of their female colleagues but also actively taking steps to ensure they are paid the same as them. Hollywood actors like Benedict Cumberbatch have already paved the way by demanding equal pay for women in cinema, while late actor Chadwick Boseman had even gone ahead to donate a part of his salary to increase Sienna Miller’s fees for their film ‘21 Bridges’. In Bollywood, however, men enjoy a lot more stardom and seem to be unwilling to share the spotlight with their female co-stars just yet. While some actors have spoken about the inequality in pay, they’ve yet to do anything about it.
It’s wishful thinking that Ranveer Singh might back out of ‘Baiju Bawra’ after Deepika Padukone’s exit. But only when we take steps to solve this problem are we likely to see any significant change in society. Until then, women can only raise the issue at the cost of being booted, replaced, and/or trolled.