Ellen Pompeo, Thank You for Speaking the Truth

Ordinarily I’m not one to congratulate anyone for doing what they’re supposed to do. I tend to make fun of people who orate at length about how great they are for behaving the right way. You know, because we’re adults, and that’s how we should roll?

You know what I mean. Men who brag that they do so much for their kids and families. Um, yeah. You’re a husband and father. That was the deal when you signed the paperwork. Or, the boss who speaks sotto voce about how kind and understanding he or she is to their subordinates. Um, yeah. That’s an intangible but expected part of today’s employment contract. Especially if you want to retain your talent, glean the most discretionary effort from them, and be seen as a human being – and not sued and shit canned for being a turd.

Recently Net-a-Porter interviewed Ellen Pompeo, who plays title character Meredith Grey on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and a few other actresses for its Women in Television issue of Porter, the retailer’s online magazine; she impressed me. You don’t often hear white men or women admitting so explicitly that a lack of diversity in the workplace bothers them, or that said lack is partly their responsibility to fix. Usually it’s a case of, let me just smile and ignore this if the issue comes up. Or, let me offer some milquetoast response that I know won’t mean much but also won’t make waves and potentially create difficulty for me later.

Pompeo is different. She’s been extremely vocal about her struggle and eventual success in negotiating a fair salary for herself compared to her male co-stars. She’s also married to a black man and has black children, which likely affected her enough to speak out decisively on race and other tough issues.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of interracial marriages where the non-minority half is vocal. But in this case, Pompeo has a $20M deal, making her one of the highest paid actresses in a primetime TV drama, is the front runner for one of the most beloved, long-running shows, has a lot to lose, and still gives the public the business in a soft, but firm voice. That speaks volumes louder than her actual tone.

Given her position, I applaud her decisiveness. It’s unbelievably refreshing to hear my thoughts and feelings come out of a white mouth in a public forum.

The video is worth watching in its entirety because the four actresses on the panel, Gina Rodriguez, Emma Roberts, Gabrielle Union and Pompeo, have some interesting things to say about why they – and many women – often don’t negotiate better, fair compensation for themselves at work. For instance, you might not think that culturally motivated feelings of gratitude would be a stumbling block to asking for the same pay as your male peers, but they clarify why it’s a huge barrier to equal pay in Hollywood. I’m sure the same sentiment bears weight in the corporate C-suite and other workplace environments as well.

Just four minutes in, I was shaking my head in agreement as Union and Rodriguez discussed how their perceived worth in others eyes impacts their pay. These are real numbers that differ based on a laundry list of the same dimensions of diversity that have consistently put women and minorities behind the eight ball at work, and subsequently in life.

Pompeo’s comments about why the talent and not just the company or corporation need to profit from content success are common sense. But we all know, common sense is not always common. It’s why conversations like this are so important.

These conversations are what help to bring about change. First there’s awareness, then people speak up, demand an accounting, and it snowballs from there. And it takes a while, which is all the more reason to speak out and often in the spirit of behavioral and systemic change.

I’m with her. You can’t lure me with “a creative carrot” or the promise of an award, or any other so-called benefit, and use that as an excuse not to pay me. As Pompeo said, “Give me my money.” I blogged not so long ago about a guy I’d known for a good decade who when I reached out to let him know I was now running my own business, wanted to pay me a pittance to create a ton of content for a shared byline and exposure. I didn’t even have as many followers as I do now, and I was like, is he kidding?

Why does this dude think I would be impressed by a shared byline? My solo byline has appeared before people all over the world for years. Get your mind right. But I was flabbergasted in that moment. I didn’t know how to respond to him. I had to get off the phone, sit and think about how to handle the situation, and then come back later to turn down his so-called offer in a suitable way.

Another thing that struck me in the Net-a-Porter interview was the need for solidarity that Union discussed and how important that is to solve issues like these. Women need to share information. Minorities need to share information. It’s not always tacky to talk about money. You can’t change what you don’t know is wrong.

It’s why microaggressions – do they still call them that? – are so powerful.  You feel bad, but you don’t know exactly why. Therefore, you can’t speak up in your own defense, or in someone else’s defense. You can’t play or fight strategically with a limited arsenal.

Further, that need for solidarity should logically extend to all those who are disadvantaged, not just those minorities who look like you. Meaning, for instance, I have to speak for women of color, for women, period, not just black women.

I got choked up watching that video. It really did something to me to hear that diverse little group talk about their efforts to effect change. Change that will affect not just their fellow actresses, but the production staff who support them in their work, and the companies they subsequently build to create their own projects.

It takes courage. It takes practice. You have to learn how to communicate to influence, to create behavioral change, to build consistent talent pipelines. There’s risk. Sometimes big risks. You can lose. You can lose your position, money, jobs, creative opportunities, lots of things.

You have to decide if it’s worth it for you to potentially make a sacrifice, to speak up, to make uncomfortable suggestions, or to point out questionable things. Hard as it can be, I say it is. Fortunately, a lot of people agree with me, more are stepping up all the time, and things are changing.

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