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Oscar win leads to payday for men, not women, according to Colgate economics research

By Aleta Mayne on March 3, 2014
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After winning an Oscar, that golden statuette can turn into real gold in the pockets of some, but not all. It’s another case of the gender gap in Hollywood. 

“Winning an Academy Award for lead actor causes men’s salaries to increase substantially,” Kevin Sweeney ’10 deduced in his economics honors thesis. “Female winners do not experience this same clear boost … the actresses’ salaries seem to decrease.” Sweeney’s findings, which were first cited in Forbes last year, were just mentioned last week in International Business Times.

The mathematical economics major and film studies minor used IMDb.com, Box Office Mojo, and other online resources to create his data set from scratch. Sweeney focused on bigger stars — from Katherine Hepburn to Julia Roberts — because their salaries are publicly available. “I had to comb sites for budgets, box office data, and who got paid what. It was a big undertaking,” he said.

Although Sweeney can’t say for certain the reason behind the phenomenon he uncovered, he posed several theories in his thesis. “First, this could possibly mean that winning the lead actor award is regarded as more of an accomplishment than winning the lead actress award. Second, it can be explained by industry-wide gender bias. I believe that there are more starring roles available to men in Hollywood than there are for women. This would then mean that the demand is higher for men who have proven that they are accomplished actors than it is for accomplished actresses.”

Sweeney’s interests in film and gender issues, in addition to his mixed feelings about the Academy Awards, inspired his choice of thesis topic. “They have always been something I’ve liked, but I’ve also had a lot of problems with the Oscars,” said Sweeney, who can name every best picture winner since 1970. “So, I decided to do something with the Oscars and gender and equality.”

Just as it can take years for an actor to be recognized by the academy, it can also take time for academic research to become of public interest. Although Sweeney conducted his study in the 2009–2010 academic year, it didn’t first garner media attention until last Oscar season. His research was first reported in an article on the personal finance site LearnVest, which then got picked up by Forbes.com. Because of the dearth of information on the topic, the LearnVest reporter was digging deeply and stumbled across Sweeney’s work (which had been published by the economics department on Colgate’s website).

“It worked in my favor that no one is really researching this topic,” explained Sweeney.

“Kevin came up with his own thesis idea, hand-collected unique data, applied a set of appropriate and reasonably sophisticated econometric techniques to the data, presented his findings to his peers, and incorporated peer feedback into his final thesis,” noted Professor Takao Kato, Sweeney’s economics adviser. “Through his thesis work, Kevin stopped being a mere recipient of existing knowledge and became an active participant in the challenging, demanding, and rewarding process of transforming and extending knowledge.”

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