Discriminating Oscar Voters

Hollywood seems more politically correct than most industries, so it surprises me that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences still segregates acting awards for men and women.  Oscar voters are capable of evaluating acting performances in comedies and dramas, even though the films had different screenplays and directors, but apparently are unable to compare the acting performances of men and women.  I am not sure what other industry could plausibly make the claim that the job performances of men and women could not be fairly compared.

In addition to gender segregation of awards, there is a noticeable age difference in Best Actor and Best Actress winners.  In the history of the Oscars the average Best Actor winner is more than eight years older than the average Best Actress winner.  Adrien Brody is the youngest man to win an Oscar for Best Actor; he won for The Pianist 22 days before his 30th birthday in 2003, and is the only man under 30 to win the award.  In contrast, 29 of 84 Best Actress Oscars were awarded to women under the age of 30.  Jodie Foster and Luise Rainer won two Best Actress Oscars before they turned 30.

Since 1967, when the Federal law was passed prohibiting discrimination in employment against workers age 40 and above, about 70% of Best Actor winners have been 40 or older compared to one third of Best Actress winners.  Actresses age 40 and above don’t win as many awards because they are much less likely to be nominated.  Since 1967 less than 40% of women’s nominations were to actresses age 40 and above compared to 65% for actors.

The age distribution of actors and actresses in the U.S. are roughly comparable (according to the American Community Survey).  In fact, actresses are slightly older than actors, on average, and men tend to be over-represented in the under 30 age group in this occupation.

The statistics cited above do not necessarily mean that members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences are discriminating against actresses age 40 and above.  The Oscar nominations and awards may well be decided on merit.  It is important to recognize, however, that if a private employer displayed such dramatic gender differences in job evaluation or promotion rates by age, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could be expected to question the selection process.

Hollywood appears to be the bastion of liberalism, but the facts suggest otherwise.  Only four women directors have ever been nominated for an Oscar and Kathryn Bigelow (2009) is the only woman to win.  Women have their own set of acting awards, a holdover from a time that the rest of the U.S. economy has left far behind.  It would be interesting to see men and women compete for Oscars in the same categories, not just for writing, editing and directing, but for acting, as well.  I am not sure why there have been so few nominations and Oscars for actresses age 40 and above, but the differences from men are stark and deserve more scrutiny.

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