In March 2023, participants attending “OPEN Summit: The Pay Equity Tipping Point” were treated to a live interview with Alyssa Milano. This is a summary of that interview, in which Alyssa and I explored what drew Alyssa to her work as an activist, the pay disparity she’s experienced in her career, and what gives her hope about pay equity right now. (We’ve given the interview a light edit for clarity and length.)
Wish you had been in the virtual room with OPEN Summit’s attendees? Watch the recording of Alyssa’s interview or any other OPEN Summit - The Pay Equity Tipping Points sessions.
Welcome Alyssa Milano, activist!
It was truly a thrill to kick off Women's History Month at OPEN Summit - The Pay Equity Tipping Point with almost 400 business leaders, investors, OPEN Imperative members, government officials, non-profit representatives and OpenComp customers joining us virtually to hear from our special guest, Alyssa Milano, on all things pay equity.
Most of us know Alyssa from her extensive acting career, which includes “Who's the Boss”, “Melrose Place”, “Charmed”, and “Project Runway” to name a few. She’s also an incredibly well-known producer, podcaster, activist, entrepreneur, humanitarian, and NY Times best-selling author. Her weekly podcast, “Sorry Not Sorry,” tackles social, political, and cultural issues, and her most recent book of the same name received critical acclaim for its collection of essays about her life and career, and the humanitarian work at the heart of it all.
As an activist, Alyssa advanced #MeToo a decade after it was coined in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke. It created a viral movement of women fighting against sexual harassment and assault. Alyssa is also active on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) Coalition’s Advisory Council, is the ACLU’s Ambassador for Reproductive Rights, and more. She has won numerous awards for her humanitarian work, and in 2018, she was selected as one of the "Silence Breakers", as Time Magazine's Person of the Year.
She joined us after appearing on Good Morning America, where she talked about the ERA, noting that if we’re talking about pay disparity, we also have to talk about the ERA. We dove in with how she initially got involved in activism.
Since early in your career, you’ve used your platform in really powerful ways to make the world a better place. How did your activism start and how has it changed over the years?
When I was a child, at the height of the “Who’s The Boss” frenzy, HIV/AIDS appeared. The narrative was very negative and the powers that be often used fear to drive the conversation about the epidemic. Elton John contacted me to ask if I’d meet Ryan White, a young boy who was the same age as me, who was thrown out of school because his school superintendent said you could catch HIV/AIDS from casual contact. Ryan fought to get back into school. He even spoke in front of congress, and when I met him, we immediately understood each other.
He asked me if I would kiss him on TV to prove you couldn’t get HIV/AIDS from casual contact. I did. That moment changed my life forever. It made me understand that I could use the platform I had to do something powerful and meaningful. I take Ryan with me every day when I fight for causes I believe in.
We know that pay inequity touches every industry and sector, and the entertainment industry is no exception. I’m curious about how you’ve seen this issue play out in your own experience in Hollywood.
Pay equity isn’t solely about salary. It’s about everything that’s negotiated in your contract. Entertainment companies have the money to pay women as much as men for the same work, and provide the same benefits. It’s a nod to the patriarchy that they don’t. There has long been a system quietly at work to maintain the status quo.
When I look back on what women have fought for, I know that as a white woman, I can talk about pay inequity, but I haven’t faced what Black, Latina, or Indigenous women have faced in their fight. I think it’s important to pay homage to activists of color who got us all to this point. Their struggle has been deeper and harder, and yet we’ve all benefited from it.
Are there changes you see in the entertainment industry that give you hope right now?
I see a lot of allyship. I see a shift in the way gender differences are acknowledged. Today, male actors say, “I’m making X, what are you making? Let’s negotiate together so you earn as much as I earn.” We need men to be strong allies in equality because it impacts our workplaces, society, culture, how we parent, and more. We need men in this fight.
I so appreciated how you crystalized that message about allyship in your book. It can be burdensome for women to advocate alone for themselves; it can be less effective without others. There’s also great personal risk involved.
I’ve said since #MeToo went viral that yes, you need to advocate for yourself. But we need to come together as women and not compete with each other. We can give each other strength. Women shouldn’t have to go into HR by themselves, when these issues affect everyone. They should be on everyone’s agenda to fix.
The theme for this OPEN Summit is transparency, which is defined as, “allowing light to pass through so that objects behind can be distinctly seen.” It’s such a great description of your activism, Alyssa, especially through the #MeToo movement. What does advancing transparency mean to you, and why is it so important in tackling problems such as pay inequity?
It’s no secret that keeping pay ranges hidden both enables pay disparity between men and women and hamstrings women in the negotiating process. We’re conditioned to take less, be given less, and be shut out of corporate wealth and power, so we undervalue ourselves when we negotiate salary. Transparency is a critical tool that allows us to know we’re earning what we’re worth and consider jobs that pay what we’re worth. It also keeps corporations and people from making backroom deals that pay men more than women.
What do you think it takes to be a gutsy leader and change the status quo?
I think the most important characteristics are having the courage to fail, and the grace to fail well. Failing is part of how you grow, how you rise. When people work with a leader who lives out these qualities, they feel empowered to do the same thing. I think a lot of women are learning what it looks like to lead, because most of our mentors were men. This next generation — my daughter’s generation — won’t just be talking about equality and pay equity, hopefully they’ll be living it.
One quote I always come back to is from the late Justice RBG. She said, “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Bringing folks along and inspiring them to be purposeful seems like what you’re saying as well.
Yes! This is so true, but I think it’s also important to call out that there’s inequity in who is “allowed to fail”. So often women and other underrepresented groups aren’t given the same space as others to fail.
In the introduction of your book, you talk about having hope. I’d love to hear what’s still giving you hope today.
More so than ever, I see women coming together and recognizing what we can accomplish together. There’s a real movement of sisterhood that I haven’t felt before in my lifetime. That gives me a lot of hope for pay equity and pay transparency. Seeing a shift in awareness of the patriarchy and how we talk about it gives me hope. Our leaders who are young and in the fight every day, our grassroots activists working toward a better country and world, they give me hope. I think there’s a lot to be hopeful about right now … as long as you stay off the 24-hour news cycle and get out of your social media silos and try to have hard conversations with people!
How else are you celebrating women’s history month?
My focus is always on the Equal Rights Amendment, as I really do think it would change so much to have constitutional recognition for women. It would be meaningful and powerful. I want my daughter to grow up knowing that she has the same basic equality as my son. And I want my son to grow up knowing that his sister has that legal recognition. It’s important for our young girls and young boys to know they’re equal.
We encourage you to watch the recording of Alyssa’s interview, and dive into the incredible presentations available in our OPEN Summit - The Pay Equity Tipping Point sessions.
Emily Sweet is VP of Social Impact and OPEN Imperative Lead at OpenComp. She writes about topics including pay equity and diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI). A board member of the National Council of Jewish Women, Emily is a veteran philanthropic leader and policy advisor with more than 20 years experience advancing bold solutions to big problems that drive impact and inspire collective action. Connect with her on LinkedIn here.