Skip to content Skip to footer

Immigrant Women Workers Are Fighting to Close Disney’s Gender Pay Gap

Unionized workers say traditionally “feminized” jobs such as costume-making pay significantly less.

Disney World costuming workers rally on November 30, 2022, joined by Florida state Reps. Anna Eskamani and Rita Harris.

Disney World workers in Central Florida are battling with management for a new and improved union contract. In the process, they’re also trying to correct a gaping historical injustice.

Workers with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 631 say a major pay gap exists at Disney World that leaves workers in traditionally feminized jobs, such as costume-making, earning significantly less than workers in traditionally masculinized jobs with comparable skills levels, such as stagehand labor.

The union — which represents the skilled crafts people who work behind the scenes in Disney World entertainment, from costume workers to cosmetologists to stage technicians — is demanding in bargaining that Disney close this gender pay gap by raising wages in traditionally feminized jobs to bring them in alignment with comparatively skilled but traditionally male-dominated jobs.

The union says that Disney’s own internal records attest to a significant gendered pay disparity between job classifications. According to the union, the jobs that earn less are also disproportionately held by older immigrant women from Vietnam, Latin America and the Caribbean.

“What we’re talking about is a mass undercompensation of skill and ability because the classification has been historically female,” said Paul Cox, president of IATSE Local 631. “This is work that should be appropriately compensated.”

The Labor Behind the Magic

Behind the “magic” of the Snow Whites and Buzz Lightyears, behind the cruises and the concerts, is the labor that makes Disney World entertainment possible.

IATSE Local 631 shared data with Truthout that shows notable pay disparities across Disney World’s behind-the-scenes entertainment job classifications.

For example, 12 classifications with a combined several hundred workers across construction sewing (making costumes), operations sewing (altering and repairing costumes), costuming assistants (variety of roles assisting costume-making) and costume workers (costume dressers, operations, logistics and maintenance) all have low rates starting between $15 and $15.40 per hour and high rates from $19.25 to $20.55 per hour.

These roles are traditionally seen as “women’s jobs” and are currently made up overwhelmingly of women workers: 87 percent of construction sewing workers, 93 percent of operations sewing workers, 92 percent of costuming assistants and 78 percent of costume workers identify as women.

In contrast, the five classifications across technician positions (stagehands) have low rates starting between $16.65 and $24.25 per hour and high rates that reach $21.91 to $31.07 per hour. Of the several hundred technician positions, 80 percent are men.

Cox is a level 1 technician, a crew chief among the stagehands who do backstage labor such as lighting, sound and pyrotechnics. He says that these different job classifications involve comparable skill levels, and that the only explanation behind the pay disparity is the company’s devaluing of jobs traditionally held by women.

Even some of the feminized jobs that pay more — such as cosmetology and milliners, both 86 percent women — have a low wage of $16.90 and a high wage of $23.36, which compares less to the higher paid male-typed jobs. Some promotions within feminized job classifications, such as with costume specialist, don’t even come with raises, says Cox.

Hoa Dang is a sewing specialist who immigrated from Vietnam in 2007 and started working at Disney World in 2009. She told Truthout that she really likes her job, especially the “friendly, sociable working environment.”

After nearly 13 years, she currently makes $18.44 per hour, which is just above the lowest starting rate for a level 3 technician and about a dollar below the lowest starting rate for a level 2 technician, both male-dominated classifications. She says she supports the union’s current efforts.

Cox says aligning wage rates to fix the gender pay gap is long overdue.

“I can recognize the skill and the dedication that these workers have,” Cox said. “And I can recognize the fact that this employer has massively taken advantage of them.”

“Walt Would Cry”

Cindy Hsu is only 28, but she’s seen a lot since she joined Disney World in 2018. She’s worked as a stitcher, a lifeguard, a sewing workroom coordinator and now as a pattern maker, where she enjoys the thrill of working with designers and directors to develop Disney’s shows and characters.

Hsu loves working at Disney World and making the park’s “magic” come to life for visitors.

But the gender pay gap at the company has been “a longstanding problem” in her profession because costuming has been “seen as a women’s role,” Hsu told Truthout.

“Our entire costume department is just seen as ‘lesser’ than an entertainment rigger or technician,” she said.

Hsu stressed the profound level of skill that goes into costuming work. Stitchers need to take a rigorous, three-hour test, and many applicants do not pass. They make and repair intricate garments that have to be exact replicas of costumes from a half-century ago. They work with large and dangerous industrial sewing machinery.

“This isn’t your grandma’s home sewing machine,” she said.

Hsu says the devaluing of costuming labor feels “very archaic now” because of the demanding nature of the work.

“We’re very much on par with riggers and the people who do show production,” she said.

Christine Martell, a construction support specialist with an expertise in custom embroidery, agrees. At 58 years old, she’s been with the company for 23 years. Martell earns $21.54 per hour, the highest rate for her job classification — just slightly more than the $21.25 that is the lowest rate for a level 1 technician, 80 percent of whom are men.

Martell, who is also a union shop steward, says that “techs are great” and that she wants “us going up” and “not them going down.”

But the sense that her and her coworkers’ skills are valued less grates on her.

“I can put staging up,” she said. “Can you make a wedding dress? Can you put a zipper in? Can you run a blind hemmer?”

Martell shared descriptions of several costuming jobs with Truthout. The job description of a sewing operation specialist 2, for example, spills into four pages and includes over two dozen skills that range from “extensive knowledge of garment construction and alteration to be applied to a wide variety of costume garments” to “willingness to learn and further educate ourselves and others in new techniques and methods to better improve efficiency,” as well as the ability to use 17 kinds of sewing machinery and fulfill different required classes and trainings.

Around 92 percent of level 2 sewing operation specialists are women, according to the data provided by the union. They earn between $15.25 and $19.92 per hour. They are one of a number of job categories that make up Disney World’s stitchers, the gender-neutral term for what have traditionally been called seamstresses.

Stitchers are one of the core behind-the-scenes jobs negatively impacted by the wage gap. A disproportionately large number of Disney World’s stitchers are immigrants from Vietnam and Latin America. They are mostly women, but also include a smaller number of men and workers whose gender is undefined. Many cultivated their sewing skills through years of work and training in their home countries. Many don’t speak much English.

They are “wildly talented,” says Hsu, who worked as a stitcher for around two years. “You can give them anything under the sun and they can replicate it for you.”

Both Hsu and Martell say Disney gets away with paying them less because of the language barriers and the difficulties they have in advocating for themselves.

“I feel like to some degree, they’re being taken advantage of,” Hsu says.

Hsu says many cast members need to work two jobs to survive. Some live in their cars, sleeping in grocery store parking lots.

“It’s incredibly difficult to see that happening,” she said. “It’s just an unseen part of this ‘magic.’”

Hsu says it’s hard to receive messages from company executives that tout high earnings while “cast members are struggling to get by.” She brought up a famous quote by Walt Disney that she once saw at Disney World: “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”

She paused for a second.

“I really feel like Walt would cry knowing that his cast members are suffering.”

Patriarchal Values Shape Our Economy

Cox says that the union has presented the pay disparities to Disney at bargaining, “making the point that these classifications with these immense amounts of skills are vastly underpaid, and they’re majority female.”

The company’s response, he said, has been “We don’t pay cast members differently because they’re male or female.” Truthout reached out to Disney for comment but did not receive a response.

The union says Disney is evading the deeper issue here: The problem is less about overt discrimination and more that the company doesn’t place as much value on traditionally feminized jobs, such as sewing and costuming, as it does on work involving comparable skill levels that are traditionally male-dominated, such as stage technician work.

Truthout spoke with Pilar Gonalons-Pons, an expert on gender and work at the University of Pennsylvania. “One of the major contributors to the gender wage gap is occupational job segregation,” she said, “which is basically the fact that job titles of women tend to be different from the job titles of men, even when they are in the same industry or even in the same company.”

She said this can lead to an entire job category “being devalued in part because it’s gendered and racialized, or it’s disproportionately done by these women who are presumed to be low-skilled.”

Gonalons-Pons says that many of the skills involved in feminized professions are “presumed to be natural attributes of the women that do the jobs as opposed to actual skills that have been learned and perfected over a lot of practice in different situations.”

Numerous studies illustrate the persistence of a racialized gender wage gap across the U.S. workforce. For example, a National Women’s Law Center study found that women as a whole were paid just 73 cents for every dollar earned by men during 2020. That pay gap is greater for women of color, with Black women being paid 64 cents, and Latina and Native American women earning 57 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men. As a result, women workers on average lose out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in earnings over their lives as compared to men.

“The wage gap is essentially the cost to women of living and working in an economy that has patriarchal values and that systematically devalues and underpays jobs that are feminized and skills that are associated with femininity,” says Gonalons-Pons

Fighting to Close the Gender Wage Gap

The current negotiations with Disney World are Cox’s first as IATSE Local 631 president. He says the wage gap is a “historic sin” that has long existed in the live entertainment industry and that it’s “the fault of our union for not taking this up sooner.”

Cox says the union is now “absolutely committed” to doing everything it can “to correct this issue.” He says IATSE Local 631 has the firm backing of the other five union locals that together make up the Service Trades Council Union that bargains with Disney World.

In the union’s current proposals, Cox says most feminized classifications that have been traditionally paid less would see a 20 percent to 26 percent increase that would bring them into parity with male-typed classifications. Combined with the general raises the union is asking for all cast members, hundreds of behind-the-scenes workers, mostly women, could see as much as a 30 to 40 percent pay increase within a year, assuming the union wins its full demands.

The union estimates that it would cost Disney around $5 million to initially close the wage gap — a small fraction of the $130 million that CEO Bob Iger took in from 2019 and 2022 according to Disney’s financial filings.

For a company that claims to support diversity, equity and inclusion, says Cox, this is a small price to pay.

The union is working hard to turn out members who historically haven’t had enough representation. Dozens of stitchers and other costume workers have attended bargaining rallies.

Hsu says that larger numbers of Vietnamese cast members are turning out for union negotiations. “I feel like that’s very telling about how unhappy they are with things,” she said.

Hsu’s voice creaks with laughter as she describes her “the amount of pantomiming that happens in our silly workroom” as cast members who speak different languages “try to communicate with one another through pictures or hand signs.”

“It’s so fun seeing them work together.”

She hopes that the current bargaining can finally deliver raises in wages that will close the wage gap at Disney World.

“We’re here making the guests their dream vacations and bringing lovely characters that they had in their childhood to life,” she says. “I just wish that the company would value that a little more.”

We have 5 days to raise $39,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.