"Research has found significant age differences between male and female Academy Award nominees and winners," wrote Anne Lincoln, a sociology postdoctoral fellow at Rice, in the October 2004 issue of the journal Psychological Reports. "However, this discrepancy may result from gender differences in actors' ages when they first begin their acting careers."
Lincoln, whose research interests include gender differences in the labor market, was already aware from her previous research that women tend to begin their acting careers at a younger age than do men. She wondered whether this might account for the gendered age disparity between Academy Award nominees and winners.
She compiled statistics on all Oscar nominees from 1928, who were honored when the Academy Awards were first presented in 1929, through 2001. She then calculated the average age at which the nominees starred in their first film and grouped them into three comparable periods to look for historical trends.
Between 1928 and 1949, the average age at which male nominees started their film careers was 30.2 years, compared to 26.5 years for female nominees. From 1950 to 1974, the average starting age of male and female nominees was 28.0 and 24.0, respectively. From 1975 to 2001, a similar pattern prevailed, with male nominees averaging 26.7 years of age and female nominees averaging 24.1. Lincoln noted that she chose 1949 as a cutoff for the first group because that was the last year for Hollywood's studio system that required actors to sign seven-year contracts obligating them to work in as many films as the studio desired.
Lincoln said it stands to reason that the actors who start their film careers early increase their chances of becoming an Oscar contender sooner than latecomers to the profession.
"One possible explanation is that an Academy Award nomination marks some sort of achievement, kind of like a promotion," Lincoln said. "These actors have experienced enough time in their jobs to be rewarded with a promotion."
An alternative analysis focuses on the social networks that actors develop over the years. "Maybe it takes this much time for the actors to network into the roles that garner them an Academy Award nomination," Lincoln said. Comparing Academy Award nominees solely on the basis of average chronological age would indicate that gendered age disparity does exist, but it would be misleading, Lincoln said. "The data needs to be reconceptualized. It doesn't make any sense to compare a first-time nominee with someone like Jack Nicholson because they're at different points in their careers."
Lincoln advocates comparing first-time nominees only with other first-time nominees, and doing the same for two-time and other multiple nominees; then factor in how long they have been acting. "This type of comparison will show whether the actors are receiving their 'promotion' at the same time in their careers."
In follow-up research using data for 2002 nominees, Lincoln found that the average age of male nominees was 52.2 years - about 12.7 years older than the female nominees' average age of 39.5 years. However, once Lincoln singled out the senior actors, which included 12-time nominee Jack Nicholson, eight-time nominee Paul Newman, six-time nominee Michael Caine and 13-time nominee Meryl Streep, and compared only the first-time nominees, the average age for the men and women was 39 and 34.5, respectively.
"That is a much smaller disparity - about 4.5 years - but it's still a sizable difference," Lincoln said. When she factored in how long each of the first-time nominees for 2002 had been acting, she found an average of 13.5 years between first film and first nomination for women and an average of 13.7 years for men.
"These nominees got their first nomination at almost the same point in their acting careers," she said.
Such comparisons have often gone unnoticed, Lincoln said, because many people assume that men and women actors start their acting careers at the same time.
Why women begin their film careers earlier than men do was beyond the scope of Lincoln's study, but she offered a few theories: "Is there a Hollywood bias toward younger women? That could be part of it," Lincoln said. "Women are more likely to be fashion models than men are, and if they begin modeling while they're young, that might support a social-network approach to acting careers. But the point of my research is that their early start often accounts for why female Academy Award nominees are often younger than the male nominees."