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LOS ANGELES — For the second year in a row Hollywood’s leading women let fly a clarion call, setting the industry to rights.

Following Cate Blanchett’s remarks last year, in which the Best Actress winner excoriated the industry for its focus of male-centric filmmaking, Best Supporting Actress winner Patricia Arquette rounded on America’s attitude to gender inequality.

Reading from a prepared speech Arquette dedicated her award to “every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation. We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights, it’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

The actress’ comments received a rousing response; three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep burst into enthusiastic applause alongside Jennifer Lopez, whilst Arquette’s ‘Boyhood’ co-star Ethan Hawke and director Richard Linklaker looked on with a mixture of pride and surprise.

Social media immediately rallied behind Arquette’s call. Model Cara Delivange took to Instagram while ‘Girls’ creator Lena Dunham and documentary maker Michael Moore turned to Twitter.

It was a night in which inequality was in tight focus. Host Neil Patrick Harris poked fun at the lack of diversity among the nominations, whilst rapper Common and R&B star John Legend brought tears to the eyes of audience members with their rendition of ‘Selma’s civil rights inspired song ‘Glory’.

But with much of the pre-ceremony disquiet focused on the lack of racial diversity, few expected women’s inequality would be brought the fore.

Wage inequality is still prevalent in America. Women earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, the nation ranking 65th globally in a report last autumn by the World Economic Forum.

Last year the top ten earning actors made a combined $419 million, whilst the top ten earning actresses only managed $226 million.

Arquette’s comments come after reports repeatedly confirm that women in Hollywood are being underpaid and underrepresented compared to their male counterparts.

A 2014 study from the Journal of Management Inquiry found Hollywood’s women commanded their highest wages at the average age of 34, before rapidly declining. Meanwhile men peak at the considerably older age of 51, remaining stable thereafter.

It speaks to Hollywood’s obsession with women aging that much of the praise Arquette received for ‘Boyhood’ revolved around her choice to age naturally on screen across the film’s long gestation period, from her peak of 33 through to 46.

At age 65, Streep has rebuffed the terminal decline Hollywood imposes on many actresses’ careers, but the pedestal the industry places her upon testifies to how rare a case she is.

Underpaid and underrepresented

A recent report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film has recorded a dearth of female-driven features, with actresses making up only 12% of protagonists in 2014’s top-grossing films.

This was despite such films earning a large share of total box office — spearheaded by Jennifer Lawrence, ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1′ was the top-grossing film in the U.S. last year with $334 million.

But such leading parts are few and far between. In fact, data suggests the number of female starring roles is decreasing, falling 3% since 2013 and down 4% on 2002.

Author of the study, Dr Martha Lauzen, told Variety that “there is a growing disconnect or gap between what we might perceive as being the current status of women in film and their actual status… A few high-profile cases can skew our thinking.”

Lead actresses are even missing out in films directed by women. Last year female protagonists starred in only 39% of such films, whilst those directed by men registered at a meager 4%.

Among the 57 films nominated at this year’s Oscars, 15 had out-and-out female leads — that being, a film told from the lead actress’ perspective. Representing 26% of the total nominees, this percentage is far higher than Hollywood’s output last year.

However, among those 15 films there were 11 foreign films, shorts, animations and documentaries, demonstrating how leading actresses are often left on the periphery when it comes to major Hollywood features.

There were no female-driven stories among the eight films vying for Best Picture; so too in both adapted and original screenplay categories.

Speaking of the lack of female-driven films, Dr Lauzen pointed the finger of blame at those off-screen. “We need to have greater diversity behind the scenes if this is going to change.”