By Emma Hickey
There are certain things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company, and money, politics, and religion are at the top of the list. The rationale behind this edict is clear—these three topics are tied directly to identity and discussing them can elicit passion and rage. It’s much safer to avoid them, in the name of keeping the peace. If you ever want to make a change, though, you have to disrupt the peace, and that’s why we need to start talking openly about salary.
Money is a sensitive subject and salary even moreso, because it’s often wrapped up in the way we perceive our value as a person. Brianna McGurran, a writer and money expert for the blog NerdWallet, told The New York Times, “Money is so tied up with really complex and difficult emotions, like shame, success, fear of failure and how people view you. So when you’re talking about how much you earn, or how much you’re saving, a lot of people end up tying that to their self-worth.” We have to move past this mode of thinking. While salary affects most facets of your life, it isn’t a valuation of your worth—in fact, salary is often influenced by external factors that have nothing to do with the skills you bring to the table or the work you do. For these reasons, you shouldn’t feel ashamed to discuss your salary and you need to discuss your salary. We all do. Shining a light on our salaries and comparing them to those of our peers is one of the most effective ways to combat pay inequity, which disproportionately affects women and minorities, and to close the gender pay gap.
The Equal Pay Act was signed into law in 1963, requiring employers to pay men and women equally for the same work. Despite that, a pay gap persists. White women earn 87 cents for every dollar a white man makes, while Asian women earn 79 cents, Black women earn 63 cents, Native American women earn 57 cents and Latina women earn 54 cents. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research predicts that the pay gap won’t close until 2059. The reason for the gender pay gap is nuanced and complex, but as with many things, it boils down to unconscious biases against women and people of color, and institutionalized sexism and racism. The practice of paying new employees based off of what their salaries were at previous companies, rather than based off of a standardized salary matrix, also contributes to the gender pay gap because it perpetuates the problem.
Pay transparency is the solution to closing the gender pay gap. Some companies have even made this the law of the land, like Buffer, a social media management tool. One of the company’s values is “Default to Transparency,” and they decided the best way to live this value is to have what they refer to as “open salaries.” Buffer developed a formula to determine salaries at their company, then applied this formula to all their employees and made both the formula and everyone’s salary available online. When asked about this decision, Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich said, “Why? One, we wanted to truly commit to our value of transparency. When we announced it, Joel, our co-founder, emailed everyone and said, ‘I truly believe that transparency breeds trust, that's one of the key reasons for this adjustment.” Not only does pay transparency create trust in a company, it also does not allow for pay discrepancies along the lines of race and gender, or because of unconscious biases.
Keeping quiet about salary helps keep pay inequity in place. If we don’t know what others around us are making, then we don’t know when we’re being paid unfairly. Not every company will implement complete pay transparency, as Buffer did, meaning we have to take matters into our own hands. We need to get more comfortable talking about how much money we make. Not talking about salary serves the system that created pay inequity in the first place, and that system is the patriarchy. The rules of etiquette we’re taught to abide by also keeps us quiet, and it’s no coincidence that the people who suffer from the gender pay gap—women, specifically women of people of color—are socialized to be polite to an extent that men just aren’t. It’s time to stop being polite. It’s time to stop being quiet. It’s time to push back against the status quo of not talking about salary in order to push back against the status quo of women and people of color being paid less money than white men. We need to highlight unfair pay practices, and a good place to start is close to home, with our family, friends, coworkers, and ourselves. It’s time to talk about salary.