There are few topics considered more taboo than money. I don’t discuss my salary with loved ones let alone coworkers, and I’d never really given much thought as to why. I vaguely chalked it up to the fact that I was raised to think talking about money is tacky; my mum is a firm believer that certain things are better kept private.
But then I heard an interesting conversation about women and salary on Angela Rye’s On One podcast, in an episode with The Undefeated’s Jemele Hill. “There are a lot of people who don’t want to share their salary information because they don’t want other people to have that come up,” Hill said. “If I tell her that I make this, she might make the same as me, and I don’t feel comfortable with that. So some of it is rooted in jealousy.”
Hill’s words pushed me to confront an ugly truth: A part of me doesn’t want to discuss my salary with others because I’m competitive. Deep down, I worry that once I open that can of worms, there are only two outcomes, and I don’t like either of them. One, the person I’m talking to will make more than me, which would make me want to figure out how to make what they make. Or worse: I’ll make more than them, and they’ll try to make what I make. Which would somehow make me less...special?
A part of me doesn’t want to discuss my salary with others because I’m competitive.
It was an uncomfortable admission to make. But after hearing Hill and Rye talk about it, I also knew I couldn’t be alone. As it turns out, I’m not. A 2017 Refinery29 Her Brain survey of more than 3,000 women ages 25-34 found that only 7% of respondents share their salaries with colleagues, and just 17% share that number with friends. I wasn’t surprised by those numbers, assuming that, like me, many other women simply preferred to keep their salary...well, theirs.
Yet, we’re living during an era when women are being barraged with the message that the only way to close the pervasive gender wage gap is by speaking up. Suddenly, the media is paying attention to high profile stories of unequal pay, like E! News host Catt Sadler quitting after learning the network was paying her significantly less than her male co-host. Her story, and others, have led to more public discussions about how we as women can help achieve gender pay parity.
Julia Carpenter, a CNNMoney writer who focuses on the intersection of gender and money, says she’s seen a lot more stories like this in the past few years as media coverage of equal pay increases.
“I think the more younger women are being exposed to how harmful salary secrecy is, the more they’re becoming comfortable with opening up,” she says. “One woman I interviewed last year was inspired to ask every single one of her friends what they made so she could be informed about not just what people at her job make at her age, but across industries.”
Still, based on my own personal feelings, that episode of Rye’s podcast, and conversations with friends, I knew that the simple-sounding “share your salaries!” advice is actually much more complicated. Many of us still squirm at the thought of disclosing how much we earn, even to the people closest to us. But the question was why, when we know now that talking about how much we make can only help us? So I decided to throw away the idea that talking about money is inappropriate (sorry, Mum) and start a discussion on the topic, interviewing 34 women from across the country to find out if they share their salaries, and why — or why not.
I was relieved that the most common reason was the same one that I felt: the competition factor. The reality is that when two people decide to share their salary details, they run the risk of being jealous of what the other person makes. Or there’s the chance that disclosing what you make will encourage them to try to get the same salary — which might somehow negatively affect you. “No one wants to say it, but many women are just competitive,” a 26-year-old publicist from Baltimore, MD, says. “If we’re already not making as much as men, and there are less opportunities, sometimes you just need to look out for yourself.”
An international elementary teacher from Texas who’s currently based in Colombia agrees that competition is much more prevalent among the women she works with. “We work with a pay scale that considers your degrees and years of experience to determine a base salary, but even when it comes to raises and bonuses, I see the female teachers fending for themselves. Meanwhile, the majority of the leadership is male, and they bond over fantasy football or other common interests, so they are a lot more friendly and open with each other. That leads to an automatic favouritism, so I think it’s important that women try to be less competitive and more supportive.”
But a 30-year-old human resources business partner in Richmond, VA, says she only tells people a salary range if pressed on how much she makes, because she feels that openly discussing salary can create unwanted tension, envy, and greed on a team. And a 32-year-old web editor I spoke to shared a story of exactly how she’s seen that happen.
“At cocktails at an after-work happy hour, a colleague asked how much we all made. I spilled my salary — around $70,000 a year — which I felt proud of, until my ‘work husband’ shared he was making $90,000. I instantly hated myself and my salary, something I'd been proud of a minute prior. After that, I found my resentment would flare up at him in work settings, when it wasn’t even his fault. And the guy who originally asked? He made less than both of us, which I think contributed to him quitting not long after. The whole thing definitely caused a huge rift in our team.”
A senior digital media professional in New York who makes $95,000 admits to being protective over her own salary. “I don't totally feel comfortable sharing exactly how much I make, partially because I'm on the higher end now,” she says. “I know our boss can't just give everyone a big raise every quarter. I think it’s also on each employee to negotiate their offer and fight for a raise when they think they deserve it.”
Aside from competition, another reason many of the women I spoke to were hesitating to open up was an arguably old-fashioned one: etiquette.
“I was just raised that money is private,” said a 27-year-old e-commerce specialist in New York. “Like my mum still to this day refuses to tell me how much my dad makes.”
A 26-year-old sales representative in Miami, FL, was in the same boat as me growing up, where talking about money was almost as inappropriate as talking about sex or drugs. She says she still can’t even imagine talking about money around her Cuban family. “I would never even dream of asking a friend how much they make,” she says. “I could just imagine my parents gasping at the idea.”
Competition and decorum aren’t the only things keeping women quiet. There’s also the fear they will get in trouble at work. For the record, it’s actually illegal for employers to retaliate or take action against employees who discuss their salaries amongst each other. And Suzanne Lucas, a business writer who worked in Human Resources for 10 years, says there’s absolutely no reason employers shouldn’t want open conversations on the topic.
“Companies should absolutely encourage discussions about salary — if they have nothing to hide, there's no reason to want to keep the information secret,” she says. “Salaries should be based on market rates for the jobs, with slight variations for performance and experience. Everything should be easily explained.”
Still, even with laws of protection in place, it’s not easy for employees to prove retaliation. One writer in New York admits that she was specifically told with a whisper not to share her salary with her colleagues after she got a big raise. And a 24-year-old marketing professional in Philadelphia, PA, realised that fear tactics around salary secrecy can be subtle.
“I once used a coworker’s vacation benefits to prove why I was owed a day off, and my supervisor said that the company ‘strongly discourages employees discussing their salary and benefits with each other’” she said. “I never got in trouble per se, but afterward I noticed a big difference in our relationship and the way she treated me.”
But there’s an even more personal reason women aren’t sharing salary: concern over what others might think. It turns out some women don’t want to disclose how much they make because of a fear of being judged.
“I would feel way too self-conscious to be open about how much I earn, because I do think people will judge my financial decisions if they knew,” says a 29-year-old news professional in Washington, D.C. “Once that information is out there, you leave yourself exposed to scrutiny. I've caught myself thinking about other people ‘I wonder how much this person must make to be eating lunch out every day!’ Do I really want to invite other people to think that about me?”
And she wasn’t the only one. As a 27-year-old customer service supervisor from New Jersey put it, “I definitely worry that people will either judge how little I make...like, ‘Damn, homegirl makes no money and just bought a new Fendi bag!’ or the opposite, which is like, ‘Oh, she can pay for that trip? She got money!’”
Some women don’t want to disclose how much they make because of a fear of being judged.
For women of colour, there’s another complicated layer about how others might perceive your income: self-preservation. “I can't speak for everyone's experience, but I do feel like Black people are raised to be protective of what they got and how they got it,” the customer service supervisor adds. “Understandably because of our history here in America, I think families pass down a tendency to be suspicious of the intentions of others through generations, and that might make you less likely to tell the world ‘Here’s what I’m making!’”
So it seems that while we all know sharing salaries can only help us earn more, in order for us to see real change, we need to start changing the way we talk about money. Carpenter from CNNMoney points out that while all of the aforementioned reasons like competition and fear are completely understandable — and that everyone is entitled to doing things at their own comfort level — if we ever truly want to see equal pay, we have to push ourselves to shatter the taboos around salary secrecy.
“Think about it: While it might be uncomfortable at first, the aura of secrecy can only be harmful in the long run if we’re all blind to what other people are making,” she says. “Of everyone, we know that women and women of colour are making far less than other demographics. So not having these conversations is only affecting us.”
For anyone who’s on the fence about opening up, this story from a 29-year-old publicist in New York might help.
“Salary wasn’t a topic I discussed with my coworkers until one I was friendly with was quitting and mentioned what he was offered to stay,” she says. “My coworkers and I were baffled both by how much they were offering him to stay, and how little we were getting paid. The one time I had asked for a raise close to what he was making, I was told that I hadn’t done my research and no one would pay me that much. I ended up leaving for a company that was willing to giving me a 30% raise, better benefits, and didn’t demean me when I negotiated. Money is a sensitive topic, but I think the only way we’ll ever get equal pay is if we’re willing to believe our worth — and talk about it.”