Asking a co-worker how much she makes is a little like asking an acquaintance how much she weighs: invasive, rude, borderline inappropriate.
With age, size, and even relationship-status, we're raised with a polite inclination towards privacy. These discrete facts, though intimately tied up in our notions of identity and personal value, carry a certain taboo. It is ill-mannered to inquire, and crude to share openly.
That lack of transparency, however, has become a source of drastic inequality in the workplace. How do we advocate for ourselves if we're ignorant to the context we're navigating? "There are direct, concrete consequences for falling victim to salary secrecy," the New York Times reported, "including wage suppression and a lack of transparency around pay inequity, which disproportionately affects women and minorities."
Our reluctance to make public our financial value keeps us from professional leveraging. It pushes us to graciously accept whatever sum an employer doles out, no questions asked. Outside of the work place, a whopping 43% of Americans have neglected to share how much they make with their spouse, according to data from Fidelity Investments. Forget coworkers, American's are hesitant to share their salary even with their life partner.
It took me well over a year to learn that I was not making enough money working as a staff writer on a team of men with identical titles and reliably comparable work loads. I accepted my first offer. I was grateful for any first offer. It was my ignorant assumption that each of our salaries was in direct proportion to the work we'd been doing; an assumption I now know to be both naive and false (for the sake of sharing, that number was 50K). I only developed the nerve to ask while organizing onboarding documents for new hires — all of whom would earn a starting salary higher than my current one. I hadn't thought to negotiate, and I hadn't realized that everyone else had.
By no stretch is salary secrecy professionally enforced — the National Labor Relations Act deems it illegal for employers to bar any private sector employees from communicating openly about their salaries. But the reluctance to do so seems to come from a more deeply rooted social order — an adherence to decorum — than it does any legitimate code. Women continue to make an average of 80 cents to every dollar a man makes, and an unwillingness to communicate about money, and thus a hesitancy to demand higher wages from employers, helps to keep that norm in place. In fact, according to a recent Harvard study, women are drastically less likely to negotiate salaries at all. There remains a collective belief that the first offer is good enough.
Gender aside, it's time we all talked about our salaries. Transparency is our democratic weapon — it's how we guarantee we earn what we deserve. It's our means of mutual support for one another.
Start at the dinner table. Ask your friends over drinks. Ask your colleagues over coffee. Share your own finances and create a space for that brand of communication. Listen to podcasts, read columns from contemporary economists, find a vocabulary that makes you comfortable. Only with transparency can we strip salary-talk of its antiquated stigma.