Today is Equal Pay Day, the handful of designated hours in which we’re meant to reflect on the disparity between men’s and women’s salaries, then feel a little bad about it before moving on. This year, how about we switch it up? Turn to the woman closest to you in your office and tell her how much you make.
Discussion of salary is verboten precisely because it’s a crucible for hurt and outrage. As it should be: In 2015, U.S. women working full time were paid 80 cents for every dollar men make. Today, April 4, marks how far into the year white women have to work to earn as much as men earned the year before. Push that back to August 23 for black women, and November 1 for Latina women.
— Joe Bolkcom (@JoeBolkcom) April 4, 2017
As with any day meant to “spread awareness,” your social media feeds will be flooded with empty entreaties from pandering quislings who do not care one way or another about the issue at hand. Here come some now!
— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) April 4, 2017
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) April 4, 2017
But acknowledging the existence of the wage gap isn’t going to get more women into higher paying jobs, or level the exorbitant cost of women’s products. What will, though, is being open about how much we make.
In 2015, software programmer Lauren Voswinkel caused a minor sensation when she started the hashtag #talkpay, encouraging people to tweet their job titles, salaries, and levels of experience. It later spawned the Twitter account @talkpay_anon, in which participants could email a bot to have their salary information posted anonymously. As Voswinkel wrote at the time for Model View Culture:
Without a general understanding of the ranges of salaries their peers are earning, many people are left to simply throw a number on the table. Typically . . . [women] vastly undersell themselves. . . . Discussions of pay need to be happening, not only within individual companies to discourage pay inequality at that level, but across the discipline so incoming people, particularly minorities, have realistic expectations of what their skills can earn. . . . Talk with your friends about salaries to get an understanding of what you SHOULD be making.
Reached by phone, Voswinkel told the Voice that while company review sites like Glassdoor are useful, the data therein is theoretical, with little if any biographical information attached. It’s easy to assume that an anonymous entry was made by a wizard in your field, she said. But when you know the guy who works three desks away from yours is making 50 percent more than you, and he’s not even very good? “It becomes much more difficult to rationalize your way out of why you deserve what you’re currently getting,” she said.
Squeamishness over salary discussion is a pernicious vestige of the Protestant work ethic, which promotes the false idea that hard work is its own reward. “If you are seen saying that moral satisfaction isn’t enough, and that you want more money, then there’s a backlash,” Voswinkel said. “There are people who look at it and say, ‘Well, why do you deserve to get more?’ ”
There’s also a sense of guilt that tends to pervade discussions about money. As Dr. Ryan T. Howell, an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, told Elle in 2015:
People feel sensitive about how much money they are making, they feel there is an overwhelming concern that they’re going to be judged by it. There is also a strange wealth guilt some people feel if they make more money than other people, and an awareness that they could make others feel uncomfortable by letting them know how much money they have.
In reality, the only people who actually benefit from the shroud of income secrecy are white men, who not only tend to make the most money but also feel the most entitled to it. I recounted for Voswinkel the manner in which most men I know tend to discuss their abilities — and how the majority of these men are suffused with the overpowering sense that the world owes them a fortune for having been born. She assured me I wasn’t nuts.
“There’s this belief [in the hegemonic group] that if they’re putting labor or effort into something, then it should be well-compensated,” she said, adding that marginalized groups tend to internalize this belief, creating an environment where they feel they should be grateful for whatever they’re given. “Advocating for yourself from a purely capitalistic standpoint becomes much more difficult,” she said. “You’re grappling with this internal sense of shame.”
Companies do what they can to reinforce that guilt. Many try to dissuade salary sharing, claiming that it’s a fireable offense. It’s not. Under the National Labor Relations Act, such threats are illegal. To wit, private-sector employees have the right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” In other words, you have every right to talk about your salary with your colleagues. And you should.
Voswinkel conceded that as with any tectonic shift in cultural customs, normalizing salary sharing will take time. “I think there is some degree of forward movement,” she said. “It’s just a matter of keeping that going and working to foster that kind of collaboration.”