They say that a few topics are always off limits at the dinner table, namely money, politics, and religion. And at work, a similar rule applies, and you can put salary discussions right at the top of that list of do-not-discuss subjects, particularly for women in the workplace. But why is that? Why are we so afraid to talk about what we are paid? Is it fear that we’re not making enough? Fear that we’re getting paid too much or it might offend other members of the team? Are we afraid that sharing our pay will point out how severely underpaid women are compared to men in similar positions? Are we afraid that if we so much as utter anything involving a dollar sign we’ll be penalized in some financial way? Is it because as women, we’re so used to downplaying our success that we’re terrified of saying anything that might make us sound overly ambitious? There are endless potential reasons we’re discouraged from sharing our salaries, but here’s the kicker: by not talking about our salaries, we’re not only stifling our own earning potential, we’re simultaneously harming other women and undermining our collective worth.
Women, we need to know our value. We need to fight for what we deserve and stand up for our rights if we ever hope to earn the respect and compensation that we are entitled to and that we have earned. But how can we possibly be expected to negotiate a salary and earn a competitive pay if we lack crucial deal-making information, including the industry norms and salaries of other women? Without information and open discussions about what other female employees are making, women are fighting an unfair fight that we are destined to lose. The gender pay gap will never go away if women are too afraid to confront it head on and talk honestly about uncomfortable topics such as their pay.
The first step towards narrowing and eventually eliminating the gender pay gap is to not only allow, but also encourage open discussions about salary. The very future of female success depends on it.
Breaking Down the Gender Pay Gap
The numbers don’t lie — the gender wage gap is a real thing, and it’s even more apparent and unfair for minority women, who earn significantly less than white men of the same qualifications and title.
On average, women earn only 80 cents to every dollar earned by men. Taking out of the equation any justifiable factors that might affect a person’s wages, Latina women in the US are still paid less than white men simply because of their gender and ethnicity. According to the report The Gender Wage Gap: 2017; Earnings Differences by Gender, Race, and Ethnicity as reported by Leanin.org, “on average, Latinas in the U.S. are paid 47% less than white men and 31% less than white women.” For every dollar that a white man earns, a Latina only earns $.53.
Which means that on average a Latina will need to work through November 1st of the following year (an extra 10 months!) just to catch up in salary to what a white man earns for the same job and same work. And while other minorities also suffer inequality in pay, Latinas earn a lower salary, on average, than any other demographic. And in 2019 Latina Equal Pay Day was actually later than the year before, 18 days later to be exact, reflecting the harsh reality that the gender pay gap has widened in recent years and it’s taking Latinas even longer to catch up to a white man’s earnings. In addition, the National Women’s Law Center reports that Latinas have only gained 4 cents in the past four decades in terms of the pay gap.
If you look at the bigger picture, this pay gap equates to more than $1.12 million in lost wages over a 40-year-career span for Latinas, according to the NWLC.
Why Don’t Women Talk About Salary?
So why don’t women talk openly about what they earn at work? I mean, it’s not like the gender pay gap is a secret, and it’s not like we aren’t all becoming increasingly aware of just how underpaid women are. In recent years celebrities have become outspoken advocates of women’s equal pay and there have been cries for equality from politicians, influencers, famous figures, business leaders, and working women at all levels of power and all professional fields. And yet, on a day-to-day basis, women do not share their salary information, and are quite hesitant to address the topic.
In some scenarios, bosses request that employees NOT talk about their pay, urging them to keep their salary to themselves. Amongst groups of friends it’s often considered taboo. But having these open discussions is an essential part of the bargaining process to ensure that women are able to not only know what they should be paid, but also ask for competitive and appropriate compensation. If you don’t know what to ask for, how can you possibly know if you’re asking for the right thing? And beyond that, how can you expect to get what you deserve?
For some people, especially women, their salary is as guarded as their social security number and considered even more private than their number of sexual partners or any other deep dark secret they prefer not to share.
But it is crucial that this dynamic changes if we want women to have any sort of fighting chance at overcoming the wage gap. We need to be a part of the generation that has each other’s backs and openly talks about vital professional information, starting with our pay. While older generations and employees might keep that info under lock and key, we need to start a trend of being more forthcoming to encourage a healthy dialogue and awareness of what we, as women, are worth.
If we keep salaries quiet, we keep each other in the dark, and those who are hurt the most are our fellow women, especially women of color, fighting for equal wages without any weapons in our arsenal. By encouraging transparent conversations about salary, we are allowing each female employee to assess her own worth and her own wages, and then decide whether or not she is underpaid. We take some of the power away from employers by talking openly about our pay, making it far more difficult to offer different salaries based on gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, or a number of other factors.
Conversation About Salary Is Everything
According to Kristin Wong, author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford, talking about your salary is one of the most important ways to prepare to negotiate your salary and ensure that you are earning a fair wage to match your professional value. Even if you’re not entirely comfortable asking your coworkers, the information is too valuable to ignore; “a good starting place are websites that collect salary and income information by location and don’t require you to walk up to your co-workers and ask how much they make,” she suggests in the NY Times. Such websites include Glassdoor.com, Payscale.com, Salary.com, The Salary Project, and Get That Raise, a tool that analyzes your current salary and helps you map future goals.
Mika Brzezinski of “Morning Joe” agrees that knowing (and talking about) your worth is crucial for women in the workplace. “I missed the moment when I first came to ‘Morning Joe’ — I signed a contract because I was just grateful to get it. I should have paused to consider the fact that I was helping to bring in great ratings numbers, and that it gave me real leverage,” she says in an excerpt from her book, Earn It! Know Your Value and Grow Your Career, In Your 20s and Beyond, which she co-wrote with Daniela Pierre-Bravo, Know Your Value millennial contributor.
“The simplest and most effective way to be paid what you’re worth is to make sure you know the going rate for the work you do. Arm yourself with data when it comes to your salary. Research average salaries in your field, and for your position. When you know what others make for the same work, it’s easier to ask for a raise — because you’re not asking for any favors, you’re just asking for the going rate,” they say in their book.
Talk to women in your field. Talk to men in your field. Talk to people at your company and other organizations, and gather as much information as you can about the going rate for your position in your profession. Remember that salaries may vary significantly, so one answer or the wages for one person will not be enough information to effectively prepare you for negotiations.
And initial negotiations to establish a fair salary are crucial. Because down the road, when you receive a raise in salary, it will most likely be a percentage of your base salary established on proven accomplishments and improvements during your time at your job. So if your starting salary is unfairly low compared to others in your same position, then every raise after that will also be disproportionately low, and will leave you at a steady salary rate that is below that of your peers. Without information about what others make, you’ll continue to be underpaid even as you push for more recognition and reward at work.
How to Start Salary Talks
Not sure where to begin when asking a colleague about her or her salary? It’s always a good idea to start with a trusted confidant or coworker who you are comfortable with. While you can’t only ask your office partner or work friend, it might be a nice way to get your feet wet when approaching an uncomfortable conversation that not everyone will want to engage in. Eventually, you will need to talk to both men and women across your company and your field to gather as much information as possible, but you have to start somewhere, and a trusted friend or mentor is a good place to begin.
Remember that you’re not doing anything wrong by asking about colleagues’ wages, and that disclosing your salary is your right as an employee under the protection of The National Labor Relations Act, which mandates that all workers are able to discuss their wages and working conditions.
Still nervous about taking the first step to address this topic? Wong suggests to the Times these conversation starters to gather information that might help your own negotiations:
“I’m preparing for a review with our manager and we’re going to be discussing salary. Would you be open to exchanging some ballpark information on what we’re earning in this role?”
“I was reading an article about salaries in our field and the average of ____ seemed high to me. Do you think that’s a real average, or does it sound odd?”
“I know the company frowns on sharing salaries, but I’m worried that since we don’t share that information we’re at a disadvantage in navigating the pay scale. Would you be comfortable sharing some of our experiences on negotiation and general salary ranges so we’re both better positioned for the reviews coming up?”
Women must take power to negotiate our wages and determine our worth into our own hands, and it starts with conversations we should all be having with one another. That said, it really shouldn’t be women’s responsibility to change the system and end the gender pay gap.
“While it is important for individual women to negotiate their worth and to work to get as much information as possible about the market and about what their coworkers and others in their field are paid, this is a problem that really shouldn’t come down to individual women’s negotiation efforts,” argues Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at NWLC in CNBC’s “Make It” column. “Employers and public policy makers really need to commit to solving [this gap], because you can’t negotiate your way out of structures that are really built to your detriment,” she adds.
And she’s right. Simply talking about our salaries will not eliminate a pay gap that exists deep in our societal structure. But it’s certainly a starting place and a simple step that we can take to not only recognize our worth, but also give women and all minorities a fighting chance to earn what they work hard for and what they deserve.