OPINION: When writing yesterday’s column about the gender wage gap, I did a fair bit of research about the governmental and corporate initiatives in New Zealand on how to solve the major issue that women earn 12 per cent less than men for doing the same jobs.
Despite all of the suggestions around fixing the gap – which range from making it easier for women to file pay equity claims with their employers to implementing gender diversity plans in the recruitment process – there was one hole I identified that’s particularly relevant to the Kiwi wage gap. We still aren’t comfortable talking about our salaries.
When you Google “should you tell people how much money you make?”, the answers everywhere from Reddit to Forbes often conclude it’s a bad idea. If people know you’re earning a lot, maybe they’ll get upset they don’t earn the same.
I think this is a cultural flaw we need to overcome. I see no way out of this hole that is pay inequality, unless we’re all transparent.
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I must admit, this isn’t an original idea. I credit two female friends of mine with coming up with it. They concluded that they had been held back in their careers because they never felt comfortable asking how much their male colleagues earned, so never felt confident negotiating higher positions, salaries, and benefits.
Without knowing where they sat amongst their peers, they can only assume they’re being paid less, but struggle to make their case because others keep their salaries a secret.
It also doesn’t help that some employment agreements stipulate that the terms and conditions of the contract are between you and your employer only. Implying that you may be contractually barred from discussing your “deal” with your colleagues.
In order for employees to feel confident that they’re being paid fairly, complete transparency is requisite. But that’s something that has to come from us – culturally, as workers – not something that can be dictated from higher powers.
Several years ago I wrote in an etiquette article, “only your boss and your spouse should know your exact salary. Anyone else and the conversation is going to be fraught with tension”. Sufficed to say, I have evolved from this position and believe that tension is not a reason to steer clear of no-holds-barred conversations about money.
Why is it that we all are so afraid of revealing how much (or how little, as it were) we earn?
Firstly, there’s fear of resentment. Most people link the dollar figure they earn with their personality, because it’s a physical manifestation of how much they’re worth.
Trouble is we often think less of others than they think of themselves. So when you learn that somebody is on a six-figure salary and you feel like you’ll forever be stuck in the fives, there’s a bit off ill sentiment there.
There’s also the embarrassment factor. You might be perceived as cocky if you reveal your salary; as if you’re out to brag. Societally, this is how we’ve come to think of people who mention dollar figures in casual conversation, because somehow we think of money talk as crass.
And of course, there’s gossip. “Did you hear how much so-and-so earns?” could become casual water cooler chat. Something some people use to negatively frame the worth of others without a full picture of their contribution.
However, – and I quote this from Cosmopolitan magazine – “the only people we’re protecting by keeping this information secret are those who would exploit us”. If everybody were to talk about their wages, it’s those that pay them that will have to front up with the explanations. Not us.
An individual wouldn’t have to defend their value so they don’t come off like they’re boasting. It’d be up to their employer to finally face the music around why they don’t pay their staff equally when it comes to doing jobs of equal value to their company or organisation.
Of course, this would herald an HR nightmare. Hence why we’re encouraged to keep our salaries close to our chests. If everybody suddenly started talking, people would want answers from human resources departments and budget restructures could need to ensue.
But isn’t that what human resources is for? To resource the humans with what they want, need, and deserve?
We have a real issue in professional environments whereby none of us understand the real “going rate” for our jobs. You can easily be paid $20,000 less purely because you didn’t ask for more.
I have to stress that by advocating that people should talk about their salaries, I don’t think everybody should be paid the same.
Every individual deserves the right to be rewarded for their education, experience, expertise, and eventual contribution to business outcomes based purely on their own efforts. Nobody should be paid the same as another person purely out of precedent.
As societal convention currently exists though, we have little ways of knowing where we stand. How can we fight for what we’re worth, based on our performance and our value, if we don’t know that?