Talking about money can be difficult. But discussing salaries with your colleagues can be more valuable than you might think, argues Emily Reynolds.
Money, sex, politics: three things we’ve been told we shouldn’t talk about.
But, for the most part, we choose to ignore this. Women write about their sex lives in national newspapers; we talk about the most intimate parts of our lives with our best friends on an almost daily basis. And when was the last time you went on a date or a drink with a mate and Brexit didn’t come up, however briefly?
It’s clear that women have shed many of the taboos that dictated what we could and could not talk about. But this taboo does still persist in one area – money.
And this is especially true when it comes to our colleagues. We may be able to wax lyrical in the pub after work or in WhatsApp groups about dates, love, sex, politics and more – but we’re loathe to share how much we earn.
There’s one obvious reason for this: it’s awkward. It’s awkward to talk about money; it’s awkward to compare salaries with the people we work with every day. Many of us are concerned others are getting paid more than us. It makes sense that we’re reticent about it.
To me, this makes no sense. Financial inequality is still a huge issue for women in the workplace – and not only in high profile industries like entertainment and finance. A recent study from the TUC found that, because of the pay gap, women effectively work for free for more than two months every year. Financially speaking, we’re significantly disadvantaged.
In this environment, the rising popularity of money diaries, often published on women’s websites, doesn’t seem like an accident. And while the voyeuristic interest we all secretly take in finding out how much money people earn and spend could be described as prurient, to me it’s yet more evidence that we need to be more open about our finances.
Because that’s the thing – talking about money isn’t just about satisfying our (perhaps slightly nosy) curiosity about how much co-workers, managers or friends get paid.
In fact, more transparency around pay could revolutionise our financial lives. Imagine knowing how much your male colleagues got paid? Companies would have no choice but to pay men and women in the same jobs the same salaries – which, at the moment, they’re not always doing.
This isn’t just a gendered issue, either. A recent audit into public employees in London found that black and ethnic minorities are paid 37% less on average than their white colleagues. And a 2017 report from think tank Resolution Foundation said that minority ethnic families in the UK are earning “as much as £8,900 a year less than their white counterparts”.
There’s compelling evidence that pay transparency would go some way to countering this – and studies have also shown that it can make employees happier and enhance collaboration in the office. One study from Cornell University found that being open about pay structure and performance appraisals were beneficial to workforces. Many companies already publish salaries – Buffer, a US based social media tool, publishes them in a spreadsheet available to employees and public alike.
The BBC Women group has also penned an open letter demanding pay transparency at the organisation, calling it the “fastest, cheapest and fairest way to tackle unequal pay”.
“When everyone knows exactly what everyone is paid, it is easy to identify comparators and start conversations about value. Transparency is the tool that can stop the BBC breaking the law on Equal Pay,” they wrote, adding that transparency is “by far the most effective way to uncover pay discrimination of all kinds – against ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people, or on the basis of age or any other legally protected characteristic”.
Tackling fair pay at work will obviously take more than simply sharing salary details with colleagues; structural change is also vital. Being transparent about pay is all very well, but as Bourree Lam points out at The Atlantic, “it’s what companies do based on that information that counts”. Companies must make performance appraisals and reviews transparent and clear too for the idea to work effectively.
It’s also vital that men get on board with this, too, sharing their salaries with female colleagues who do the same or similar jobs. A few years ago, freelancing for a website, a male friend of mine told me how much he was getting paid – and, for the same work and with the same experience, I was being paid significantly less. The fact he shared this with me meant I was able to negotiate a fee that was both higher and in line with what men at the company were being paid. This was invaluable, and needs to happen more.
The bottom line is this: if you don’t know how much your colleagues are earning, then you won’t know if you’re being paid fairly either. And for me, that’s definitely worth an awkward conversation about money.
Images: Rex Features / Vladimir Solomyani / Unsplash / iStock