Terra, a 29-year-old Torontonian, is telling me about a “sketchy” restructure that took place last summer at the health charity where she works. “A more senior coworker took me out for dinner to give me some real talk,” she says. The CEO of the charity had recently hired his own nephew, who was promoted to the role of Terra’s manager despite being significantly less experienced than her. “My coworker let me know that the nephew shared his new salary with her, and that he was earning $95,000 to my $63,000, just a few years out of school.” The news was galling and came as a shock to Terra, but she was grateful to her coworker for enlightening her. “She bought me lots of beer to help the news go down,” she adds.
Terra soon found out that she wasn’t alone. “In subsequent discussions with colleagues, we found out that men were almost always paid more than women in similar positions,” she tells me. Her initial attraction to the role was partly because the majority of staff were women — she liked the idea of an all-female environment — but she now sees that as evidence of exploitation. “I question whether ‘hiring women’ means ‘hiring people who cost less,’” she says, adding that the news “put a fire under [her] butt” to find a new job with more salary transparency. (Today, she’s serving her two weeks notice after resigning from the role.)
The pay gap between men and women remains a problem decades after it was first identified. Currently, women are paid a median wage of 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, but when other factors such as race, age and appearance are taken into account, the pay gap can be even more drastic. Latina women, for example, earn just 54 cents for every $1 white men make in the U.S., and black women earn 63. One of the most significant explanatory factors for the gender pay gap is motherhood. Researchers in this area speak of a “motherhood penalty” whereby women with children earn significantly less than other groups, including fathers. One expert states, “There are really three groups: men, women with children and women without children.” The gender pay gap varies by sector and country, but it persists universally in 2019, decreasing over time but remaining stubbornly resistant to eradication.
In response, the #TalkPay movement was born. Lauren Voswinkel kicked it off in a blog post in 2015, in which she argues that pay transparency is a valuable tool for the labor rights movement, and pledges to publicly discuss her job title, experience and salary using the Twitter hashtag #TalkPay on May 1, International Workers’ Day. The call to action sparked a significant response: the topic trended on Twitter, although only a fifth of the tweets contained salary information as intended. “You show me yours and I’ll show you mine” only works if everyone follows through, and a fear of overexposure was evident at the movement’s outset. Some of its proponents tried to alleviate that fear by compiling data about pay anonymously, gathering information through DMs and putting it in accessible threads and spreadsheets.
The veil of anonymity seems to help. I spoke to Jackie Luo, for example, whose offer to facilitate the anonymous sharing of salary information in tech has elicited more than 1,000 responses so far — a tactic that could easily be replicated across other sectors. “I haven’t got through all the DMs yet,” she says, after being inundated with responses. “It’s been a process.”
Social media is a useful forum for the sharing of industry-specific salary information, but for individuals already working in a particular workplace, the most helpful — and often revealing — information is their coworkers’ salaries. Karl, a 29-year-old parliamentary staffer in Australia tells me that an IRL discussion about pay in his workplace revealed a significant injustice. “My coworkers and I were chatting with each other at the photocopy room and decided to share salary information,” he says. “It turned out they were paying an older, more experienced female colleague the same as me, even though it was my first job.”
Karl adds that they were all union members, which he says made them feel more comfortable disclosing salary information. It also meant that the woman who was being underpaid could approach the union delegate to negotiate a remedy on her behalf, which she did.
The point about unions is important. Pay transparency is a crucial step toward remedying the information asymmetry between bosses and workers, but on its own, it doesn’t fix the power differential that leads to discrimination and exploitation in the first place. As Voswinkel stressed when reflecting on the #TalkPay movement she launched, only collective action can return power to workers, and unions are the most efficient and proven vehicle for such action. Unions help to raise wages, improve working conditions and reduce hours for workers, and these activities include fighting against discrimination and exploitation in the workplace that manifests in the form of gendered pay gaps. Put simply, if you find out that you’re being underpaid at work, you have a much stronger chance of remedying that injustice with the backing of a union.
Legal access is another important component of the #TalkPay movement, given that workers are often unaware of laws protecting their freedom to share salary information. It’s common for companies to suppress efforts for pay transparency, and many add clauses to their contracts forbidding the sharing of salary information, despite this being illegal in the U.S. Companies act securely in the knowledge that non-unionized employees ignorant of their legal protections won’t challenge such clauses, and some threaten workers who discuss pay with sanctions and dismissal.
Lana, a 24-year-old hospitality worker based in Colorado, tells me she realized her yearly pay increase was just a third of what her male coworkers received when they chatted about pay in private. “I brought all this back to my boss,” she says, “and I was told that if I ever talked to another employee about our salaries again, I would be written up and could be fired.” Marie, a 24-year-old manufacturing worker in New Zealand, has also been dissuaded from discussing pay because of clauses in her contract stating that “remuneration is confidential” and “discussions between staff members is strictly forbidden.” “I’m almost certain I’m being underpaid compared to my coworkers, who are all men,” she tells me. “But I’m too scared of being fired for asking anyone what they get.”
Talking about pay is already an enormous cultural taboo, considered by many to be gauche and improper. This cultural norm, combined with employer intimidation and suppression, means that the #TalkPay movement faces significant hurdles. It is still very much the norm for salaries and wages to be kept private; an information asymmetry that benefits bosses and helps facilitate the exploitation of workers. But sharing what you are paid, especially if you are a man who works with women or other marginalized groups of workers, is the most direct way to help build a culture of pay transparency, which in turn helps workers unite to remedy the injustices these discussions reveal — as well as to fight for wider workplace protections and rights.
Whether it’s through clandestine chats at the water cooler or anonymized spreadsheets, talking pay is a crucial first step for revealing discrimination and exploitation in the workplace. It’s time we stop thinking of pay discussions as tacky and inappropriate and instead see them for what they really are: Admirable displays of worker solidarity that can help to remedy injustice.