Why Women Should Tell Everyone Their Salaries

I'm a huge advocate of women talking about money -- and their salaries specifically -- loudly and publicly as a means of fighting the gender wage gap.
Publish date:
June 20, 2012
money, work, issues, salaries

High rollin’ with my friend George. I’m looking at literally TENS of these more each paycheck!

Last week, when I was desperately spelunking my way through an onslaught of Monday morning emails at work, my boss pulled me aside and asked if I had "time to chat."

I had just about decided which highway overpass would make the best new home once I was fired and homeless, before she added "Don't worry, it's a good thing."

And it was. Employee evaluations had gone through, and I was getting a raise.

Like many of my peers who graduated into a job market that was collectively wetting itself over the "great recession," my main hobby these days is contemplating when and why I will be fired, so this came as a big relief. They love me! I am the best at adult employment! Or it's at least easier to pay my salary than it is fire me and hire someone new.

That night I celebrated my raise by buying a bottle of Cooks "champaign" and a used Roomba off Ebay, because nothing says successful businesswoman like drinking knockoff booze while a robot sweeps the cat litter off your floor.

What I didn't do was tell anyone my good news. Which made me sad. Because of feminism.

Let me explain. I wanted to tell people about my raise. Not just so my co-workers understand I'm a I'm bonafide hustler making my name, but because I'm a huge advocate of women talking about money -- and their salaries specifically -- loudly and publicly as a means of fighting the gender wage gap.

With the Paycheck Fairness Act's recent untimely death by filibuster on the floor of the Senate, it's time we recognized one of the most insidious reasons women still make just 77 cents to every dollar men in equivalent positions earn: It can take years for a woman to even realize her (cis, male) co-workers have gotten a Congrats on Your Penis pay raise.

Like Lilly Ledbetter who went nearly two decades at a Goodyear factory before an anonymous note tipped her off that men in her position were making thousands of dollars more a year than she was.

Realizing you're getting monetarily screwed by sexism should not take an anonymous note. If I had it my way, we’d all fight the good fight against wage inequality by treating our salaries like the latest episode of "Game of Thrones." That is, we’d talk about it all the damn time.

A note: I have seen three episodes of "Game of Thrones," and was drunk for two of those. But goddamn if I don't know that Winter Is Coming, boobs boobs never enough boobs, and Peter Dinklage is the second coming of Jesus Christ.

We'd solve the problem of hidden wage discrimination real quick if office culture could expand to include an open and frank discussion of our salaries and bonuses. But talking about money is something we just don't do right now. Especially women, who are socialized not to rock the boat, bring up uncomfortable subjects in polite company or use whatever means necessary to get paid what we're worth.

I've always been one to over-share when I think feminism is on the line, so it was incredibly strange to suddenly feel nervous about mentioning my raise to anyone. Especially to my cohort of co-workers, who are nearly all 20-something women at their first adult job and so tend to TMI at each other to an absurd degree. We regularly discuss the state of our menarche (this month: Good god, is someone sacrificing a goat up there?) and have had hour-long drunken conversations about how glorious Jeremy Renner's ass is (should win an Academy Award for "Mission Impossible" alone). So why was I suddenly so reluctant to mention my good news?

What if my co-workers hadn't gotten raises? What if I hurt their feelings? What if my boss overheard and thought it was inappropriate?

Maybe it's rude. If I found out all my co-workers had gotten raises and I hadn't, I would burrow under my desk in a nest of shredded spreadsheets and anxiety. They would have to coax me out with kind words and a trail of Xanax before I starved to death. But honestly, I would want to know. Because it's next to impossible to fight for the salary you're worth if you have nothing to compare it to.

The bigger worry, though, is the very real chance of retribution for women who talk about their salary publicly. That's part of why the Paycheck Fairness Act's recent failure in the Senate at the hands of to every single GOP Senator (even the women) has me seeing red. One of the Act's provisions would have protected women from being fired for discussing their salary.

Backlash for talking about your salary may not only affect women. I'm sure a lot of people think talking about money is wrong no matter what you've got going on in your heart or underpants. That doesn't keep blowback from affecting women disproportionately. Talking about money might be rude for everyone, but for men, rudeness can be a cute personality quirk. For women, it's a serious professional liability.

Even worse, a man who talks salary or demands a pay raise is taking initiative. A woman who does so is being crass. Or a bitch. And faces the very real possibility of raising her boss's ire or even losing her job.

It's not just that we should be keeping elaborate spreadsheets of how much our male co-workers are making. Women don't talk about money enough across the board. Studies have shown that women are significantly less financial literate than men, something that leaves us more likely to overdraft on credit cards, underestimate our professional worth and leave the forms for our 401K sitting in a desk drawer for a year under a half eaten bag of pita chips and our "Oops I forgot hygiene this morning" work deodorant. Not that I speak from personal experience. (On the off chance my dad is reading this, I definitely set that 401K up months ago.)

When people offer explanations for this financial literacy gender gap, they tend to follow the same tired tropes you see in discussions of the gender wage gap. Numbers are confusing! Women aren't naturally aggressive enough! Maybe if you talked about investment in terms of shoes we'd totally understand that we should diversify our high risk Jimmy Choos with sensible flats the closer we get to retirement. (I am not making this up. There is an entire book on teaching women finance via shoe metaphor.)

Maybe stiletto-centric finance is helpful for some people, but ultimately women don't need financial advice wrapped in a pink bow. And while potentially useful, it wouldn't solve the wage gap if that yogurt that makes ladies poop better also helped us demand the salary we're worth. Ultimately women need money, and the aggressive pursuit thereof, to be destigmatized.

Surely this soygurt will clean out my colon AND help me get the respect I deserve in a male-dominated industry.

I am not exempt from the fear of professional repercussions. I’ll happily wax poetic about why women should talk about their salaries, but will I put mine out there for the world to see? It genuinely freaks me out to go into more explicit detail than this:

I’ve got a five-figure salary that means I can afford to play sugar mama to my Roomba best friend and pay my $1,100 bay area rent each month, but anything beyond that gets a bit dicey. My raise will get me about 10 more burritos a month, with guacamole.

I yell about women's rights professionally, but the thought of putting a cold, hard number out there for all the internet to see still scares me shitless. "Ella," I can already hear my boss saying. "Do you have time to chat?" My superiors (yes, all of them, it's that kind of dream) would look so disappointed in me as they revoked my raise and spent it on a robot that does my job instead of me. I wouldn't even be allowed in the comfy highway overpass, which is probably reserved for people with a modicum of professional etiquette.

In defense of my (lack of) courage, a few days after I got the good news, I finally worked up the courage and blood alcohol level to brooch the topic with other people. I told my friends, and more importantly shared the sordid fiscal details with my co-workers. So now we all know when everyone is ovulating AND what we make a year, which can only help with any future salary negotiations. (The latter more than the former, though who knows what might prove useful in the life of a serious business woman!)