To fight income inequality, tell your friends how much you make

We need to talk.
We need to talk.
Image: Reuters/Robert Galbraith
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My first brush with salary inequality occurred in the very first months of my very first full-time job as a reporter.

A fresh-faced journalism school graduate, I accepted an offer to work for a large media company based in New York City. The work was exciting, but the pay was terrible. Still, in my naiveté I assumed all entry-level journalists were suffering similarly.

Several frustrating months of ramen noodles later, I started to wonder why some of my colleagues seemed to be less hard-up. Initial queries about salary were met with awkwardness, if not downright suspicion. It would take a great deal of cajoling for me to uncover the root of this awkwardness: a stark discrepancy among team members’ salaries.

When I confronted an aghast manager with this information, he admonished me for breaking protocol, pointing out that “there was a time when such things weren’t discussed.”

That day was a wake-up call for me: When it comes to salaries, silence is an unscrupulous boss’s best friend.

As Congress meets to debate the merits of government intervention in the issue of equal pay, women and minorities need to realize they aren’t alone. And the best way to do that is to start talking about their paychecks. By breaking the outdated workplace taboo that expects silence around salary, we can create a community of honesty and empowerment.

I’m just one example of how such a grassroots system can work—after creating a rudimentary salary baseline with the help of friends and coworkers, I was able to nearly double my salary two years after that initial job interview.

Decades from parity

April 14 is Equal Pay Day, an annual event meant to raise awareness of the fact that women and men are still not paid the same in the US—and indeed may not reach parity for another 43 years.

Depending on how you crunch the numbers, women in the US earn somewhere between 23% and 7% less than their male counterparts. Black and Latina women fare even worse, and the LGBT community suffers from similar disparities. It’s a scaffolded structure of inequality based on generations of patriarchal power dynamics held together with gender stereotypes.

And historical inequities aside, the reasons women still earn less in 2015 show why we’re such a long way from closing the gap: because they are more likely to take time off to take care of family obligations; because they are more likely to work in lower-paying professions; because they are more likely to experience gender discrimination; because they are less prepared to negotiate.

“Leaning in” is easier said than done

Linda Babcock has spent years researching workplace negotiation, and has concluded that women “are socialized from an early age not to promote their own interests and to focus instead on the needs of others.” When women do negotiate, researchers have found them to be less effective, forced to pay a literal price for attitudes that penalize women perceived as pushy or aggressive.

Bucking this trend doesn’t necessarily feel good. I remember distinctly what it was like to be shamed by my boss for daring to “ask for more,” as nonprofit Levo calls its annual wage gap initiative.

Ellen Pao wants to end salary negotiation at Reddit. But will it be enough?
Ellen Pao wants to end salary negotiation at Reddit. But will it be enough?
Image: Reuters/Beck Diefenbach

Over at Reddit, interim CEO Ellen Pao thinks she has a solution for gender-based wage discrimination. Defeated but clearly undeterred by losing in her recent gender discrimination lawsuit, Pao announced her intention to end all salary negotiations.

It’s a bold move, and Pao’s strategy may help the company’s weakest negotiators, but it won’t address the fates of employees who have been “systematically underpaid.”

“One thing we see a lot is that pay is set in your last company,” Joelle Emerson, leader of a strategy firm that works with tech companies to promote diversity, recently told Fast Company. “If you were being treated unfairly at your last company, that’s just going to follow you throughout your career.”

At the age of 27, I know I’m extremely lucky to have only needed two jobs to erase my initial (non)negotiation—for others, it could take many more years, even decades, to make up for wages lost, due often to circumstances outside of their control.

Six months after that fateful meeting with my manager, I accepted a new job. It came with a modest pay bump and a new title, and I was so grateful for the opportunity that I made the same mistake twice: I accepted the company’s assertion that my offer was nonnegotiable.

Only now, I was savvier. I went looking for women in similar positions elsewhere and compared notes; not only was I making less than some of my coworkers, I was making less than some of these outside peers, too. This time I went to my boss with the information to confidently appraise my own worth. I got the raise.

The frustrating flip-side to all of this is that women shouldn’t have to be the ones tasked with overcoming their own systemic oppression. Why should we, to paraphrase Sheryl Sandberg, always have to be “leaning in” so damn hard?

Over at New York Magazine, Ann Friedman rightly points out that “asking women to take responsibility for closing the pay gap with their ace negotiating skills is sort of like teaching women self-defense as a way of addressing sexual assault. It puts the burden on women to figure this out as individuals—it doesn’t ask much of employers, and it doesn’t really address the bigger issue.”

We shouldn’t have to go it alone

To this end, it makes sense that collective and not individual action is the most effective strategy. Barring a miraculous societal shift, transparency could be key to alleviating some of the pressure.

In Germany, women’s affairs minister Manuela Schwesig is pushing for a law that would force companies to “publish salary structures,” according to The Guardian. The kind of transparency championed by Schwesig may be too still radical for the majority of American companies, but that doesn’t mean we’re out of options.

We—women and minorities, and men too—need to get over the antiquated hang-ups about salary secrecy and be proactive. Ask your co-workers how much they make, and tell them how much you make. This isn’t about giving yourself a leg up, it’s about creating a whole new rung on the ladder to stand on, together. When it comes to the wage gap, a rising tide is a more equitable tide.