A couple of jobs ago, my female colleagues and I formed a semi-misandrist, intra-company breakaway sect that we called the Girls’ Bathroom. The Girls' Bathroom talked a lot about working in the male-dominated media landscape, made drink plans, shared snacks, and complimented each other’s haircuts. We also talked about our salaries.
In the beginning, it was pure catharsis. We talked candidly to feel better about making, on average, $35,000 a year in the third most expensive city in the world. But sharing what we made soon became strategic. We were all being paid crappy salaries, and we knew some of our male colleagues were making more for the same work.
There were also disparities between us—women who were doing very similar jobs, often with the same title and the same level of experience. When it became clear that haggling for a more livable wage just wasn't going to happen—sometimes when you lean in, your boss just leans back even farther so you can face plant into the empty space—most of us were able to use our new knowledge to negotiate better salaries when we moved on to other places.
But sharing the details of our paychecks wasn't always easy, even though we had become close friends outside of work. I ended up finding out that I was making more than my friend with the same job, and felt guilty, and a little embarrassed, to have been taking home a little more every month while commiserating with her about making ends meet. And when she tried to bring up the disparity to our boss, he was unmoved. We knew it wasn't personal between us, but it was still hard.
This is the reality of breaking the taboo around pay secrecy: Sometimes it feels liberating, sometimes it feels like shit. But, as the data on the gender wage gap indicate, enduring the awkwardness and talking about money is worth it. Knowledge is power for women who want to negotiate better wages and hold their employers accountable.
So how do you actually do it?
Last month, California passed what is being touted as the country's most muscular response to the gender wage gap. As I wrote when it was first signed, the law shifts the burden from employees to employers when it comes to proving gender wasn’t a determining factor in a decision to pay someone less, extends existing equal pay protections to workers who have different titles but similar responsibilities, and explicitly prohibits retaliation against employees who share salary information. That last provision is a big one. (A measure to do the same thing at the federal level has failed repeatedly despite public support.)
Pay secrecy—along with institutionalized sexism, unconscious bias, the longstanding hegemony of The Man Who Gets Us Down, etc.—is a big contributor to the wage gap that women face in all but seven of the 600 occupations listed by Bureau of Labor Statistics. Transparency is a game changer when it comes to equitable pay, as my colleague Lauren Tara LaCapra recently noted. This is why the gender wage gap is smaller when employers are public about what they pay employees or when workers unionize.
People who share salary information are already technically protected by the National Labor Relations Act, but a lack of awareness about existing laws—along with the actions of employers who use non-disclosure agreements and subtle pressure to keep employees quiet about their pay—means that lots of people still don't talk about their salaries.
And because talking about money can be miserably, terribly awkward.
"When I finished residency, I was looking for jobs at the same time as my other classmates. What I found was that nobody was talking to each other about what they were being paid or what they were being offered at different places," Cheryl, a doctor in Illinois, told me about what it was like trying to get her colleagues to open up about money. "Part of the reason that it surprised me was that we were good friends, and I had assumed that would mean that we would be more comfortable discussing this information. I was really surprised at the amount of hesitation and resistance I encountered." (The women I interviewed for this story are identified by first name only because they were talking about current employers in most cases.)
A rainbow of anxieties and workplace pressures can feed this hesitation. Most of us, at some point in our careers, have probably been told by a boss that we should keep our salaries to ourselves. I remember asking for, and getting, a small raise at a former job and being told by my boss that—while I was within my rights to talk about my salary—he would strongly prefer that I didn't. Others might feel slighted, he said.
"People are pitting themselves against others in the same situation, hoping they are being screwed less," Cheryl told me when I recounted my own experience of keeping quiet about my salary. "Like, 'Maybe I am on the lucky end of things and maybe I should keep it that way.'"
I stayed quiet for a while in part because I was worried that my small bump would compromise my work relationships. But I did eventually disclose it to my coworkers as a few others prepared to ask for raises. Lizzie Post, an etiquette expert with the Emily Post Institute (and the etiquette juggernaut's great-great granddaughter), said she understood this reluctance. It can be painful to hear that someone is making more for the same work.
"While bosses and coworkers and everyone can tell you how wonderful you are, if it turns out you're making less than the guy next to you doing the same thing, you can feel devalued as a person and an employee," she told me. "That is one of the sensitive reasons people don't like talking about this."
Lindsay, a writer in Brooklyn, said that when she first shared her salary with co-workers, it unleashed a flood of commiseration and strategizing. "After that, it was like the cat was just out of the bag. Everyone started talking about what they'd been hired at, and how often and how high their raises were, and what they knew about how much other, male or older colleagues were making."
But it also caused some of the tension Post talked about. "I think that some feelings were hurt," Lindsay told me. "And some people felt devalued, or jealous, or just taken advantage of. But the overwhelming feeling was one of anger at management, and a sense of camaraderie among us."
She eventually used what she knew to ask for more money: "The next time I asked for a raise, I did so after consulting that same group of women so that I'd know what was reasonable to ask for and what was the best way to go about it."
Every woman I talked to said she felt empowered by sharing salary information. Even if it didn't always directly result in a raise, the knowledge felt powerful all the same. They also offered a lot of the same advice to other women who want to have these conversations in their own lives: being friends with your coworkers helps.
So does disclosing first.
Lee, a registered nurse at a clinic in upstate New York, said she experienced some initial hesitation from her colleagues, even though they did eventually talk about what they made. "In an organization where the vast majority of employees were women, nobody wanted to be seen as bragging or be seen as not negotiating strongly enough," she explained.
So she took the jump first: "It can be hard to say, 'By the way, I make this amount of money,' but when it comes up, it's important to say what you are making in concrete terms. To get over the embarrassment and the fear of being perceived in a certain way and just say, 'Here's what I make.'"
"For me, it helped that I am very close with the people I work with," she added.
Post agreed that reading signals from the person you're talking to and disclosing your own salary is a good way to get others to open up.
"I think it's a good thing to talk about salaries in general. It can let you know where the market is, what's normal for your industry, the amount of years you've been working in a certain field. It can really help," Post told me. "But it's really important when you try to talk to someone about this that you get their permission first. Don't just start in on the conversation. Instead say, very clearly, 'I'm really interested in talking about salaries, would you be willing to have that conversation?'"
This is all new terrain. As norms shift, the etiquette around these conversations will shift too, Post said. "The general rule of thumb would be to understand that you may be asked to answer this question more than we have been asked in the past," she said. "Be prepared. It might be something you hear."
And because it's all so new, how you hear it might be a big part of whether you decide to share what you make.
"Generally I have phrased it, 'Do you mind if I ask?'" Cheryl said of her approach to sharing salary information. "And if I run into hesitation, I start by disclosing first. From there, I have occasionally gone into the whole thing of how we need to be able to have salary information in order to negotiate our positions. It doesn't harm anyone but ourselves and each other if we don't talk about this. It's a bad taboo."