If you’re a rad intersectional ally who wants to make life fairer for everyone, there’s one incredibly easy thing you can do—right now—to close the gender and racial wage gap. It has to do with pay transparency. It’s an incredibly powerful form of activism, and it can be done by almost anyone. Are you ready? Here it is…
Tell your coworkers how much money you make.
Especially women, people of color, disabled people, immigrants, and any one else who is part of a historically marginalized or exploited group.
And be specific and honest! No ranges, no euphemisms, just the exact number that appears on your paycheck. Don’t skip over any bonuses, raises, or other perks you’ve earned or negotiated, such as extra vacation time, remote work days, or tuition reimbursement.
Pay transparency is a tremendous boon to yourself as well as them. And we need it now, more than ever. Here’s why.
Pay transparency: Instant, impactful activism almost anyone can do
These are tough times for regular folks just trying to get by. I blame a confluence of factors: depressed wages, weak labor, consolidation of commerce and wealth among a greedy few, persistent inequality across race and gender, an electorate disillusioned by ineffectual representation, just to name a few.
They’re absolutely gigantic problems. It’s so hard for one person with good intentions to make a significant impact on any one of them. But that’s why the issue of pay transparency is so exciting to me.
When so much feels like it’s out of our hands, this is something we can all actually do! Like, now!
It’s a form of activism that can be done alone, at the individual level. You don’t need to organize or fight for the right to do it. Yet it can have an enormous impact on the people around you. Pay transparency can radically transform a person’s life by opening their eyes to serious potential disparities. You can personally stop someone from investing years of their life (and losing thousands of dollars) working for the wrong company.
We’ve said before that the first step to budgeting isn’t setting a budget—it’s tracking your expenses. That’s because you can’t fix problems if you don’t know they exist. And it’s the same situation here.
Lots of people know that pay inequality is a problem, but they only know it as an abstract fact. It’s harder to connect that it’s happening to them, or to their coworkers. That’s why exposing the problem is the first step. And it’s surprisingly hard, given our strange culture of silence around money.
Why is pay transparency so taboo?
Perhaps you, like me, were told from a young age to never volunteer salary information to coworkers. (I believe my grandpa’s words were “never, ever, ever.” That’s one more “ever” than other cardinal grandpa sins of driving drunk and “votin’ Democrat!”) But perhaps you, like me, were never exactly sure why.
Frankly, there’s no good justification for it. The most common one I’ve heard is that it ~*protects employees*~ from pay dissatisfaction and workplace jealousy. (Pause for massive eye roll.) But studies show both increase in companies with secretive pay structures.
Which makes sense, right? Unfair pay pisses people off, not pay transparency itself.
It’s like telling Ariel to stay away from seashell-shaped necklaces. OBVIOUSLY it’s the motherfucking sea witch that’s the real problem! She’s out there snatching the most valuable possessions of the most desperate people she can find to commodify them for her own selfish ends. Kind of like how employers ask people to trade years of their life in exchange for the ability to eat during said years. Ain’t it funny how that works out?
The truth is that secret salaries do very little to benefit the employee, and quite a lot to benefit the executive class of old white jerks who have been setting American salaries for generations. Secrecy allows them to make arbitrary decisions without ever needing to defend them. There’s no punishment for offering substantially more to the guy who pledged to your fraternity—or substantially less to the newly single mother who’s obviously desperate to reenter the workforce any way she can. Silence creates conditions where it is easy to reward the already-privileged and further disenfranchise the already-disenfranchised.
You, as a super cool intersectional ally, have already decided that this is not a system you want to participate in. If you’re serious about helping to dismantle it, breaking that silence is an easy and powerful way to start.
Businesses love keeping secrets
Just to demonstrate the lunacy that goes into these decisions, let me tell you a true story that happened to a friend of mine. We’ll call her Grace.
Grace works in a job where she’s paid hourly. The more often she’s scheduled, the more money she makes.
One day Grace’s coworker Dean told her something shocking: he’d been given a substantial raise, and now considerably out-earned her. Grace and Dean had started working at this company at the same time, and she came in with more experience. So this was surprising and upsetting.
So Grace took the information to her boss and asked for an explanation. Her boss’s face turned red and the following story came out.
The administrative assistant in charge of scheduling employees had a crush on Dean’s girlfriend. And this admin under-scheduled Dean in retaliation for dating a woman he felt he felt entitled to. (Pause for screaming.) Dean’s earnings suffered, and eventually the mess caught their boss’s attention.
Once discovered, the right thing to do was pretty obvious:
- Fire the admin.
- Make restitution to Dean.
- Design a fairer system for assigning work.
- Review everyone’s salaries to make sure they’re compensated fairly.
- Set black-and-white conditions for future raises based on tenure, performance reviews, or other meritocratic indicators.
But (spoiler alert) none of that happened. Their boss didn’t want to deal with implementing a new system. The admin was the only one who knew how to work the scheduling software. So she offered Dean a large raise to keep him quiet, and swept the admin’s bad behavior under the rug.
Pay scales are arbitrary soap operas
Salary sheets are full of this kind of woolly-headed soap opera bullshit.
Raises and bonuses are frequently used as secret, out-of-court settlements for disputes and grievances that have nothing to do with business needs or quality of work. They’re a convenient shovel unscrupulous decision-makers use to bury uncomfortable truths about who they arbitrarily favor or don’t favor.
It’s interesting to note how gender played into this example. The admin and Dean came out ahead, while Grace and Dean’s girlfriend got screwed.
- Grace had to choose between making less money and awkwardly confronting her boss.
- Dean got a raise he hadn’t earned.
- The admin deserved to be fired, but wasn’t.
- Dean’s girlfriend had to continue to work with an entitled, possessive, petty creep.
None of this would’ve happened if the company practiced pay transparency.
The dark hand of the patriarchy in the workplace is not always as obvious as a slap on the fanny from Emperor Palpatine. Allies sometimes have to get creative when it comes to combating the subtler aspects of workplace discrimination. Which leads me to a really interesting example of how one male ally’s actions struck a huge blow against workplace sexism nationwide.
The anonymous male hero behind the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act
Travel back in time with me to 1998. While I was busy refining the MissingNo item duplication glitch, Goodyear Tire was bending Lilly Ledbetter over a pickle barrel.
Ledbetter had been working for Goodyear as a district manager for the last twenty years—a position overwhelmingly occupied by men. They warned her to keep her earnings a secret. She obeyed.
One day, Ledbetter found an anonymous note in her mailbox. It was a torn scrap of notebook paper with her name and salary written on it in a handwriting she didn’t recognize. The number was correct, right down to the dollar. Underneath were three other names and salaries—all men, all earning about 40% more than she was.
This anonymous note triggered events culminating in the Lilly Leadbetter Fair Pay Act. Previously, the statute of limitations clock started when the pay discrimination started. If the employee found out too late, there was nothing they could do. But the Lilly Leadbetter Act reset the clock to the discovery of the discrimination.
Awesome allies driving real progress
I love how this story demonstrates the power of allies.
The author of this anonymous note was almost certainly a dude. Some guy saw his coworker getting royally screwed. And he decided she deserved to know what was going on. So he did exactly one thing about it. But one thing was all it took.
This man had no way of knowing his small act of decency would pave the way for legislation that would make it incrementally harder and more dangerous for American companies to underpay their female employees. But good deeds can snowball in unexpected ways, and fortune smiles on brave, badass allies.
And even if you hates wimmins (and god, who doesn’t?), you should still do it because women aren’t the only people left in the cold by a lack of pay transparency.
Companies offer less money to everyone who smells desperate. That includes younger people, older people, black and brown people, chronically un- or under-employed people, sick and disabled people, and anyone who seems trapped by their circumstances.
It’s morally unacceptable to perpetuate that kind of vampirism. But also, it’s strategically short-sighted. Because even if you don’t fit into any of those categories, one day you will. When that time comes, you’ll be grateful you took action to build a better, more merciful system.
Capitalism is a depraved system. It’s the people who live within that system who imbue it with much-needed humanity and compassion.
Break the cycle of silence
So you’re picking up what I’m putting down. You see the value in sharing salary information, and now you just need to know how to do it. Admittedly, this can be a sensitive area, so here is a script you can build off of.
Hey, coworker! I was reading an article about the gender/racial wage gap. It got me thinking about what actions I could take in my own life.
Pay transparency kept coming up as a great solution, so hopefully our company will adopt that as an official policy someday. Until then, if you’d ever like to know how much money I make, let me know and I’d be happy to tell you. It seems like the least I can do to make sure I’m not taking part in a system I don’t agree with.
If you’re speaking to a woman, make sure you immediately stick out your arms. It’s a well-documented Fact™ that all women respond to strong emotions by fainting. She will surely be so grateful that you’ll need to be ready to catch her. (That’s why we paid them less! Dames: always sleeping on the job.)
Can pay transparency get me in trouble?
In a word: HELLNAW!
I’ve heard a lot of people say they’re scared to do this because they think they’d get in trouble for it. In general, there’s a common misconception that sharing salary information is grounds for punishment or termination. But this is not true for almost any American worker!
The National Labor Relations Act protects your right to discuss your salary with your coworkers. Your company cannot legally punish you (let alone fire you) for sharing that information. Thanks, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, patron saint of unions and hearthside radios!
There are a tiny minority of workplaces that are exempt from the NLRA, such as religious schools. But they’re getting smaller all the time. Barack Obama extended NLRA protections to federal contractors and subcontractors during his presidency. Thanks, Obama!
So there you go. It’s your constitutional right. Get out there and use it!
Here’s a few more ways you can address the evils of salary secrecy and pay inequality in your own career:
- You Need to Ask for a Fucking Raise
- What to Do When You’re Asked About Your Salary in a Job Interview
- The Financial Advantages of Being White
- One Reason Women Make Less Money? They’re Afraid of Being Raped and Killed.
- Our Single Best Piece of Advice for Women (and Men) on International Women’s Day
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An early version of this article was originally published on January 11, 2016.