Scenario 1: at a university event, the Entrepreneurship Manager was telling students about his successful entrepreneurship journey from a past life. Then it got to question time.
“How much money did you make?” asked one curious student.
After a polite refusal and some jokes, the student continued to press him but wasn’t answered.
Scenario 2: a writer just starting out doesn’t know how much to charge clients or how much money to expect to make so looks for other people in the industry for guidance. Another writer made a high amount doing a similar project with the same experience level but chose not to reveal this information.
These two scenarios are very different. In Scenario 1, a boy pressured the speaker to name a figure personal to him and was of no use to anyone else. Maybe the boy wanted to be an entrepreneur too, but he had no reason to think he could make the same amount of money.
In Scenario 2, one person needed a ballpark figure to guide and motivate them, and the other person was able to provide it. Although success will always depend on luck and talent, knowing the amount others doing similar work were making could have increased the new writer’s expectations and stopped them from being taken advantage of. When the successful writer sat in their ivory tower instead of giving advice, it was harmful.
Knowing the wages of your colleagues helps social mobility
I remember the first time I had to negotiate my wage.
After finishing an internship, a company had offered me a part-time position with them. The prospect of calling my manager and asking him what the wage would be was nerve-wrecking as I knew I’d have to do some bargaining.
I had no idea what I should expect; it was a small company, so it was hard to guess a ballpark figure. It would have been incredibly helpful if I’d known the wages for other people in the company. Maybe I should have asked them, but I was embarrassed and worried they’d refuse.
Whether you believe the wage gap between men and women is down to pure sexism or more complex factor, evidence shows that men feel more comfortable negotiating than women when job descriptions don’t state that wages are negotiable and fewer women see themselves as effective negotiators.
Companies benefit from secrecy because it means they can underpay employees without being held accountable. Negotiation is less likely to happen and to be effective.
Thankfully this is changing. The UK and France introduced gender pay gap reporting, whilst in Germany, women can ask for the salary of at least six men doing the same work. The consequences of pay secrecy go beyond gender differences, but it’s a good start.
Websites like Glassdoor that publish salaries of anonymous individuals are also a lifesaver for anyone applying for positions with ‘competitive’ salaries or salary ‘ranges’.
When not to share
That doesn’t mean that talking about money is always positive. Sometimes it can be downright horrible — as with everything, nuance and context are important.
One of my university friends got offered a graduate job as a software engineer at Google. After someone mentioned this in a group conversation, one girl asked him how much money they’d offered him. He immediately looked uncomfortable and tried to swerve the question, but she pressed him further and he admitted it was a six-figure salary.
The thing is, he’s a software engineer; the girl who asked him was a Politics major with no interest in coding. What did it serve her to know how much he would earn? I had no graduate position lined up, but if I’d accepted a job offer with a more average starting salary, I’d probably have felt dejected and inferior — even though I’ve never had an interest in software engineering or Google. That’s toxic.
Let’s start talking
I’m British, and people here are notoriously polite and awkward. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a person boast about how much money they make, but I’m sure I’d hate it.
There’s no reason to mention your salary to people you’ve just met or people who work in different industries. It’s awkward and often makes people on the lower end of the earnings spectrum feel bad.
Social workers and teachers will always earn less than investment bankers and software engineers. That’s just how it is. If you’re in a friends group or even family where people work different jobs and earn different amounts, discussing salaries is unhealthy. Ignorance is bliss.
But refusing to reveal your salary to colleagues is selfish — and I mean ‘colleagues’ in a broad sense. Colleagues could mean other people working in your organization if you’re in traditional employment, or other freelancers in your field if you’re a contractor like me.
Being secretive might save you the awkwardness of having to put yourself out there, but it comes at the cost of neglecting to help others.
Personally, I think it would solve a lot of problems if companies had to release the (anonymous) salaries of all workers.
And if you think people who are more successful and high-earning than you are ‘bragging’ by making their salary public, you might be the one who has the problem and the insecurities.