I recently read a newspaper article, written by a woman, which starts: “ A man I manage earns £20k more than me, and I can’t discuss it publicly.”
She continues: “We are being victimised by a culture of a pay secrecy that is wreaking havoc. I wish I had the courage to speak out.”
My initial reaction is; “You are speaking out, let’s hear what you have to say now you feel unshackled by your natural restraint.”
But, first, let’s take a step back; this is a serious issue after all.
Apparently, a third of all workers don’t know that it’s illegal to pay women and men differently for the same or equivalent work. A Norwegian trade union conducted an experiment with children, in which they were videoed being instructed to complete a simple task, for which they were rewarded with jars of sweets.
All the children completed the assignment to a similar standard but the boys were given more sweets than the girls. The adults running the experiment explained to the youngsters that the difference was down to their gender. Girls’ work, so the message went, is worth less than boys’.
The children disagreed, displaying a range of emotions, from confusion and annoyance, to distress and resentment. It’s not fair, they agreed. And you’d be hard pressed to find an adult who publicly disagrees. But our workplaces are not a televised social experiment. We’re not kids who are unconstrained by social filters that tell us what is acceptable. Adults are being discriminated against by a culture of pay secrecy. It’s distasteful to talk about money, and that silence has issues.
Back to the woman’s article, regarding her colleague who earns £20,000 more than her. “It might sound crass, but my reaction to this news has materialised as the five stages of grief. Grief, quite possibly, for my withering sense of self-worth.” The five stages of grief? This poor lady is taking her pay discrepancy very seriously.
At first comes denial. Surely this is a misunderstanding. Though we have our differences, my media mogul managers and I share a fundamental passion for progressiveness and an aversion to blatant discrimination.”
Then anger strikes. It’s raw and blinding. I’d heard stories about such cases, but never had I felt so ridiculed. I’ve just had a baby. I’ve been negotiating my return to work. My desk neighbour is undeniably excellent at his job. He’s an ambitious and diligent employee with admittedly a few more years of experience than me. He’s a leader in his field, but when hired, I was deemed senior enough, amply mature, responsible and talented, to commission him, edit him and perform all the other far more mundane tasks of management.”
Perhaps on account of his stellar reputation within the industry, a pay gap is justified, but the sheer size of this particular chasm has burned my ego to a crisp. The money at stake could buy me a car or cover rent in central London for months. Pertinently, it would even foot the bill of a large portion of childcare, during that wonderful, exhausting first year of motherhood: that crucial make or break period after which I might be able to precariously leap back on the speeding career treadmill, but only if I can nail the finances.”
Right now I’m oscillating between the bargaining and depression phases. But I’ll never, ever reach acceptance.”
In a way, I blame myself. Everyone from Michelle Obama to Sheryl Sandberg has taught us about impostor syndrome. Now, I’m not sure we’ve learned anything. Had I let myself down when I was negotiating my salary, asking for a mere fraction more than the opening offer, out of fear that by demonstrating the most desirable trait of a professional woman, confidence in one’s own ability, I would scare them away? The patriarchy was probably lounging in its corner office, sucking on a fat cigar and chuckling at my innocent naivety.”
My story is just one of a million tales. The media industry is smaller than you might think. If I earn the label of angry young female, a ‘nasty woman’, I restrict my career prospects immeasurably. I literally can’t afford to be awkward. But this case has opened my eyes, and by sharing it I want to help others. Six out of 10 employees don’t know that they have a legal right to have conversations with colleagues about pay if they think they are being discriminated against because of their gender. That right should be a duty. A third of all workers don’t know that it’s illegal to pay women and men differently for the same or equivalent work.”
Don’t let this rest. Have the courage to brave the conversation. No policies, regulations or initiatives will facilitate change if we allow employers to shirk their legal responsibility by shrouding salaries in secrecy. For the sake of my daughter and yours, enough is enough. Clutching their half-empty sweet jars, they would certainly tell us so.”
My response to this media professional is: You say your colleague is excellent at his job, ambitious and diligent, with a few more years experience than you; he is also a leader in his field. From your article, it is clear that you obviously care as much about status as money. Your colleague doesn’t care about his title; he just wants to be paid well for a job well done. Possibly without the stress and self-doubt that comes from such a lofty job-title as yours.
Let’s face it, if you weren’t aware of how much your colleague was paid, you would be happy with your lot, so perhaps people keeping what they earn to themselves, is for the best.
Also, it is your responsibility to learn how to negotiate better, you can’t do this retrospectively, particularly after an extended and paid absence from work, and it is your responsiblity alone to learn this skill.