Growing up, I was taught it was tacky to talk about money. Even within my own family, my parents never discussed how much money we had. We could have been Kardashian-level rich or barely scraping by; I would have been none the wiser.
In a weird way, this attitude of money secrecy gave me a perplexing relationship with the stuff. On one hand, I firmly believed that my salary wasn’t reflective of my personal value. On the other, I spent countless hours googling salary ranges for my role and experience level, compared myself to anyone who spoke openly about their pay, and worked away evenings and weekends to increase my cash flow.
But no matter how much I googled or how much I worked, I never felt OK with how much I was earning. Of course, there would be no magic number to make me feel valuable or worthy. It’s in my nature to strive; whether it be a promotion, athletic accomplishment, or number on the scale, there is always something else to reach for. Something better.
In some ways, that determination has served me really well. It’s given me the drive to learn a lot of skills on my own, like re-teaching myself piano as an adult, graphic design, and a number of skills related to my line of work. But when it comes to money, this meticulous attention can be more than a little toxic.
And it’s made enormously more toxic because it’s all happening in private. Because I’m too afraid to talk about it.
TL;DR: Money is really, really hard to talk about
I’ve kept my salary private because I’m afraid of being judged. I’m afraid that, if it’s less than what someone thinks I should be earning, they’ll feel uncomfortable, or worse, look down on me. I’m afraid that if it’s more, they may resent me or feel inferior — as I would if the situation were reversed.
It’s hard to talk about money because, for better or worse, it is how we’ve been taught to measure value in the Western world. So that dollar amount can have a big impact on how we see ourselves and, sometimes, each other.
But the truth is that we all suffer when we don’t talk about salary. We stay in the dark about what we should be making and if our pay matches up with the market rate. It’s impossible to know where we could end up salary-wise on certain career paths. We don’t have proof of systemic gaps related to race and gender that shouldn’t exist, but do.
And, worst of all, we don’t know how and when to advocate for ourselves.
So, as uncomfortable as it was, I started talking about my salary. At first, I felt deeply vulnerable; I was voluntarily exposing what I saw as a measure of my worth as a human being. At the same time, I felt like I was bragging. I felt tacky, too. In short, I felt a whole bunch of other things I’d been conditioned to feel.
But it did feel important. So, despite the discomfort, I kept talking about it. And here’s why.
1. Talking about salary brings attention to systemic gaps that shouldn’t exist
But I often feel like these numbers are just that: a number. While a lot of organizations are moving toward wage transparency, it’s certainly not the norm. So I felt in the dark about the reality, and I wasn’t able to place myself in those statistics; nor was I able to ground those statistics in my everyday reality.
Since I’ve started talking to other women about salaries, I’ve been shocked to learn how little — and sometimes how much, though this happens less often— they’re earning, and how much I think they should be earning, based on what I find online. Talking to men has helped me understand how they value their skill sets, and how they approach discussions about salary. It’s helped me understand how people view themselves, their skillset, and their value across a spectrum of race, gender, and education level.
In short, talking about salary helped to unearth real people, bringing a face and a voice to the statistics I was seeing online. It shed light on whether I was personally making the same as men and non-white individuals in similar roles or at similar companies. Most importantly, it empowered me as a manager to advocate for the people that I hired, or those being hired, within my own workplace.
2. Talking about salary helps you figure out what you should be making
As a marketer, annual compensation in my line of work varies wildly. When I first began interviewing for Director of Marketing roles, I found annual salary estimates anywhere from $75,000 to $200,000 online. That’s a huge disparity and didn’t give me a ton of confidence when I was negotiating.
I wasn’t able to narrow it down until I started openly talking to my friends in the same sphere. It helped me understand that Director-level marketing roles existed on a spectrum; I could be hired as one today and stay in that role for 10 years. But as my experience grew, so would my paycheck.
Having these discussions helped me enter salary discussions with prospective employers, and diffused my self-doubt when I was passed over for a role because my salary expectations were too high. It also helped me understand where I could expect to end up, given how my career progressed.
3. Talking about salary can help you make career choices
It’s not always clear from a title or field how much money you can make. When my partner and I first started dating, she made more money than me, even though she sat at a Coordinator level and I at a Director level.
On title alone, I never would have guessed that. But it helped me realize that some industries were willing and able to pay higher salaries than others. It also encouraged me to explore positions in fields I otherwise might have passed over.
4. Talking about salary within a company can help identify whether they’re paying market rate for talent
If you’re a newbie like me when it comes to HR policy, you may not know that employers can’t forbid you from discussing your salary at work. In fact, if you have a good HR department, they’ll likely encourage you to discuss salary. Some progressive organizations even practice wage transparency, where you can look up what people in each role at your company are making.
Discussions with colleagues about pay can help an employee know when and if they should ask for a raise. It helps them understand how the company values their work, at least in a monetary sense.
More nefariously, it can also unearth whether a company is paying employees market rate for their skills. This is especially important information for junior employees, as some employers will take advantage of their lack of expertise and pay them much less than they should.
There’s a statistic that your starting salary has a big impact on earning potential over your lifetime. If you don’t talk about your salary, you may end up sitting at a lower wage than you could ask for — and this could cost you a lot of money over the course of your life. It perpetuates unfair pay gaps in the system. And it can lead to personal feelings of confusion and unworthiness.
I know it’s scary to talk about money. But I think it’s worth it. For me, I started by talking with a couple of close friends. Those first few conversations helped to dissipate my fear of judgment. And once I got over that, I can honestly say it gave me a ton more confidence at the negotiating table.