Why Do People Still Keep Mum About Their Salaries?

Why Do People Still Keep Mum About Their Salaries?

How many people know how much you earn?

SourceAnne-Marie Weber/Getty

Why you should care

Despite a year of legalized transparency, Brits are still as likely to talk about their sex lives as they are their pay.

I unearthed many treasures during a recent pre-Christmas clear-out. Highlights included: a copy of my last will and testament; a Cork Film Festival press pass on which I have a terrifying Amélie-homage haircut; a yellowing print ad for nuclear power starring my younger brother in a fake Lacoste shirt, and leaving cards in which much mirth is had about my charmingly controlling manner.

Naturally, I shared all of these on my Instagram story, because I have lost the ability to discern appropriate social boundaries and am now a chronic oversharer. But none elicited quite the response as that provoked by a picture of the contract I signed on joining Vogue magazine as features editor in February 2008. I highlighted the bit that stipulated that my salary would be 55,000 pounds ($108,000 at the time).

I’m not sure whether I considered the remuneration especially generous, stingy or indifferent. It was simply a fact. At the time, it felt appropriate for someone taking on a senior role at a famous publication. I had come from a newspaper, where wages were typically bigger and the office more male. The financial crisis of September was still a distant threat. Then there was the fact that it was, you know, a childhood dream to work at British Vogue.

How many people know how much you earn? I’m not sure even my husband knows.

For the majority of those who responded to the post, however, it was clear the figure was a king’s ransom. Particularly today, 10 years later, following a period of austerity and salary freezes, and at a time when publishing is generally considered to be “in decline.” Other colleagues at Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue, were quick to compare their salaries — mostly lower. A peer working at a rival publishing house wrote to tell me: “You’ve got us all swapping salaries in the WhatsApp groups … no one is getting paid that now … very few above 38,000 pounds.” Independent magazine editors were paid about 10,000 pounds less again.

Public relations officers and e-communications publishers offered similar tales of their own. And throughout the commentary, dozens of editorial assistants offered stories about their lives on entry-level contracts that pay little more than a minimum wage. Most marveled at the possibility they might ever earn a comparable salary. “The entry level of a junior writer or editorial assistant is around 19,000–21,000 pounds,” wrote one. “It’s almost impossible to make ends meet.”

Such casual disclosure revealed very quickly how far austerity politics have eroded wage expectations, and not just in the United Kingdom. Canadian colleagues were astounded by our nation’s onetime largesse. It also highlighted once more a work culture in which social privilege and independent means are still a passport to a career. Glossy jobs pay peanuts because employees can afford it. As a former editor at U.S. Vogue, where I had naively assumed all editors are paid bajillions, wrote to say: “My first salary at Vogue was $23,000. Condé Nast has workhorses, show ponies and thoroughbreds. Love, a show pony.”

Many media organizations are split between workhorses and show ponies — those that do the thankless, heavy lifting and production, and those that prance around the ring, prettifying everything they touch. Neither, it transpires, are especially well-paid. Unless you’re a thoroughbred.

Gender pay gap legislation in the U.K. has made this an especially lively past year in which to talk about pay packets. In June, the BBC was riven with internal angst following revelations of a huge pay gap among its top talents. Many media outlets, including the Financial Times, have outlined strategies aimed at redressing imbalances. What was more shocking about these exchanges was that the majority of those I talked to were women. The disparities revealed here weren’t about sexism, or gender inequality, but about a culture of silence. Many of the commenters had never discussed their salaries with anyone — especially not with their peers. “No one talks about it.”

Even though in the U.K., you are legally entitled to ask your employer about what a peer in an equivalent role might earn, it seems we are as likely to discuss our sex lives as our salaries. Why? Despite a year of transparency, and an avowal to be more open about pay hierarchies, we are still uncomfortable when it comes to talking about our wages. We can deal with it in general, but individually less so. How many people know how much you earn, for example? I’m not sure even my husband knows.

Perhaps it’s a British condition. Or perhaps it’s truer of workplaces where the majority of employees are women. Culturally, it’s not considered decorous to discuss our worth. Or to compare our worth with others.

So, should we show our paychecks for all to see? On National Jealousy Day, which falls on Nov. 1 every year, the Finnish tax administration releases details of every citizen’s taxable income in compliance with that government’s transparency laws. As comparative exercises go, it sounds a bit Hunger Games. It’s certainly a source of endless gossip. Does it serve any good? Arguably, it makes Finns more accountable and honest. But wage disclosures also bring shame and resentment. My own retrospective gesture of transparency opened all sorts of conversations — some awkward.

It certainly put into sharper context why this new generation of millennials has become so “demanding.” A common criticism of younger employees today is that they all have unreasonable expectations. They ask for job reviews too frequently. They have no loyalty. I listened to one CEO recently going on about how he had to provide snacks to keep his workforce happy. They all wanted gym memberships, he said — and had no real hunger for the work.

Damn straight. They’re probably starving. Even show ponies need feeding.

Read more: On the salary whisperers of America — who know how much you get paid.

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By Jo Ellison

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2019.

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