I realised I had walked into a problem of my own making while talking to a smart younger colleague about the things that need fixing in workplaces. Number one on my list for 2020, I said, is equal pay — or the lack of it.
I told her I had been on stage at a professional women’s event recently, talking about the effectiveness — or otherwise — of the newest ideas to help advance our careers. The best “hot trend” is pay transparency, I had suggested to the 200 assembled women.
Employers are supposed by law to give men and women equal pay for equal work. But how do we know if we are being paid equally? Telling each other what we earn is a good start. And knowing what your colleagues earn is also powerful data to have for pay negotiations.
Anyway, I said, what have we got to lose by being honest and less, well, British? Who is this omerta helping? Employers. It is liberating to be open with our friends and colleagues. And so I went on and on, delighted with my bravery and openness.
After patiently listening to all this, Smart Younger Colleague was direct. “So, would you be willing to tell me how much you earn?” I was shocked. Maybe I had not realised that actions have consequences, despite repeating this phrase to my 16-year-old son with wearying frequency.
Still, I admired SYC for asking. So I told her. Then she told me her pay, and we both gained a bit of knowledge. (No, I am not going to repeat my salary here. Or hers. There are boundaries.)
Such “radical pay transparency” is a relatively new term for a revolutionary-sounding practice that has long gone on in whisper networks, among friends at work, and more recently as part of a wider cultural shift to more sharing and openness, especially among female friends.
Ten years ago, I told no one except my husband what I was paid and no one told me. Now it is more common, becoming rapidly less stigmatised — and men are joining in. Even my father tells me what his pension income is.
Mutual truth telling about salary works best with colleagues you know and trust, and whose jobs are reasonably analogous to your own. It is also useful for freelancers and people working in the same sector, to gauge day rates and for salary negotiations.
There are downsides to sharing. Our salaries are intimately connected to our self-worth. How will you feel if you turn out to be extremely low-paid compared to your peers? What if that information is used against you in some way? What if — as one woman at the event suggested to me afterwards — your hard-negotiated salary is used to bump up a lazy colleague’s pay?
If you do go in for transparency, be careful. Prepare the ground, and address only colleagues you know well. Some people overcome their inhibitions enough to offer one-way disclosures to colleagues and friends who do not want to talk about their own pay — this is, after all, a delicate topic and reciprocity is not a given.
Be prepared for big discrepancies, especially in workplaces where pay decisions are opaque, and which do not have banded salary levels. Some companies ban employees from sharing salary information: there are instances when this can be overruled, but check before you talk.
If you feel you may have an equal pay complaint, you will need to know the salary of a “comparator” — someone of the opposite sex doing equal work. This may not be easy to find out.
The Fawcett Society, a UK charity campaigning for women’s equality, wants the legal right to know what a male peer is paid. Fawcett is correct: we need structural change to force pay disclosure. Leaving it to individuals to take the lead is a powerful disincentive to action (but that is, of course, the point).
A good introduction to what makes a successful equal pay claim — and a riveting read in itself — is the tribunal judgment in the presenter Samira Ahmed’s recent case against the BBC. Reading about the hoops she had to go through — and her employer’s extraordinary responses — makes one realise that challenging your pay in public is no light undertaking. A public tribunal judgment usually comes after years of work during which internal grievance procedures and mediation have been exhausted.
We should be mindful of risks, but there are many upsides to sharing — you may even be pleasantly surprised at what you find out. Collective paranoia around pay can be intense, demoralising and divisive in a workplace. Shining a light on it might be cleansing and even cathartic.
Let me know if you give it a try.
The writer is the FT Work & Careers editor
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