Can Talking About Our Salaries End the Wage Gap?

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PowHer NY speaks on the steps of City Hall in New York at a rally against pay disparity on Equal Pay Day last month. Photo: Richard Levine/Corbis

Gender-based pay disparities can be difficult to verify, but a new effort at clarity gained traction on Twitter when Lauren Voswinkel, a software developer in Pittsburgh, started #talkpay. On May 1, the international day of workers, she shared her salary, job title, and professional experience, encouraging others to do the same, in hopes that frank conversations about compensation would allow women to see if they're being underpaid.

Voswinkel says she was underpaid for years, but didn't realize it. It's taken three job changes and increasingly tenacious negotiations to land a $122,000 annual salary that she thinks is comparable to what her male co-workers make. “I just found myself thinking, how long have I been underpaid? How could I have prevented this? What was I missing?” Voswinkel told the Guardian. “And I realized it was mostly because of a lack of conversation around pay.”

In Silicon Valley, where top-paid employees tend to be white and male, #talkpay was especially popular.  While websites like Glassdoor host anonymous salary confessionals, #talkpay allowed viewers to see what people are currently making in relation to their past experience.  One man who does exactly what Voswinkel does contacted her to say he makes more than she does. “He recognized that, wow, he’s making significantly more than women who are more qualified than him, and that’s really not OK,” Voswinkel said. She hopes #talkpay, which was one of the top trending hashtags for the day, will lead to greater awareness of pay disparities between men and women, while also giving female employees data that can help them seek higher wages.

But company policies can make this difficult. Pay secrecy policies are common in American workplaces, even though they’re often carried out illegally. But with “work at will” laws, which allow employees to be fired at any time for any reason, getting sacked for discussing your pay is a real threat. That’s why many of the tweets carrying the #talkpay hashtag were cautionary or filled with concern and no salary details. For Voswinkel, that’s a good thing. “There needs to be a degree of risk,” she told the Guardian. “People need to feel that fear to realize just how much these conversations have been repressed by employers.”