The Gender Pay Gap: Why We Need to Break the Salary Taboo
Why can’t we talk about pay? Why do employers shroud salary talk under a cloak of secrecy? And why are employees uncomfortable talking with co-workers about what they earn? Osato Evbuomwan investigates this hush-hush topic.
In some organisations, sharing personal salary details is a sanctionable offence. Employees are often bound by the terms of their contract to keep mum about what they are paid, and this is one of the main reasons people do not speak about it. Besides the fear of being sanctioned, one might also worry about finding out that he or she is earning less or more than their colleagues. Neither of these scenarios is pleasant — knowing that you earn less than your colleagues will create feelings of discontent, while having to deal with colleagues finding out that you earn more than they do could make you feel extremely uncomfortable around them.
Since pay is a measure of the value that employers place on their employees, throwing more light on the subject might unearth an imbalance that many organisations would rather not reveal, and create a complication that they would rather not have to deal with. A quick examination of the arguments for discouraging open conversations about pay shows that it works more in the favour of the employer than the employees. Sometimes, organisations have to pay significantly more to recruit external talent, and could risk losing their existing employees if the latter found out that they were earning a lot less than the new hires. Encouraging transparency around pay may also present a tricky situation for a line manager who has to explain to a direct report why they are paid less than their colleagues. Most importantly, employers could have a serious problem on their hands trying to manage the atmosphere of discontent, distrust and resentment that is bound to result from individual pay becoming common knowledge.
If an organisation has to coerce employees into keeping salaries secret, chances are that there are inequities in the system and some people are under and/or overpaid.
These discrepancies occur to varying extents among different employee demographics; between new hires and existing employees, between younger and older employees, between men and women, and among minorities. An employee would be worse off financially if they stayed with an organisation that underpays them for a long time, so the best and quickest way for them to increase their pay would be to work for a new organisation where they are likely to be offered more. Older employees may get paid more on the assumption that they have more responsibilities or that their age is an indication of more experience. Racial minorities may get paid less due to unconscious bias, but their pay expectations may also be affected by not having the same sense of entitlement as their privileged counterparts. And women are likely to earn less for several reasons, including the fact that they rarely ask for more and often do not feel entitled to questioning what they get. Naturally, as a woman, this plight concerns me most.
When I was a recruitment manager, I noticed that male candidates often negotiated the initial offer, while their female counterparts didn’t. I myself had not negotiated my initial offer when I joined the organisation, so it was a surprise to me when I encountered the first person who asked for more. Over time, I started to feel uncomfortable about the fact that the women consistently accepted what was offered, and one could argue that they thought that it was fair. But I knew that, like me, they did not think they could negotiate for more — they thought it would make them look greedy and put them at risk of losing the offer altogether. The men were mostly undeterred by these factors. In hindsight, I wish I could have found a way to tell the women to whom I was making offers that it was okay to negotiate, but I might have been crossing a very blurred line, and I don’t think my employer would have appreciated it.
Not talking transparently about pay, more often than not, results in many employees being paid less than they are worth. And if women are less likely to negotiate an offer or ask for a raise, then they automatically get the short end of the stick. With more senior roles, especially C-suite positions, they tend to negotiate better deals for themselves because they have the benefit of years of experience, which they believe justifies their expectations. But until then, many women undersell themselves, accept subpar pay and do not say a thing about it.
Some might cite maternity leave, time taken off to raise children, and perhaps even the availability of spousal income as factors that might limit the pay expectations of mothers and married women. But unattached or unmarried women and those without children are similarly reticent about sharing their reservations if they feel dissatisfied with their salaries.
In many parts of the world, culture plays a big role in fostering this dynamic. African culture, for example, places the man as head and provider of the family. This might be a key source of motivation for men to ask for more, and perhaps creates an inherent sense of entitlement that allows them to assume that they can expect more. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be seen and not heard, encouraged to shrink themselves for fear of being less attractive and less likely to find a husband, and may therefore subconsciously moderate their demands and expectations.
How then might we go about ensuring that women are getting paid fairly and that we are actively closing the gap?
Who tells them that it is okay to ask? Who encourages them to negotiate? How do they know how much more they can get or what they should do to get it? The general advice for individuals is to get familiar with the going rates in the industry. In countries where market data is readily available and pay secrecy is not as entrenched, this is fairly easy. But in data-dark countries, where available information is not as reliable and the standard HR practice is to discourage talking about salaries, it is much more difficult. A random internet search may not yield the best results, and since pay ranges differ by geographic location, level of education and years of experience, relying on data sources that are not local may paint an unrealistic picture. So research and information alone do not solve the problem. In fact, it can create even more inequity where only those with ‘the inside scoop’ can improve their position.
In unionised organisations, the details of pay scales and ranges are shared transparently, and everyone knows what they could potentially earn on a particular grade. But this is not the case in many corporations, especially because companies use pay as a tool for differentiation and leverage this ability to differentiate as a competitive advantage in the battle for talent. Keeping things quiet makes it easier to manage salary budgets and avoid answering difficult questions. But it also means that people don’t really know what they are worth and they don’t know what they could earn. If they don’t know it, they are not likely to ask for it.
The Flip Side: Promoting transparency around pay conversations will go a long way in driving more equitable pay. It will also foster commitment and trust among employees if they know that management is being fair in their dealings. However, the need to differentiate and to reward performance still exists, so we cannot do away with disparities altogether. As long as base pay is visibly unbiased, irrespective of gender, and the process for performance-based increases is transparent and easily understood, performance and merit-based salary differences will be more acceptable, and we will be that much closer to bridging the gap.
Osato Evbuomwan is a member of The Room and a Senior Marketing Manager at Unilever who is passionate about serving the African consumer. Creator of “The Talking Circle”, she is on a quest to cultivate a brave and safe space for conversations that challenge taboos and change mindsets.