How pay transparency is breaking down the taboo of talking about your salary
Canada's female workers make about 89 cents for every dollar earned by men
"How much do you make?"
The once-taboo question is becoming increasingly common, as more workers push to normalize pay transparency — or open conversations about salary — in an effort to close gender and racial pay gaps.
It's popping up on social media sites like Instagram, where accounts like Salary Transparent Street feature interviews with young consultants, teachers or nurses, readily sharing with strangers how much they make.
The drive to close the gender pay gap even has its own day, International Equal Pay Day, which is being marked globally on Monday.
Advocates say pay transparency can lift the veil on how people doing the exact same job can be paid quite differently, with the goal of levelling the playing field.
That worked out to women earning $3.79 less per hour, on average, than their male counterparts.
Ultimately, experts say, pay transparency benefits workers by giving them more information to start the conversation around compensation, and to bolster bargaining power during negotiations.
A few years ago, when Toronto-based financial consultant and speaker Jessica Moorhouse was leaving the law firm she had been working at for almost three years, she took some of her colleagues for lunch. Knowing she had nothing to lose, she asked about their salaries — and found out some were making as much as $10,000 more than she had been.
"When I heard some of the numbers, at first I went inward, and thought maybe I'd done something wrong to not deserve higher pay. But I realized it wasn't me, it was work politics," she told CBC News.
In Canada, the federal government's Pay Equity Act went into effect in 2021, requiring all employers in federally regulated sectors with 10 or more employees to identify and correct pay disparities.
Last year, P.E.I. amended its Employment Standards Act to require employers to include salaries on all public job postings. And Ontario had introduced its Pay Transparency Act in 2018 under the former Liberal government, with similar requirements regarding pay range disclosure, though it was shelved under the current government.
The most recent province to join the mix is British Columbia, home to one of the widest gender-based pay gaps in the country — 17 per cent in 2022, according to Statistics Canada.
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Its Pay Transparency Act, known as Bill 13, passed on May 11. Early phases of the legislation prohibit employers from asking job applicants about pay history and employees can't be punished for talking about salary.
The next phase comes into effect on Nov. 1, requiring employers to disclose the expected salary ranges on all advertised jobs. A number of provincial agencies will also need to file and publicly post pay transparency reports starting this year — a rolling requirement that will see all B.C. employers with 50 or more employees providing that data by November 2026.
"Not having pay equity [in the province] is absolutely crucial," said Marjorie Cohen, an economist and professor of political science at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.
"This is an NDP government; they're a little bit embarrassed by the fact that they have such a wide gender wage gap. So what they did was to put forward pay transparency."
Who gets the power in salary negotiations?
Tammy Schirle, a professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., calls pay transparency a huge necessity for many workers.
"In the private sector, everyone is having to negotiate their wages themselves, especially in non-union environments — and that's where these discrepancies come in," she said.
The gender pay gap is sometimes linked to differences in the way in which women approach negotiating, experts say, noting that women tend to not ask for more. By making salaries visible, any disparity can be more easily spotted, allowing women and others to better negotiate upfront.
"I got my last corporate job, and I then got into that routine of never negotiating, because that was never on the table," Moorhouse said. "Never even considering that that was something that I should do."
While pay transparency policies can help break down the taboo of talking about and negotiating salaries, it doesn't always change for the better, according to the U.S. research.
A study first published in 2021 found pay transparency might actually limit the individual bargaining power of employees, as employers may refuse to increase wages to avoid the fallout of having other staff ask to renegotiate their salaries.
That means as granting raises becomes more costly for the employer, the employer becomes less likely to engage in bargaining, the researchers found.
Others have criticized pay transparency policies for falling short of the ultimate goal — pay equity — as they often don't compel companies to eliminate discrepancies.
"They're relying on public shame," said Cohen. "And I want to tell you when people discriminate, they're not shamed by that."
Can it be a win-win for companies?
Evenings & Weekends Consulting is one company that has embraced pay transparency, with co-CEO Paul Taylor saying he shares the firm's pay grid with his staff. He plans to soon make it available on his company's website, too. His firm also works with charities to make pay transparency a core part of their workplace culture.
Pay transparency can improve culture by building trust between both the employer and employee, and between staff members, Taylor says.
He recalls how one day, one of his employees saw the pay grid on the platform where he communicates with his team. They panicked, he said, thinking they had stumbled across confidential information.
"They reached out to somebody and said, 'Oh my goodness … is this an error?'" he said. "Transparency is one of the ways that we really are building … a team that's based on trust and accountability."
Taylor says his experience as an anti-poverty activist has also influenced his view on leadership and his responsibility as an employer; he realized that pay secrecy can be a tool some employers use to create precarious traps that certain minority groups are more likely to fall into.
"For racialized folks, particularly for women, I think the secrecy around pay and wages has really only served employers and capitalism," he said.