The Sunday Magazine

We guard more secrets about salaries than about sex, and employers want to keep it that way

Those in a hiring position know what everyone earns, but employees are in the dark. That’s because asking people how much money they make is a cultural taboo. Melanie Simms, a professor of work and employment at the University of Glasgow, believes it would be not only helpful, but subversive, if we were transparent about our salaries.

Why don’t employees reveal what they are making?

Even among family and friends, the most contentious topic of all might be money.
Melanie Simms, a professor of work and employment at the University of Glasgow, says that revealing how much money we make is subversive. (University of Glasgow Photographic Unit)

Marital problems, weight gain, addiction, religion, politics, our sex lives: these are subjects that can be touchy, even among family and friends. But the most contentious topic of all might be money.

According to Melanie Simms, a professor of work and employment at the University of Glasgow, revealing how much money we make is subversive. She argues that, "it's always quite subversive when you break a taboo … it's an act of solidarity, it's an act of breaking confidences and it's certainly not a very common thing to do."

We also don't discuss how much money we have or how much we spend, but the biggest taboo of all is over how much we earn, because it's uncomfortable, and it might be considered in poor taste just to raise the subject.

Employers like it that way.

"Certainly there are a lot of employers who actively discourage workers from talking about their pay," she said, "and there are good reasons for employers to want us to not share that information … if you know you're being paid less than a colleague who's doing a very similar job, there's a chance you'll ask for higher pay."

But why don't employees reveal what they are making?

"What can happen is that you feel some kind of dissatisfaction in comparison to the other people you're around," she said, adding that you might be "irritated that you're paid less than the person sitting next to you, or you don't feel you are as valued by your employer."

In the freelance world, there were recent revelations on Twitter, spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement.  Authors were encouraged to post their advances. The highest-paid were white male authors and the lowest-paid were Black women.

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