The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why is it still so taboo to talk about what we make?


Efforts pushing for pay transparency seem to be cropping up in more and more places. Last year, the president signed an executive order that would ban federal contractors from retaliating against employees who discuss their salaries with each other. Female politicians are also talking about it as a solution to closing the gender pay gap. Meanwhile, it has become increasingly popular among tech startups to make payroll details transparent. On Friday, the hashtag #talkpay gained momentum online after a programmer named Lauren Voswinkel encouraged people to publicly share on Twitter what they earn.

The problem? People still just aren't that into the idea. Exclusive new data from a LinkedIn survey reveals that even if people increasingly see it as a solution for addressing the gender pay gap—or any other income inequalities around the office—they also still think sharing salary information is a big taboo.

Nearly 73 percent of full-time workers, the survey found, aren't comfortable with the idea of discussing their pay with anyone at work other than their boss or the HR department. Only 13 percent said they'd be "completely comfortable" with sharing such information more broadly, recognizing that it might offer workers better leverage in negotiations. The remaining 14 percent or so said they would be comfortable discussing their salaries with close colleagues, but not their wider team.

This survey question, which went out to 1,000 full-time U.S. workers in early April, was run exclusively for The Washington Post's On Leadership section as part of LinkedIn's recent New Norms @Work survey.

The data showed that women were slightly more uncomfortable than men with the idea of sharing what they make, despite what they might stand to gain from doing so. About 74.5 percent of the women in the sample said they were uncomfortable talking about it with anyone other than a supervisor or HR, compared with 70 percent of the men.

There was a little more variation, meanwhile, among age groups. Respondents aged 25 to 34 were most likely to welcome the idea of talking openly about their pay. Thirty-four percent said they were either completely comfortable with it or would do so with close colleagues, compared to 27 percent of all ages surveyed.

This jibes with other reports that have shown, anecdotally, that millennials are more willing to share salary secrets. Still, the difference in comfort level was perhaps not as great as one might expect, given the generation's reputation for broadcasting other personal details on social media. To wit: One analysis of the #talkpay trend late last week showed that many of the tweets using the hashtag were only taking part in the discussion, rather than actually sharing a concrete salary figure.

Maybe people sense what research has already shown: If they find out they're paid below the median, they'll resent the difference. Or maybe they think, understandably, that unless everyone does it, or unless the company expressly encourages it, it may not be worth the risk. Whatever the reason behind our collective hesitance, any big shift toward a more transparent discussion of pay likely isn't going to happen until this entrenched final taboo gets lifted.

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