How Much Do You Make? Here's Why We All Should Answer | Opinion

Some fascinating Googles Docs have been making the rounds lately—spreadsheets where people in various industries share how much they're being paid. "Talking about how much or how little money you make feels taboo, and it shouldn't," begins one document, featuring statistics from 1,000-plus journalists at the nation's top media organizations. "Knowledge is power...so let's share what we make and any relevant info to help each other learn our worth!"

Similar spreadsheets exist for people who work in the book publishing, advertising and paralegal fields, as well as museums and cafés. For those of us outside those industries, what's most interesting is not so much who earns what, but the very fact that so many professionals are willing to share their information: how much they make, where they work, their titles and responsibilities, how many years' experience they have, and their gender and ethnic identity.

Bravo! It's about time we blew up that old notion that salaries have to stay secret.

This is not just a matter of curiosity: Having information about salaries can help chip away at the gender wage gap, which has been barely budged for more than a decade. Recently released data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that, on average, women working full time are still paid only 82 cents for every dollar paid to a man. And the gap is even wider for many women of color: Black women make 62 cents on the dollar, and Latinas just 54 cents. At the current rate of progress, the pay gap will not close until 2093.

Having greater access to salary information is helping speed things up. A new research report by the American Association of University Women shows that the wage gap tends to be smaller in job sectors where pay transparency is mandatory: For example, among federal government workers, there's just 13 percent pay disparity between men and women, and in state government, it's about 17 percent. In private, for-profit companies, where salaries are generally kept under wraps, that number jumps to 29 percent.

What's more, the pay gap grows over the course of a woman's career and even extends into her retirement. Because she earned less and therefore paid less to the Social Security system, she receives less in Social Security benefits. This disparity holds true for pensions and other retirement benefits as well.

For far too long, the idea of sharing how much you're paid has been off-limits, kind of like talking about what you weigh or the balance of your 401(k). But that culture of secrecy makes pay discrepancies difficult to detect. If employees aren't aware of who's earning what, it's hard to know when someone—a woman, for instance, or a person of color—is being shortchanged.

For a generation accustomed to sharing their lives on social media, though, the idea of talking about salaries isn't much of a stretch. What's more, salary information is increasingly available on websites like Salary.com and Glassdoor. And though it's still not widespread, certain companies, such as Whole Foods, allow employees to look up information about what their co-workers are making. Other employers share salary bands, so their workers can know the compensation range for a particular position. And many human resources departments are providing that information for anyone who asks.

male and female professionals on street
A woman shelters from the rain beneath an umbrella as she walks past talking men in London on April 4, 2018, as a law came into force in Britain requiring employers with over 250 staff to publish the gender pay gap within their companies. Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty

Laws are changing, too. Around the country, states have been passing equal pay provisions that prevent employers from forbidding or punishing workers for sharing salary information with their colleagues—a practice that until recently was far too common. Currently, 20 states have laws that ban retaliation for disclosing salaries. And the federal Paycheck Fairness Act, a pay equity bill that was recently passed by the House of Representatives and is awaiting action in the Senate, would also protect employees who want to share information about their earnings.

Of course, it's going to take more than salary transparency to equalize earnings between women and men. Women's work has long been undervalued, and they continue to face barriers and biases that hinder their earning power. But sharing salaries can be part of the solution: The more information women have about how jobs are valued—and what different people earn—the better they will understand their value in the labor market and push for the pay they deserve.

Kim Churches is the CEO of the American Association of University Women, a national non-partisan nonprofit that works to advance gender equity for women and girls through research, education and advocacy.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

How Much Do You Make? Here's Why We All Should Answer | Opinion | Opinion